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How ‘parental rights’ language smuggles anti-LGBTQ hate into mainstream politics

Originally published: Ricochet on October 9, 2023 by Aaron Saad (more by Ricochet)  | (Posted Oct 11, 2023)

With the so-called “1 Million March 4 Children” protests occurring in cities throughout the country and Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe announcing he would defy court orders in order to impose anti-trans policy in schools, late September saw Canada’s anti-LGBTQ+ movement advance further into mainstream politics.

We need to understand how this occurred.

When presented too overtly, bigoted beliefs remain stranded on the fringe. And so there has to be some vehicle to smuggle them into everyday consciousness, one that covers them with a veneer of reasonableness.

We saw that recently in the U.S. when ultra-conservatives were looking for a strategy for mobilizing hate against members of the transgender community. When attempts to legally bar them from using their preferred bathrooms provoked too much backlash, the political strategy shifted to stoking concerns about transgender women competing in women’s sports and soon thereafter to worries about minors being too young to be allowed to choose to receive gender-affirming care. Anti-trans activists could then broaden their base by appealing to more mainstream values of fairness in competition and protection of impressionable youth.

In a similar way, the activism that culminated in the “1 Million March 4 Children” could not openly present itself as anti-LGBTQ+; that would turn away too many people wanting to maintain they would never associate with bigots. The solution was to take a page from successful hate mobilizations of the past and make the cause about “parental rights.”

It’s this alternate discourse that has allowed goals rooted in bigotry to appear indifferent, present more palatable guises to a larger base, inviting them to take part, knowingly or not, in the hate.

Extremism for moderates

For months, Canada’s right-wing media has used the language of “parental rights” to insist that opponents of LGBTQ+ education were adopting a perfectly reasonable, even moderate, position.

One of the more striking instances appeared just two days before the marches in a National Post piece entitled, “Nope, parents are not ‘fascists’ for being skeptical of gender politics.”

What’s interesting about it is not the hand-wringing about how unfair it is to compare “parental rights advocacy” with fascism. It’s where the writer attempts to find a middle path between those who feel schools should teach about sexual orientation and gender identity as they do today and those who seek to ban any such education. Because here she inadvertently shows there is no reasonable compromise to be expected even from the “moderate” parental-rights folk.

Her solution is to model instruction about the LGBTQ+ community on the way religion is taught:

For years, Canada has upheld an educational system truly inclusive of students from all religious backgrounds.… Instead of dictating what’s “true” in religious contexts, educators shed light on what various groups “believe,” cultivating an environment of both choice and critical thinking.

Amid religious diversity, we teach acceptance.… Meanwhile, the guiding principle for the institution is to avoid actions that display favouritism toward any specific religious doctrine.

Such a solution could address a significant portion of the concerns fuelling the rising parental unrest. Moderate parents would applaud such an education system, and this would still be inclusive of transgender students.

Peppering in terms like “choice,” “critical thinking,” “acceptance,” “moderate,” and “inclusive” makes this all look reasonable–even centrist–at first blush.

But on the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity education, we have to ask what exactly is this “diversity” of views that is supposed to be presented to students? What are the different doctrines that “various groups believe,” none of which educators should “display favouritism toward”? If one side holds that heterosexual cisgender people are not the only ones who should be free to live unashamedly as themselves, must teachers neutrally present opposing views?

In other words, the seemingly reasonable compromise the author puts forward would mean students who are part of the LGBTQ+ community–alongside those who have loved ones in it–would hear from their teachers that it’s perfectly valid that some people, perhaps even some of their peers, should want them to not exist. (Perhaps while they’re at it, educators should also diversify content on whether women should be subordinate to men.)

Bear in mind, this deeply ugly result comes just from accepting the author’s very charitable framing of the protests as being simply about asserting parental rights to influence and widen the “ideological content of their children’s education.”

The fact of the matter is that the only way to insist (however unconvincingly) that there could be a reasonable compromise was to deliberately downplay so much of the actual discourse that led up to the protests and that, predictably, appeared in chants and on placards on the day of the marches–the frenzied stuff about child “indoctrination,” “sexualization,” “mutilation,” and “grooming.”

Moral panic attack

For this fear-mongering wing the “parental rights” discourse offers yet another useful way to make what’s really happening more palatable.

Underlying the idea that parents need to assert rights is the assumption that there really is some serious, well-founded threat to their children’s wellbeing compelling them to urgently invoke those rights. After all, parents would be the ones to know, wouldn’t they? And how dare anyone question whether parents have the right to do whatever is needed to protect their children?

Insist self-righteously, indignantly, and persistently enough that this is a matter of parental rights–full stop–and you can ward off some of critics’ more awkward questions. Questions like why you’re not providing any convincing case that there really is a well-founded threat. Or why you seem to be using your rights to negate those of LGBTQ+ kids.

Or whether you’re aware that you are very clearly in the grips of a moral panic.

The key to understanding moral panics–typically defined as when some set of people reacts with disproportionate fear to a made-up or exaggerated threat to the social order from supposedly deviant groups–is to know they’re not really about what they’re “about.” The issue people are panicking over represents some broader social change that is triggering an array of anxieties.

The moral panic being directed against LGBTQ+ education does not arise from any substantiated, expert-backed case that students are in fact being sexualized, indoctrinated, mutilated, or groomed; that would have rallied a movement across political divides instead of one concentrated on the political right. Rather, it originates in fears about what the declining status and legitimacy of cis-heteronormativity might mean for social and religious conservatives.

That’s why all that was needed to spark the paranoia about “sexualization,” “indoctrination,” and so forth was modern, inclusive school curricula on sexual orientation and gender identity.

To acknowledge that the existence of–and teaching about–the LGBTQ+ community is not and never was a threat to society raises uncomfortable questions and doubts about the belief systems that have insisted otherwise. The thought that cannot be allowed to break the surface must go something like this:

If my cherished doctrines caused me to baselessly fear some people, then maybe those doctrines aren’t all that right about things.

Far more comforting for them to lean into the seemingly self-justifying rhetoric of parental rights to make sense of their fears. It’s a nice buffer to keep them from seeing that the threat was never to children, but to them–adults clinging to archaic worldviews.

Come for the fear, stay for the hate

Shortly after the “1 Million March 4 Children,” a disturbing video circulated across the internet. Filmed at the rally in Calgary, it features a young child standing at a mic to tell the audience gathered under grim grey clouds that:

The gays are psychopaths…. The gays, they are disgusting!

This hate-indoctrinated child’s message landed with the anti-indoctrination crowd. As the Canadian Anti-Hate Network observed, “The child’s words are met with cheers, whoops, laughs and applause.” In case it wasn’t already apparent from the [groups behind] (www.antihate.ca) the “1 Million March 4 Children,” this mask-off reaction that should confirm to everyone how steeped this movement is in contempt for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Some deep soul-searching is in order from people who were convinced, out of some sense of parental rights, to take part in the “1 Million March 4 Children” and whatever it mutates into from here. The main beneficiaries of these mobilizations are neither them nor their kids, but rather far-right extremists and religious fundamentalists. “Parental rights” was their convenient lure–a hateful piper’s tune to commandeer not the minds of children but those of adults who were supposed to know better.

As those parents reflect, they may want to look elsewhere in the world for a sense of the project they’ve become part of. Because that project is not about protecting children. It’s about eliminating undesirable people and ideas that have no place in their purified nations and divine theocracies. It’s about ripping out by the root the norms, practices, and institutions founded on solidarity and pluralism in order to normalize the callousness required to impose their new society. They are already agitating against “evil” unions (as the 1 Million March for Children group put it on their Facebook page). Next on the agenda could be anything from controlling women’s bodies and sexual autonomy, to attacking credible media, to banning books, to teaching kids to reject the science of climate change and evolution.

For those parents who made common cause with that movement, the question now is whether they actually want to protect their kids–in this case from the more hate-filled world they’re helping to make.

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