Every student deserves to feel loved for who they are.
West Virginia House Bills 2157 and 2595 directly attack this notion, challenging the ability of the state’s educators to make their students feel welcome in their school buildings.
HB 2157 is short but devastating. The bill text runs just one sentence long, and would “prohibit persons from putting up displays relating to sexuality in public school facilities” while also forbidding “the teaching of sexuality in public schools.”
If passed, this bill would prevent teachers from putting up displays that show students a classroom is a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
It could also prevent teachers from celebrating advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, teaching critical facts about biology and gender, and even generally having affirming discussions with LGBTQ+ students about their identities.
That’s very dangerous.
Research clearly shows that students in the LGBTQ+ community are among those most at-risk for suicide, largely because of societal stigmas faced due to their identity. Imagine then the stigma that could arise from the state of West Virginia forbidding schools from discussing issues directly tied to a student’s own identity.
It is an imperative function of schools to help ensure – to the greatest extent possible – the safety of their students, as well as that they feel comfortable in their learning environment. Making sure that students in the LGBTQ+ community feel comfortable in their personal identity while in the school building is an essential function of the school system.
HB 2157 is not the only bill that deserves our attention in this moment, however.
HB 2595 is just as damaging, with an aim to prevent teachers from teaching anything labeled as “divisive.” What does the House consider as divisive, and therefore unteachable, in this bill? Some examples include of such divisive and “forbidden” concepts under HB 2595 include:
- Any teaching that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist,”
- Any teaching that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously (emphasis ours),”
- Any teaching that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,”
- Any teaching that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex,”
- Any teaching that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race,” and
- Any teaching that assigns “fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex… (or that) consciously or unconsciously, and by virtue of his or her race or sex, members of any race are inherently racist or inherently inclined to oppress others, or that members of a sex are inherently sexist or inclined to oppress others.”
At this time in American History, it is as imperative as ever to be open about the faults of our country’s past. Racism and sexism are fundamentally linked to our nation’s history. From America’s inception, the country endorsed the enslavement of Black individuals, and has continuously discriminated against people of color, women, and especially women of color.
These effects have not disappeared today. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry are alive and well.
Delivering an antiracist and anti-bigoted education is only “divisive” if we feel bound to cater to bigoted beliefs and curriculums. On the contrary, it is the job of our schools to build a better society, a society where all individuals feel welcome and powerful within their own identities and cultures.
There will inevitably be pushback when we broach these topics. But to choose to simply “avoid” them is to side with the status quo, and in our country (and in the education system across the country), the status quo has been set from the start against people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ individuals. Our subjects and our schools in general are inextricably linked to issues of race, sexuality, sexual/romantic preference, and gender.
Given that truth, we as educators have an obligation to actively call out and combat bigotry in all its forms.
We have an obligation to ensure our students feel safe and as if they belong in every classroom and every square inch of space in the school building.
We have an obligation to ensure our students are taught the flaws that have existed in our state and country, the racist and sexist and otherwise bigoted beliefs that are still deeply rooted.
We have an obligation to work with our students to help them consider ways in which they can build a better, more accepting world, one that sees and celebrates the differences that make each of us uniquely powerful.
We call on our fellow West Virginians to stand up and demand that these bills not pass.
The undersigned members of the Buckhannon-Upshur High School Multicultural Committee
Wilson R. Harvey