Saturday, July 29, 2023

Trans and Nonbinary Survey

Trans Maryland is conducting a survey of transgender and nonbinary Marylanders, to assess sociopolitical issues that impact health disparities for trans and nonbinary individuals. If you identify as trans or nonbinary and live in Maryland, follow this link: Maryland Trans Survey.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Why Would MCPS Give False Information Twice?

I am intrigued by the situation involving opt-out at MCPS, as a kind of pure, possibly intractable, dilemma. So far the protesters -- who want to remove their children from lessons with storybooks containing LGBT+ characters -- have controlled the message, and the press has perpetuated a number of errors. Elected progressives, except for Kristin Mink, have stayed out of the discussion; a couple of politicians commented on Kojo Nnamde's radio show for a few minutes, and that's about it.

There are some major questions about what's going on. One is the relationship between rightwing political extremists and the religious -- mostly Muslim -- groups who are speaking out. Muslim spokespersons insist their objections arise from deep religious beliefs and that they are not puppets of the far right, and they sound credible. I want to believe them and to believe that they are rational, mature people with sincere beliefs. If that's the case then there is hope that something can be worked out in a reasonable way. But affiliating with conservative extremists raises the possibility that the whole "religious values" argument is camouflage for maga-aligned forces trying to slip their own bigotry into local government and school policy. Which is a thing that is happening all over the country. I will want to get into that topic later. For now, a big question is why MCPS seems to have misled the public about the opt-out policy -- twice that I know of.

I don't think anyone thought it was necessary for the school district to have a policy that said students have to attend their classes. Nobody needed to make a rule stating that students did not have the choice to decide what classes were acceptable to them, and requiring the school to provide a different class if the student objected to the one that was offered. That just isn't how school works. The sex-ed curriculum was controversial when it was implemented, and Annapolis lawmakers required the schools to allow students to opt-out of some specific lessons, but that was a special case. The current situation is about English classes. And apparently there was no written system policy that said kids have to go to their English class, or that they could choose not to go.

But some parents believed there was an option, and you can see why. New inclusive reading materials came out in January, and it appears some parents worked out something with their neighborhood school to get their children out of the classes where gay or trans story characters would be discussed. There was no central control over the process, and no consistency across schools. It was basically a loophole, where MCPS hadn't actually said you couldn't do that, and so some people did.

On March 22nd, Fox 5 reported:

The MCPS Spokesperson shared with FOX 5 on Wednesday, "When a teacher selects the curriculum, a notification goes out to parents about the book. If a parent chooses to opt out, a teacher can find a substitute text for that student that supports these standards and aligns with curriculum."

The very next day, March 23rd, the school district issued a statement saying in part:

Students and families may not choose to opt out of engaging with any instructional materials, other than 'Family Life and Human Sexuality Unit of Instruction'' which is specifically permitted by Maryland law. As such, teachers will not send home letters to inform families when inclusive books are read in the future.

They refuted their own statement from the day before. Were they just stating a fact, or changing something? It looks like they were trying to keep the decision making in the administrative offices, and not in the separate schools all over the county. It does not appear to be a new policy, but a restatement of an implicit existing one.

Something similar happened this month, when the Washington Post wrote:

The school system put an opt-out provision in place when the books were introduced, schools spokeswoman Jessica Baxter said. But that guidance shifted in March. Montgomery school officials say that Maryland law doesn’t allow students to withdraw from school lessons, except for a portion of the state’s health education curriculum on family life and human sexuality.

Jessica Baxter was MCPS's Director of Public Information, and sometime between talking to the Post and the article being published, she left her job.

Someone, presumably in Baxter's office, said something incorrect to Fox 5 in March, the school district had to respond immediately with a firm statement saying the opposite thing, then a few months later the office Director herself made the same mistake again? I am pretty sure the topic of Screw-up Number One was discussed in some meetings, and the responsible party was read the riot act. And then committed Screw-up Number Two. The exact same thing again. Why? How are you talking about official policy to one of the country's biggest newspapers, and you just make stuff up, knowing already that it's wrong? (By the way, the Post doesn't seem to have any correction or edit to that statement at this time.)

The protesters say there was an opt-out policy and it was taken away. Maybe some parents thought that their informal arrangements were a policy. After March 23 there was an explicit statement forbidding it; before that -- as far as anyone can tell -- there wasn't anything one way or the other. Which makes sense, kids gotta go to class, you shouldn't have to put that in a formal document.

There is no evidence that the district ever had any kind of policy allowing students to opt out of English classes. But MCPS spokespersons told the press there was. Twice. There is also a religious-diversity guideline that offers to let kids do an alternative lesson if something runs against their religion, but it is pretty waffly and specifies that this should only happen infrequently. Also, it is not an official policy, just a guideline document that was produced, I'm sure, with the best intentions for accommodating various holidays and traditions.

The school district has done a lot to create the wrong impression. Their actual position, I believe, is There is no opt-out and there never was. So why did they twice say there was such a provision? And why don't they face the TV cameras and state there was none, if it is indeed the case?

You get framing like the Post's lede, which is worth blockquoting:

For the past few months, hundreds of Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox parents have called on Maryland’s largest school system to restore an opt-out provision for books that feature LGBTQ+ characters.

But there was no provision to restore. Right?

MCPS needs to make that point clear, one way or the other. If there actually was an opt-out policy and it was taken away with no explanation and no input from the community, then the whole debate changes. There is no real evidence that that happened, but many people believe it and the point needs to be clarified.

The Muslim spokespersons say that the school district will not return their calls or set up any kind of meeting with them. So how does the district think this will work? MCPS should have been reaching out to religious leaders as they were developing their LGBT+ inclusive reading program, should have been showing them that the readings do not promote or encourage behavior a group finds sinful, but teach students about the varieties of people they will meet in the world. There are Muslim characters in classroom stories, presented with that same intention, not to convert anyone to Islam but to teach children about the world they are growing up in. A mature and trusting outreach program could have prevented the whole controversy. Instead, it appears the school district is taking a "deal with it" approach, creating polarity and opposition.

There is a lawsuit filed by a high-powered law firm, and they will argue that it is a violation of religious freedom to force kids of certain religions to read stories with two dads in them. The judge may agree it is a violation and order the schools to allow opting-out, which will be a slippery slope to who-knows-what. Or the judge may say it's not a violation, and then they're back to square one, demands suspended in the air, standoff continuing. Communication dead in the water. Zero leadership from the County. CAIR adamant and polarized, claiming victimhood. I think pro-LGBT+ groups are waiting to see what the court decides. Meanwhile, in the absence of facts, the protesters are giving the press a narrative that is not accurate, teaming up with far-right extremists behind the scenes, and winning public sympathy for their wishes.

I would not like to see this end with the Muslims starting a private school. They are a positive part of our community and it is a healthy thing to have them in public school learning side by side with all the other kids. Of course -- unless the court requires it -- this cannot end with students opting out of their reading lessons. Grade school can't turn into a pick-and-choose menu of options; that would get insane real quick. MCPS had the responsibility to show that this baby-step forward is not harmful but they have played their hand very poorly.

By the way, I want to hedge my bet by admitting that it is actually possible that somewhere in the bowels of the administration there was once a policy that allowed opting out of classes. It is impossible to prove a negative, and if anyone produced a document showing such a policy it would settle this particular question. I would look forward to seeing that, and we would discuss the situation in a different way. At the present time, though, it seems almost certain that there was never such a policy.

Though their connections to rightwing radicals are troublesome, I am willing to believe that the Muslim protesters are good, reasonable people and that they are telling the truth about what they believe. Their views on homosexuality go back fourteen hundred years and they're not just going to drop it, but they can adapt a little without giving up their beliefs. MCPS had a responsibility to manage this, and instead they misinformed and confused the public.


Later in the day when I posted this piece, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Zainab Chaudry, the firebrand director of the Maryland office of CAIR. Even the headline itself has at least three discrete errors in it. It reads: Montgomery parents want an opt-out on sexuality, gender education restored. First of all, a very tiny number of parents want opt-out, while the very great majority of actual "Montgomery parents" of students want their children to learn about the world as it is. Second, there is a "sexuality, gender education" curriculum, and it does have opt-out. We're not talking about that here, this op-ed is about English classes. There is no sex in the stories, though there is gender -- can you imagine a story without it? It is just part of a story, characters are male and female. Third, nothing can be "restored" if nothing has been taken away. There never was opt-out, and so it cannot be restored. Some religious persons are asking for a new opt-out provision, which, sure they can ask for it, but it is inaccurate to state it in terms of "restoring" something. The rest of the piece follows through with a narrative that maintains this level of veracity.

Friday, July 07, 2023

County "Leaders" Failed the Test

There has been a kind of local systemic political failure this past month that I find myself thinking about a lot. It is such a microcosm of our county's politics.

In Montgomery County, Muslim groups egged on by rightwing Christians have protested twice recently because MCPS does not let them opt out of classroom readings of storybooks with gay and trans characters. Students can opt out of some sections of the sex ed curriculum, as required by state law, but you can't opt out of English class when there's a gay character in a story. Some parents at some schools had worked something out so their kids could leave the room while LGBT+ stories were read and discussed, but there was no formal process in place for that. In March the school district issued a clear statement that opting out was not a choice for those classes.

This was enough to stir up a protest on June 6, before a school board meeting. It was peaceful, not very big, and though the protest was promoted by, and attended by, the Christian nationalist group Moms for Liberty, participants were almost all Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox. A number of the protesters spoke in the board's public comments session. It was fine, they said what they had to say. There were many misrepresentations but the board is not considering a new policy or anything, this was simply people complaining. There was a bigger demonstration later in the month -- I'm taking about the first one.

The last speaker in the board's public comments session was County Council member Kristin Mink. I am not really a very political person, and I didn't know who she was when she sat down. I didn't hear her name, and wouldn't have recognized it if I had. She was talking off the top of her head, with lots of "uhs" and "y'knows," backed up and started again a lot of times, but her comments were exactly perfect. It was a moment of heroism; she showed up on her own initiative, talked personally to the protesters to understand their point of view, and then sat at the board table with the video cameras rolling, to support our LGBT neighbors and tell the protesters that the school district was not going to change its policy, and why. A transcription of her statement can be viewed here: Kristin Mink comments 6-6-23

Mink was the only official from any level of government who showed up for the event. She said she has worked with the Muslim community on various community matters ("housing, and welcoming immigrants, and feeding our neighbors, and providing healthcare, and all of those sorts of things.") and knows a lot of them. And she said something true in the board meeting, which is the only thing anybody talks about. She said, "This issue unfortunately does put some, not all of course, some Muslim families on the same side of an issue as white supremacists and outright bigots. However the folks who I talked to here today I would not put in the same category as those folks, although it's, again, complicated, because they're following the same side of this particular issue."

Break it down. Room is full of Muslims. They are there as Muslims because they do not want their children to learn about homosexuality, because of their religion. Are they on the same side as white supremacists and bigots? Well, yes, and in fact these Muslims are literally allying with Moms for Liberty, a white hate group; that group posted flyers and they attended the protest, and one of their leaders literally spoke at the protesters' press conference. Kristin said she would not put these people in the same category -- though it's complicated.

She got tons of backlash from the press and the Democratic establishment and ended up apologizing. CAIR and some of the Muslims, plus the whole world of rightwing media, accused her of being Islamophobic. Cowardly Council member Evan Glass found a reporter and said “I have spoken with Councilmember Mink about her comments and have expressed my profound disappointment.” Mink's comments were offhandedly referred to as Islamophobic and "a disaster." Because she said what needed to be said and she said it without being afraid to step over somebody's line in the sand.

I want to dwell on this for a minute.

A good friend will tell you when you've got a booger hanging out of your nose.

Okay, that is all.

Moms for Liberty set a trap here for liberals, who totally fell for it. M4L placed the cheese and set the trigger, but we're the ones who created an environment where you can't criticize a minority group. Kristin Mink spoke with sincerity and truth at the board meeting. She held the line on school district policy and proposed the only kind of solution that can work; the public school teaches facts and science, and religious values should be taught at home. She did not generalize about the nearly two billion people who participate in the Muslim faith worldwide. She talked about the group that protested, who were clearly self-identified Muslims advocating a rightwing position on sexual orientation. They are on the same side as our homegrown American bigots. It's complicated, if you grant that these were not actually horrid people like the Moms for Liberty that they associate with.

There was nothing that could be said about this situation that will not invite an attack. Of course they accused her of Islamophobia -- that's all they've got. They couldn't argue that her point was incorrect, or that her solution wouldn't work. But look, we have seen real Islamophobia. Years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan were nothing but American Islamophobia. Trump's Muslim travel ban was pure, unadulterated Islamophobia. After 9/11 Islamophobia was the default American attitude. People on the right have repeatedly implied that all Muslims are terrorists and if you say they are Islamophobic they shrug and go, so what? This group of people came to the school board to advocate a position that is normally advocated by white supremacist, rightwing bigots. But they don't seem like bigots themselves, if you know them. It's complicated.

You know what is worse than saying something that can be twisted into something it is not? I'll give you a minute. Okay, the answer is: saying nothing.

Yes it's a trap, it's a lion's den, and you have to be brave to walk right into it and speak your conscience in a way that is empathetic and also unswerving. You didn't see the County Executive, any of the other members of the County Council, any official of the Democratic Party, at the board meeting, and you did not see them back up their colleague when she came under attack. They should have queued up behind a microphone in Veterans Plaza or the Executive Building and taken turns saying: "We love our Muslim neighbors but some of them are on the same side as white supremacists and bigots on the issue of LGBT storybooks in school." They could have taken turns saying, "Kristin is kind of new at this game, God bless her, and she has not yet learned to talk out of both sides of her mouth. I remember when I first ran for office [goes into self-aggrandizing story of a not-really-embarrassing gaffe]." They could have said, "I know Kristin Mink and, whatever she is, she is not an Islamophobe." They could have said, "The MCPS policy is that you cannot opt-out of storybook readings, and I support that policy."

Nobody backed her up. All of our Democratic "leaders" hid, except for one. Kojo got Elrich and Jawando to talk superficially for a total of three or four minutes on WAMU, that's about it as far as I have seen. Oh when some Pride flags got burned later that week, every local politician in the county found a TV crew and expressed outrage in appropriately shocked tones of voice. But when our gay and trans neighbors actually came under direct attack, for real, in the school district where it counts, and when one of their colleagues stood up to directly address the situation, and there was some risk of being criticized for saying something, they hid. When we needed their leadership, they were not there.