May 29—The Maine Department of Education says sexual orientation and gender diversity should be represented in public school curriculum and that not doing so is a disservice to all students.
But, like most states, Maine does not require it, or spell out when or how those lessons should be taught. That leaves each district to decide how to address orientation and gender in their classrooms, and according to a recent study, three-quarters of Maine's schools have no LGBTQ policies at all.
Many child development experts say the existence of LGBTQ people should be acknowledged in a child's earliest school years to validate diverse students and to teach others to accept difference. Whether and how that's done in Maine schools became a political flashpoint this month when an online kindergarten lesson about holidays like Pride Day that explained what it means to be transgender was removed from the Department of Education's website the night before it was featured in a Republican attack ad aimed at Gov. Janet Mills.
The dust-up came two weeks after Maine Republican delegates voted to add anti-LGBTQ language to the party platform. The new platform calls for a ban on curriculum that promotes medical or surgical gender transition and compares classroom teaching of nonbinary genders to child abuse.
Similar legislation is being debated in statehouses throughout the country, a wave that's followed Florida's prohibition on discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, referred to as the "Don't Say Gay" law, passed in March.
Although Maine's policy encourages teaching those lessons in its schools, many districts and teachers have hesitated incorporating the controversial topics into their classrooms.
"The Maine Department of Education provides a broad set of optional resources and guidance to assist Maine's school boards, educators and parents," spokesman Marcus Mrowka said. "This includes a robust collection of LGBTQ+ resources, best practices and materials."
Both the education department and Mills, however, said the removed kindergarten lesson, a video called "Freedom Holidays," was inappropriate, though they won't say why. Some Democrats, as well as the teacher who made the video, accused Mills of caving to political pressure in an election year, while Republicans said she was trying to hide evidence of her pro-LGBTQ position.
Political attack ads featuring LGBTQ people (and media coverage of the ads) can marginalize an already vulnerable group of children, making them feel even less safe, said Gia Drew, a former teacher and coach who is now executive director of Equality Maine.
"One thing I think we can all agree on is that all children — all children — should feel safe in school," Drew said. "But many LGBTQ children, they don't feel safe. Many don't feel supported, not by their families, teachers or classmates. It's getting better, but we've got a lot of work left to do."
According to the 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, about 900 Maine high school students, or 1.6 percent of the state's school-age population, identify as transgender, and another 900 say they are not sure if they are transgender. Those numbers are going up every year.
Of those who identity as transgender, 44 percent say they have been bullied on school property, 28 percent have dated someone who hurt them, 41 percent have had forced sexual contact, 72 percent report depressive symptoms and 52 percent have considered suicide in the past year.
Compared with cisgender high schoolers, or those who are not transgender, and the numbers fall precipitously — 22 percent were bullied, 8 percent dated someone who hurt them, 11 percent had forced sexual contact, 31 percent had depressive symptoms and 15 percent considered suicide.
The stakes are high, said Erin Belfort, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at The Gender Clinic at Barbara Bush Children's Hospital at Maine Medical Center. The clinic serves about 450 transgender and gender-nonconforming youth across northern New England, from age 3 to 25.
"To mitigate the risk of mental health challenges, LGBTQ+ youth need to see themselves reflected in the world and learn that they are valid, important and lovable in order to develop a healthy sense of who they are with a world of possibilities ahead for themselves," Belfort said.
Diverse representation and affirmation in all subject areas benefits all students, whether it's providing validation to a student who may feel isolated or teaching other students how to celebrate difference, said Lynette Johnson, director of education at Maine Family Planning.
"Teachers should always assume there is diversity in their classroom, even if it's not visible," Johnson said. "All students regardless of their gender identity can benefit from having accurate information about gender diversity to better understand themselves and the world around them."
WHAT'S THE RIGHT AGE
Such representation and affirmation should start early, according to Sandra Caron, a professor of family relations and human sexuality at the University of Maine. She calls it the fourth "r" of classroom instruction — reading, writing, arithmetic and relationships.
"Teaching children about acceptance and diversity is always age-appropriate," Caron said. "Kindergarten kids are learning to treat others, including those who are different, with kindness and respect, and to expect that for themselves."
Many children self-identify and label their gender at an early age, often around 2 or 3 years old, according to Arizona State University professor Carol Martin, who researches gender identity, expression and development of gender attitudes in children, adolescents and young adults.
There is some variability, but many transgender children express gender nonconformity at an early age through their choice of clothing, toys and peers, Martin said. She said they will often be insistent, persistent and consistent in their view that they are the other gender.
"Given that, from an early age, children are working hard to understand themselves and their friends and peers, any help we can provide for them, even at an early age, should be useful for better navigating the social world," Martin said.
Teachers and parents must also consider the possible harm that comes from not talking, Martin said.
For the youngest students, sexual orientation and gender diversity is about identity, not sexuality, Caron said. Kids who are LGBTQ will feel validated by seeing themselves reflected in classroom books, materials and lessons, while straight, cisgender kids will learn acceptance of difference.
"We have a responsibility to prepare our students for the real world," Caron said. "The real world is a very diverse place. Learning how to deal with diversity, how to thrive in a diverse culture, benefits all children, all communities."
Kindergarten teachers don't have to "teach LGBTQ," Caron said. Instead, weave a family with two dads into a math word problem, she said, or read a book about a boy princess aloud. Skip traditional gender stereotypes, she said, like by dividing students into groups by birthday month rather than gender.
But not all education experts agree. Susan Reed of Topsham, a retired early childhood specialist at the state Department of Education with more than 40 years' experience, supported the state's decision to remove the "Freedom Holidays" video, even though she is a LGBTQ supporter and a lifelong Democrat.
"Complex, highly political and emotionally charged subject matter is inappropriate for 5- and 6-year-olds because of their brain development, and no amount of wishing it different will change that," said Reed. "They simply are cognitively unable to do it."
Throughout her career, whether she was directing child-care programs or training teachers, Reed instructed would-be teachers to respond to young children's questions about things they experienced — families with single parents or two moms or dads — in a simple manner, without emotion or "going overboard."
She trained them to make sure that they had age-appropriate books that were representative of all of the children in the classroom, whether it was the color of their skin, the language they spoke at home, or the make-up of their family.
"Let me reiterate, my expert opinion comes from years of working with young children and has nothing to do with political correctness or incorrectness, Democrats and Republicans," Reed said. "When we make these issues partisan, we weaponize children in a way that might be harmful."
TALL TASK FOR TEACHERS
In a state that values local educational control, where state officials offer a range of resource materials but not mandated curricula and not all experts agree, it can be hard for educators, board members and parents to know how to begin. Advocates worry the difficulty will scare off some communities.
The current political climate, so deeply polarized across the nation and Maine, only raises the stakes and makes a teacher's already difficult job even harder. The teacher who made the video singled out by the anti-Mills ad is under attack. A Prospect Harbor middle school teacher lost his job in 2019 after the topic of gender reassignment surgery came up in science class.
"It's always been a complicated time to be a teacher," said Penny Bishop, dean of the University of Maine's College of Education and Human Development. "From evolution to religion to racism, being a teacher is often about having challenging community conversations about controversial topics."
But deep down, both teachers and parents want to make the world better for children, Bishop said.
In a state that believes so strongly in local control, Bishop believes being a successful teacher is all about knowing the community, working with parents rather than around them, and learning how to promote student and community understanding without proselytizing.
Pre-service teachers enrolled in UMaine's College of Education don't have a lot of opportunity to put those parent strategies to work until they're on the job.
But collaboration doesn't mean that one parent who objects to a controversial topic being raised in their child's classroom should dictate instruction for all students, Bishop said. Some Maine districts offer families the ability to opt out of non-mandated lessons if they conflict with their values.
Drew, of Equality Maine, is confident the current political climate does not represent a reversal in Maine's support of LGBTQ people. Over her decade-long advocacy career, Drew said Maine has become more supportive, not less, of sexual and gender diverse people and children.
She noted that Maine's anti-bullying law explicitly names LGBTQ students in its protected student class and that Maine was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. It has elected openly LGBTQ politicians, and more and more school districts are inviting groups like hers to conduct teacher training. Trans families move here to escape anti-trans laws in other states.
Acceptance of LGBTQ people can be found even in Maine's smallest, most rural towns, Drew said. There are LGBTQ people living in every county and every school district in Maine, she said, but most live in the rural parts of Maine, even if they are not out.
"We're doing more right than we're doing wrong," she said.
MAINE IN THE MAJORITY
Maine is among the majority of states that do not have an explicit requirement on LGBTQ curriculum in public schools. Only nine states require it, including Rhode Island and Connecticut in New England. Six states ban LGBTQ issues from the classroom altogether.
The Department of Education doesn't track which Maine public school districts have pro-LGBTQ policies in place, but a new, not-yet-published University of Maine graduate school study done in conjunction with Equality Maine found only about a quarter of the schools sampled do.
The study partners plan to expand the survey to see if the districts with pro-LGBTQ policies in place have a lower incidence of the health risks that occur in higher rates among non-straight and gender diverse students, such as bullying, absenteeism, substance use disorder and suicide.
On Friday, 10 days after the Republican attack ad hit the Maine airwaves and the state removed the "Freedom Holidays" video lesson from the DOE website, the director of transgender community support organization MaineTransNet said Maine's transgender youth need more support from allies in elected office.
Mills has a long record of supporting pro-LGBTQ legislation, and MaineTransNet has no reason to believe that is going to change, said director Quinn Gormley. But Mills also has an obligation to fight back against anti-LGBTQ attacks and understand how her political decision-making is interpreted.
The removal of what Gormley said was an "imperfect" video has transgender youth on edge, she said.
"We are hearing — not from the press, not from pundits, but from transgender youth in Maine — that they are unsure if the Governor and DOE have their backs," Gormley wrote in a public statement. "We encourage the administration and the department to clarify their stance."
Gormley continued: "Make clear to trans youth in every school in Maine that they are welcome, that they are wanted, and that they are protected against this hate. That message isn't currently being heard by the people who need to hear it the most: trans youth in our schools."
Mills did not respond to MaineTransNet's statement, or to repeated requests to explain why she thought the "Freedom Holidays" video was inappropriate. Instead of commenting on the removed lesson, she has pointed to her record of voting in favor of LGTBQ legislation.