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"mom" wars

The Christian Right Wants to Force Teachers to Out Trans Kids

Under the guise of “parental rights,” figures like Sonja Shaw want to draft educators into their war against trans students.

Sonja Shaw speaks with an American flag in the background.
Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Sonja Shaw, Chino Valley Unified School District board president, speaks at “A Line in the Sand: A Rally for Parental Rights” in Simi Valley, California, in September.

When Sonja Shaw ran for school board in Chino Valley in the southern California suburbs, she pledged her support to Moms for Liberty, a Christian right group that wants “parental rights” to trump LGBTQ students’ rights. When the Los Angeles Times this week profiled Shaw, now the school board president, her political adviser described her as waging “a spiritual battle” against her opponents. When Shaw recently wanted to scold an opponent who questioned her proposed policy to out trans students without their consent, she accused him of supporting “things that pervert children.”

The seemingly rapid rise of these so-called “parental rights” policies across the United States, mandating that educators and school counselors report to parents any students using pronouns different to what their parents have provided, is in fact quite perfectly summed up in Shaw and how Shaw’s story has been told. She may have successfully sold herself as a “soccer mom,” as the Times headline ran, but the consequences of Shaw’s actions for trans students’ health and safety are clear: As one trans student in Chino Valley said recently to Vice, “I’m so afraid that I’m gonna wake up tomorrow, or the next day or the day after that, and I’m gonna find out that one of my friends isn’t here anymore.”

While the Times story focused on the question of whether Shaw is a “true believer” or merely cunning, her impact isn’t in doubt. Shaw is, whether she claims it or not, in sync with a much larger national effort to rebrand the forced outing of trans kids as “parental rights.” And this effort has the weight of major conservative think tanks behind it. Nearly 90 bills forcing teachers to monitor students’ gender expression—including dress, pronouns, and names—and report trans and gender-nonconforming students to parents were introduced in state legislatures across the country in 2022, according to PEN America’s Index of Educational Intimidation Bills. Five states have adopted these policies into law: North Dakota, Iowa, Alabama, North Carolina, and Indiana. What we are seeing in places like Chino Valley reflects a coordinated national plan, pushing laws and policies that would penalize educators who don’t go along—inverting their roles as mandatory reporters and as potential resources for students facing harassment, neglect, and abuse at home.

No one can know the exact motivations of the individuals proposing these policies, or the think tanks drafting and promoting them. They may be doing this to build power for the Christian right, and for Christian nationalist efforts especially. They may be doing this out of an obsession with controlling children as if they are mere extensions of their parents. But together, the individuals and organizations promoting these policies are doing both, hoping to pass as concerned parents who just want to protect children.

To that end, some conservative supporters of the forced outing bills and policies have attempted to position their cause as something that transcends partisan politics, denying that it has anything to do with mandating a certain way to protect children. That was the play in Virginia, in support of a forced outing bill that was introduced in February. The face of the bill was Michele Blair, most often identified as the grandmother and guardian of a child assigned as female at birth, who she calls Sage, who has also gone by another name, Draco, and used he/him pronouns. Blair’s story, as it has been related in conservative outlets like The Federalist and The Daily Wire, can read as both harrowing and sensationalizing. What Blair says is that her grandchild’s school in Appomattox County withheld from her information that her grandchild had come out in school as trans. Blair also says her grandchild was sex trafficked, and appears to believe that this never would have happened if the school had informed her that her grandchild was trans. Appomattox County Public Schools has said in a statement that the “claim that this particular individual was unaware of her child’s gender identity expression at school, and that school staff did not communicate with her regarding that, is simply not correct,” noting that their ability to respond to “allegations pertaining to any particular child is limited due to privacy laws.”

Promoting the bill named for her grandchild, Blair has said, “I am not here to tell you how to raise your kids—I’m here to tell you we should not be placing adult decisions on children, especially not behind a parent’s back.” She also claimed that children are now growing up in “a world where sex traffickers are lurking on every cellphone just waiting to trick your child into their sick game, and that “[we] must save our children before it’s too late,” neatly combining two moral panics.

When Blair’s bill was debated this session, some of its opposition took the proposition of protecting children seriously. One Democrat on the state Senate’s Education Committee said that while he supported parents’ involvement in their children’s education, he feared this bill would mean students would not turn to teachers as confidants, no longer able to “speak with a teacher and not have to worry about getting put on blast.” He also noted that the bill resembled a mandatory reporting policy—such as educators already have for instances of suspected abuse—but a mandatory reporting policy that could potentially prevent students who needed support from seeking it. Perhaps this is exactly the point: Imagine a trans student who had faced abuse from a parent after trying to come out to them, who then tried to turn to a teacher or school counselor for help.

Delegate Danica Roem, the first openly transgender member of the Virginia state legislature (and who was elected to the state Senate in November), tried during debate on the bill to press its sponsor, Delegate David LaRock, on the very real possibility of abuse and abandonment of trans children by their parents. Roem asked whether there were any limitations in the bill to protect students from being outed to abusive families. “We are dealing with dire consequences on a bill as reckless as this: forcibly outing kids regardless of the safety of their home, regardless of what’s going to happen to them when they get home,” Roem said. LaRock responded that there were “many, many other considerations that should take precedence over a child’s feelings that maybe their parent wouldn’t like that decision.”

Far from being meant to protect students, as trans students and other opponents of the forced outing policy argued, such a policy can be used as a weapon for the school district and for parents to get children to “conform” (under duress) to their gender as assigned at birth. Rob Bonta, the California attorney general, has challenged the policy in the Chino Valley school district in court. In his complaint, filed in August, Bonta stated that transgender and gender-nonconforming students “are in real fear that the District’s policy will force them to make a choice: either ‘walk back’ their constitutionally and statutorily protected rights to gender identity and gender expression, or face the risk of emotional, physical, and psychological harm from non-affirming or unaccepting parents or guardians.” (In September, a state judge temporarily blocked enforcement of the policy, also citing possible harm to trans children from parents or guardians.)

California, like Virginia, saw a forced outing bill fail when it was introduced in the state legislature. That’s what inspired the Chino Valley school board president, Sonja Shaw, to adopt a version of the bill in her school district. When the state attorney general challenged the policy, the school district turned to the Liberty Justice Center to represent them. The Liberty Justice Center is the law project of the conservative think tank Illinois Policy Institute, with significant funding from the Republican megadonor Richard Uihelein (who is perhaps better known for giving millions of dollars to multiple groups working to overturn the 2020 election). Shaw has encouraged other school districts to pass forced outing policies, saying the Liberty Justice Center would represent them if they were challenged.

Support for these policies is coming from other major conservative groups. A model national version of forced outing policy, the “Given Name Act,” has been drafted by the Heritage Foundation, the hard-right Washington think tank. Elements of the model forced outing policy feature in a Heritage-led agenda, Project 2025—their presidential transition plan for the next conservative president. Project 2025 is “systematically preparing to march into office and bring a new army—aligned, trained, and essentially weaponized conservatives ready to do battle against the deep state,” project director Paul Dans has said.

Project 2025’s Education directives include statements such as: “Federal lawmakers should not allow public school employees to keep secrets about a child from that child’s parents.” The model policy includes two provisions that forbid school employees from using any name “other than the name listed on a student’s birth certificate” or a pronoun that is “different from that student’s biological sex … without the written permission of a student’s parents or guardians.”

In response to the forced outing policies adopted by Chino Valley schools and others in southern California, Rainbow Youth Project USA and Our Schools USA have launched a support phone line for students. Last week, the Los Angeles Blade reported that since launching on August 5, the support line has received 648 crisis calls—from students, parents, and school staff members—in its nearly four months of service. The hotline links students with a case management team from the Rainbow Youth Project, reported Vice, “trained specifically to understand the new policy and its implications.”

Shaw told Vice the hotline was “dangerous.” And that encapsulates the sleight of hand this forced outing campaign has accomplished: The people helping support youth, rather than the “concerned parents” harassing them, are being cast as the danger.