EDITORIAL: Gov. Mills should stand up to Maine Republicans' attacks on vulnerable students

·4 min read

May 20—Rather than say how they'd solve the many real problems facing our state, Maine Republicans used their first ad in the governor's race to bully some of the state's most vulnerable kids.

The ad, released this week, criticizes Gov. Mills for a state Department of Education video that Republicans say teaches "radical school lessons" about same-sex relationships and what it means to be transgender.

But what they are really saying is that schools have no right to acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people, neither in their hallways nor in their communities. They're saying that the experiences of students who identify as LGBTQ, or who have family members who do, should not even be recognized.

It's a cowardly way to start a campaign. Rather than talk about issues that matter, Republicans chose to play off manufactured fears and anxieties.

Mills, who took down the video rather than defend its benign content, does not come out looking good, either. Someone needs to stand up for the LGBTQ students, and for schools themselves, who are now under attack.

Around the country, conservatives are accusing schools of indoctrinating students. The accusations are being made by people who have no idea of what goes on in an actual classroom and no interest in helping schools face the many real challenges in front of them.

Instead, they're meant to rile up residents, some of whom are parents but many of whom are not, with tales of teachers and administrators forcing their extreme beliefs on impressionable children.

That could not be further from the truth. Anyone who's been in an elementary school classroom would know that.

And anyone's who's been around a 6-year-old knows they have a lot of questions, some of which can be difficult to know how to answer.

That's what the video was for. One of about 400 covering a wide variety of topics, it was created as a resource for public school teachers to use during remote learning.

The point of the video was to teach a lesson about three vocabulary words: "rights," "history" and "government." It was not mandated; schools could decide for themselves whether to use the video.

The video's offense, according to Republicans, is mentioning the existence of transgender people or same-sex relationships at all — even if they are talked about in the exact same way that cisgender people and heterosexual couples are referred to all the time, in all sorts of way, to people of all ages.

It's not just the ad that makes this argument. Many school districts have been harassed by people spouting this same nonsense. Often, opponents are called "groomers," an old slur aimed at gay people that's been given new life by conservatives. Maine Republican Party Chair Demi Kouzounas used this despicable attack this week, saying that lessons mentioning LGBTQ issues could make kids vulnerable to pedophiles.

Imagine what that says to a kid dealing with questions of gender or sexuality. Most LGBTQ students say they face frequent discrimination, and worse, from other students, even school staff. Many say they don't feel comfortable reporting the harassment, and when they do, they don't feel heard.

For this group, most say they don't feel supported at home or in school, and suicide rates are high.

However, when the students do have support from family and school, or live in an accepting community, they are much less likely to feel marginalized. Educating students is one way to build that support.

Rather than help, though, conservatives are harassing this relatively small group of students as part of their election strategy.

The students and their loved ones don't deserve it, and they need people to stand beside them and say that.

Unfortunately, in this case, Gov. Mills chose not to.

There's no indication that that will cause the Republicans to stop. We'd like to expect more from them, but we can't. After all, LGBTQ discrimination is written into their party platform.

Instead, it's up to the rest of us to make sure that all Maine students are treated with respect and given the same opportunities.

Gov. Mills has led that struggle before. But by taking down the video rather than standing up for our schools and their students, this time she fell short.