Having just survived the winter holidays, the stressors and supports brought about by family could not be more present in our minds. However, for some of us in the American workforce, even the discussion of our loved ones at home could create dilemmas in and of themselves. Televised sitcoms like Modern Family make central the evolving complexities we struggle to navigate in a rapidly changing social dynamic where we bathe, eat, relax, and sleep. Whether our uncle married someone from another race, our sister has cycled through three-going-on-four spouses, or our grandchildren have joined religious groups toeing the line between cult and extreme political group, none of these raises as much concern for us at our places of work as our LGBTQ+ family members.
One of the gifts the previous US Congress gave the public before the string of Hanukkah-Yule-Christmas-Kwanzaa-New Year’s festivities broke our bank accounts is the Respect for Marriage Act (a.k.a. Public Law 117-228). While the wording does not go so far as to guarantee the right of LGBTQ+ couples to marry in every state, it does require marriages performed in any American state to be recognized as equal to others, even if that state does not have those specific provisions in its own constitution. Now the conservative-leaning US Supreme Court has set to revisit the 2015 Obergefell decision this coming June. That case’s outcome awarded marriage equality to Americans across the entire nation. This new law ensures that currently married LGBTQ+ couples retain their legal status, even when traveling between states or seeking health care in states opposed to equality. While a majority of Americans (61 percent, according to Pew Research) hope that PRIDE month does not get tarnished by an overturning of the historic ruling, cultural norms around LGBTQ+ couples have still lagged in some parts of the country.
Twelve states, so far, have laws in place or that are set to go into effect that limit the ability of educators and staff in schools from celebrating their own or their students’ LGBTQ+ families: count Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee as “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” states. Georgia and Texas vow to join the list soon, too. While their legislative measures do not actually go by that precise name—for instance, Florida’s nationally appalling one goes by the name of the Parental Rights in Education bill—the effect of the laws restrict discussion of gender or sexual identities, even biologically accurate depictions of human genitalia, to those in middle and high school. And, even at those grades, many on the list allow parents to opt their children out of those lessons. Think about a biology class with only Barbie-style depictions of human bodies. Think about history classes not being able to mention historic decisions, like Obergefell v. Hodges, because it might promote LGBTQ+ identities. Think about English classes where writing openly about one’s queer parents or siblings must be censored. These are the types of realities about a third of American families face when sending their children to public schools, according to the Movement Advancement Project. Again, these are federally-funded public schools limiting free speech of teachers and students.
These contrast Illinois’s legislative decision to promote LGBTQ+ curriculum, with Governor Pritzker signing the Inclusive Curriculum Law in August 2019. Joining six other states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada, New Jersey, and Oregon—the law governing our public schools dictates students graduating from eighth grade must have been made aware of the historic importance of the LGBTQ+ rights movement and its advocates. Now, think biography assignments on Marsha P. Johnson, Martha Shelley, and Sylvia Rivera. Think literature studies of James Baldwin, Patricia Highsmith, and Alice Walker. Think health classes that include information surrounding HIV/AIDS, other common sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and consent curriculum sex education. These are the achievements of inclusive policy in our federally funded public schools. They uphold not only First Amendment rights in the classroom, but also public health and mental well-being.
The number of states seeking to limit this type of “indoctrination,” as many Republican lawmakers call it, frustratingly counters the heroic efforts made by our Governor and those like-minded to him. We can only hope that the newly confirmed 118th Congress, with a slim Republican majority, will not be able to push through a national version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill, as was proposed by Louisiana Representative Mike Johnson in October, 2022. That bill, called the Stop the Sexualization of Children Act, seeks to essentially censor the topics of LGBTQ+ identity in public schools for children under the age of ten, or fifth-grade level. Some may argue that elementary school should not be the place for sex education. Others, that parents should have a say in whether the local public schools can teach about (STIs) to students so young. But the impact bleeds into every area of the classroom. As stated above, family portraits including two dads or two moms, discussions of trans parents or siblings, or lessons about loved ones living with HIV/AIDS would become taboo for counselors, school staff, students, and teachers. Ready for the backslide to 1968 America, when psychologists at that time considered homosexuality a mental illness? My husband and I aren’t! My trans best friend isn’t! My cousin, having died from complications of AIDS in the 1990s, would be rolling in his grave!
We can take hope from the fact that the Democratic-controlled Senate and the desk of the sitting president, Joseph R. Biden, would not allow such a national bill to pass. With thirty-two states of the union defining marriage in their own constitutions as between only a man and a woman, a nightmare scenario of the Supreme Court overturning national marriage equality means most same-sex couples will need to marry in locations outside their current state. Not to mention the risk of receiving less-than-equal treatment in their non-inclusive home states, a reality known too well by racial minorities during the era of “separate, but equal.” Though equality has been law for the past seven years, numerous cases have gone to courts across the country describing unfair treatment of LGBTQ+ persons. And, not just in schools or as children, but as adults in bakeries, even fiancés seeking marriage licenses. Remember, too, the slow shift of our culture to accommodate equality of families fully.
Bringing it close to home, working in Champaign and going on dates with my husband of two years around Urbana, co-workers and neighbors struggle to describe our relationship correctly. Our landlord from North Carolina described us as roommates on our lease, not husbands or even spouses. Several managers continuously refused to call my spouse my husband, but insisted on even correcting me to say partner. Servers have even assumed we would pay separately for our date meals out on the town, seemingly dismayed when we said, “we’re together.” If Champaign-Urbana struggles with progress, maybe (sadly) Florida explains a lot of America. But it doesn’t have to!
C. Owen (a pen-name) grew up in the Chicagoland suburbs, has traveled over three continents, and changed career path several times, but has continued writing about his experience as a gay American since middle school. Currently pursuing a Master’s in library and information science online from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he hopes to end up in libraries or museums somehow . . . via his writings, his paintings, his career, or all three.
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