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“Don’t Say Gay” and the History of Privacy

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride Month is currently celebrated each year in the month of June to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. In observance of LGBTQ Pride Month, Penn Press is thrilled to share a new blog post from Clayton Howard, author of The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac: The Politics of Sexual Privacy in Northern California. In his book, Howard chronicles the rise of sexual privacy as a fulcrum of American cultural politics.

Earlier this year, the State of Florida passed the Parental Rights in Education Act. The new law prohibits educators from talking about sexual orientation with students in kindergarten through third grade, and it confines them to guidelines set by the state on “age appropriate” topics related to sexuality in higher grades. Furthermore, it requires teachers and staff to disclose important information about students’ mental health to their parents, including details related to their sexual or gender identities.

The Parental Rights in Education Act closely resembles legislation under consideration in other states, and the debates around the law echo the arguments that Americans have been having about gay and transgender rights since the 1970s. Many policymakers, activists, and voters have rightfully condemned these bills for censoring teachers and for exposing children questioning their sexual or gender identities to potential abuse from hostile parents. “Why aren’t we protecting our children’s right to privacy?” asked Angie Nixon, a Jacksonville Democrat and critic of the law. Proponents of these bills, meanwhile, have often seen them as shields protecting private family life from progressive public schoolboards. “The government should never take the place of the parent,” said Republican Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls.

Why have so many straight-identified, cisgender Americans worried about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) topics in schools? How did gay and transgender rights become key parts of American politics? And why did “privacy” become some of the default language for all sides in these debates? My book The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac: The Politics of Sexual Privacy in Northern California answers these questions by examining conflicts over gay rights and sex education from World War II to the late 1970s.

Beginning in the 1940s, federal, state, and local officials promoted two kinds of policies related to sexuality. First, they rewarded Americans for participating in heterosexual relationships, particularly marriages, and punished people who defied gender norms or expressed same-sex desires. Police raided gay bars, for instance, and states like Florida and California fired teachers they suspected of homosexuality. The 1944 GI Bill denied benefits to veterans discharged by the military for homosexuality. Federal mortgage policies, meanwhile, made it easier for married men to buy new homes, and sex education campaigns for parents, students, and teachers depicted heterosexuality as a sign of good mental health.

Second, postwar policymakers promoted sexual privacy. Federal policies required new homes to have private bedrooms so that married couples could protect their sex lives from their children. Educators taught Americans that sexual privacy led to good mental health and strong marriages. Children, they instructed, should respect bedroom doors closed by their parents.

Although these trends often reinforced one another, critics of these policies sometimes used the language of “privacy” to challenge the most repressive laws of the postwar era. These advocates often conceded that homosexuality was a social problem, but they argued that the state took on too much power when it tried to police it. Small numbers of liberal lawyers, sex educators, and early gay rights groups argued that harsh punishments for non-normative sexuality violated Americans’ “right to privacy.” Only a minority of American agreed with these arguments until the U.S. Supreme Court and many state courts issued a series of decisions in the 1960s that offered Americans limited protections for contraception, pornography, and sometimes homosexuality, based on a constitutional right to privacy.

This history decisively shaped the conflicts over LGBT rights in the U.S. in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Although gay and lesbian activists after the 1960s continued to reference the right to privacy, more and more of them spoke about the importance of “coming out of the closet” and that “gay is good.” Many straight-identified Americans responded with ambivalence to these claims. While some conservatives condemned same-sex relationships as sinful, many more Americans believed that LGBT people had a right to privacy. They also, however, continued to see heterosexual relationships as more important than other relationships. Whether they debated policies related to the AIDS crisis, the military, same-sex marriage, or transgender youth, straight-identified people have frequently supported tolerance for LGBT people but have also rejected notions such as “gay is good” or “transgender pride.”

The legacies of the state’s support for straightness and privacy can still be seen in recent debates over issues such as Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act. Many Americans oppose discrimination against LGBT people, but they see most acknowledgements of LGBT life in schools as a sign of preferential treatment for a minority and an unnecessary burden on children. Critics of these laws have pointed out that they marginalize queer youth and have labeled them “Don’t Say Gay” bills, which emphasize the state’s role in censoring teachers. Among other things, these arguments appeal to a broad straight-identified public that dislikes prejudice and values privacy.

But critics rarely say that educational material on sexual orientation and gender identity might be good for all children. The “Don’t Say Gay” label highlights the state’s discriminatory actions, but fails to make a positive argument about the value of LGBT topics in schools for everyone. An inclusive curriculum might help young people of all sexual orientations and gender identities build their ideal relationships and families without confining them to a narrow list of acceptable norms. Schools should not only help queer and transgender students who already understand their identities, but also straight-identified students who might not otherwise consider rethinking their sexuality or gender identity. The problem with making this broader argument is that it might suggest that schools could help otherwise straight-identified or cisgender youths “choose” an alternative path. It would ignite controversy because it would challenge the notion that straightness is more important than all other identities.