Dozens of people, some on their knees, some clutching rosaries, some weeping, gathered in small circles and prayed for God’s help in what some were calling the next American Revolution.
Children carried handmade signs and banners. One neatly lettered sign read, “Protect me from the state.’’ Another said, “Freedom.’’ Several senior citizens quietly sang church hymns and said they were preparing for the fight of their lives.
This was the scene on an otherwise tranquil morning last summer, when the New Jersey state school board gathered in Trenton to vote on changes that would implement new policies and protections for LGBTQ+ students in New Jersey’s 593 public school districts.
The new policy bristles with acronyms and legalistic definitions of terms like cisgender, gender queer, gender expansive and ASAB (assigned sex at birth). But, in simplest terms, the policy is about freedom for transgender students to call themselves what they want, take part in the gender-segregated classes and activities where they feel most comfortable, and, most controversially, to do it all with or without a parent’s knowledge or consent.
“A school district shall accept a student’s asserted gender identity; parental consent is not required,” says the state Department of Education in a document titled “Transgender Student Guidance for School Districts.”
The state school board approved the new policy by a 6-5 vote, but only after angry parents disrupted the meeting and forced the board to adjourn to a private room.
The raucous school board meeting was an emblematic scene in what promises to become a long-running drama in New Jersey, a war over culture and parental rights that is coming to your local school board—if it hasn’t already arrived.
Transgender-rights advocates, including thousands of kids who belong to LGBTQ+ clubs and gay-straight alliance groups that have sprung up in schools across the state, cheered the decision and welcomed what many view as a new era for civil rights in New Jersey.
“This is about the safety and well-being of young people across the state,” says Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, a leading LGBTQ+ advocacy group. “LGBTQ+ youth represent over 40 percent of the youth homeless population,” he says, adding that studies show that more than half of the transgender students in New Jersey feel unsafe at school.
“Even on a good day, young transgender people in New Jersey face daunting fears and challenges,” Fuscarino says. “I have listened to parents all over this state for many years now, and I can tell you that most parents want these policies.”
Andrew Mulvihill, a conservative member of the state school board who opposed the policy changes, says the new policy is part of a “political agenda.”
“Our students can’t pass a standardized test, and this is our priority?” Mulvihill asks. “After the vote, a woman came up to me and she was sobbing. She said she couldn’t afford to pull her kids out of school, but couldn’t stand subjecting them to this stuff. She truly didn’t know where to turn. It’s a shame.”
In May 2023, New Jersey attorney general Matthew Platkin filed a lawsuit against the Morris County community of Hanover Township after school board members there enacted a new policy requiring educators to tell parents about any change in a student’s gender identity or sexual orientation reported at school. In June, Platkin filed similar complaints against school boards in the Manalapan-Englishtown, Marlboro and Middletown districts.
Platkin and his litigators in the state Division of Civil Rights argue that state law demands equal protection for LGBTQ+ students. They say these policies also reflect the reality that, for some LGBTQ+ students, coming out at home can lead to rejection by parents or even expulsion from the family home. They argue that, for some LGBTQ+ kids who are at odds with their parents, public school may be the only safe space.
“We are extremely proud of the contributions LGBTQ+ students make to our classrooms and our communities, and we remain committed to protecting them from discrimination in our schools,” Platkin said last year.
The courts, for now, have enjoined the dissenting school districts from enacting their own parental-notification measures in violation of state guidelines. But as the lawsuits continue to wind through the courts, more local school board meetings have become intense battlegrounds.
Nicole Stouffer is a biostatistician and self-described math geek from Medford in Burlington County. She is a founder of the parental-rights group New Jersey Project and the author of the Substack newsletter called Chaos and Control, which lists more than 10,000 subscribers.
Speaking about the parental-rights movement, she avoids right-wing political cant and speaks sympathetically about accepting LGBTQ+ people and the need to protect trans kids in schools. But Stouffer says the parental-notification measure in the new state policy went too far.
“There’s a big culture clash in New Jersey, and the state is taking the side of one group over another,” Stouffer says. “Not even close to everyone accepts the idea that we should accept boys in the locker room who think they’re girls,” she says, using language that LGBTQ+ advocates consider transphobic. “I’m just saying the state should let every school district decide for itself and not force the same decision on everyone.”
Like many in the parental-rights movement, Stouffer says she was provoked by state policy during the pandemic that kept all students out of class and learning remotely. “Parents were watching all the nonsense schools were pushing on the kids,’’ she says. “It wasn’t Donald Trump or anything like that that started this movement; it was masks on schoolkids.”
In the vast and fevered world of social media-based social dissent, voices like those of Stouffer and others in New Jersey’s parental-rights push are legion, as are the voices of their detractors. But critics of the right-wing culture warriors point out that the parental-rights message is often fraught with misinformation and plain old hatred for gay and transgender people.
Some school districts, succumbing to demands from parents, have yanked books and media with queer and transgender themes from school libraries. Others are stripping rainbow flags and posters from school grounds. Sex education policies put forth by the state have been ignored or altered, with some schools preferring to let all sex ed happen at home, if at all. State laws requiring instruction about LGBTQ+ history have also been ignored in some districts.
School board races, usually sleepy contests largely ignored by registered voters, have become flash points for ideological struggles where candidates debate issues like free speech and the separation of church and state. Groups such as Moms for Liberty, NJStandsUp, Gays Against Groomers, and Team PYC (Protect Your Children) have formed chapters across New Jersey and post daily on blogs and websites that claim thousands of viewers.
The stream of rhetoric flooding social media under the banner of parental rights has a marked religious fervor and often repeats Trump-era tropes that have become common currency on the political right.
Facebook posts and newsletters juxtapose quotes from Genesis and Matthew, the New Testament evangelist, with screeds against drag queens, vaccine and mask mandates, New Jersey wind farms, and “unhinged” school librarians.
Shawn Hyland, a former Republican congressional candidate for New Jersey’s Third District, travels the state in what he describes as a “ministry dedicated to reversing the trend of unbelief.” One of the right’s most outspoken culture warriors, Hyland says his aim is to teach “the importance of Christians having a biblical worldview, influencing public policy, defending the biblical family, and protecting parental rights in education.”
In one YouTube post on what he calls “the social contagion of gender dysphoria,” Hyland says, “There has been a systematic attack against the biblical nuclear family. The attorney general of New Jersey is trying to use the intimidating power of his office to force school districts to keep a secret shadow medical file on children….Welcome to New Jersey in 2023.”
Another outspoken warrior in New Jersey’s parental-rights push is Greg Quinlan, a 65-year-old retired nurse who spent much of his youth as a gay activist. “I watched a hundred friends die of AIDS,” he says. When he was 34, Quinlan says, he turned away from a “very unhappy gay lifestyle” and eventually began working to connect with other “lapsed” homosexuals in what he says is a vast but largely hidden ex-gay community.
Now, Quinlan is president and founder of the Center for Garden State Families, a nonprofit ministry that promotes “faith, freedom, and the natural family in culture and public policy.’’ The group’s website lists low taxes and a strong Second Amendment as major legs of its family-centered mission, tagged as “One man, one woman and their children.’’
Quinlan pans public schools as “government schools” and describes Trenton as the center of New Jersey’s “educational-industrial complex.’’ He says high school graduates are being sacrificed on an altar of social justice and what he deems to be scientifically flawed assumptions that gender is fluid and homosexuality is genetic.
“Let me make this abundantly clear,’’ says Quinlan. “Nobody’s born in the wrong body. This is a developmental gender-identity disorder. It’s developed, not innate.’’
Despite the consensus among major medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, that age-appropriate gender-affirming care improves mental health and saves lives, Quinlan claims that, “Parents have been blackmailed and actually terrorized that if they don’t do this their child will commit suicide. The point is that mutilating your body to change genders doesn’t fix anything. You’re changing your appearance. You’re not dealing with the heart.”
All rhetoric aside, the vocal opponents of the state’s new policy are a decided minority in a blue state that remains predominantly progressive, both politically and culturally.
Despite all the clamor about gender in the classroom and all the grassroots blogging in support of parental rights, the movement came up limp in the fall 2023 legislative races. Republicans campaigning against the LGBTQ+ policy failed to flip a single Senate or Assembly seat in a statehouse that remains overwhelmingly Democratic.
Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, says that movement’s appeal in a diverse state like New Jersey, though considerable, is likely to remain on the local level.
“It’s a question of scale,” says Rasmussen, regarding the pull of parental-rights politics. “You can get people hyped up in a town, but turning a state legislative election of 50,000 votes is another question.’’
Michael Gottesman is a retired attorney and former substitute teacher who founded the nonprofit New Jersey Public Education Coalition, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan group of educators, administrators, municipal leaders, parents and concerned citizens who seek to protect our public schools and communities from right-wing extremism.”
He says New Jersey can’t afford to sit back and assume the parental-rights movement is just a passing fad or the latest iteration of the MAGA culture wars. He’s developed dossiers on many of the right-wing leaders and groups fueling the Jersey debate and says they have been largely funded by national conservative groups looking to sow political division.
Ultimately, Gottesman says, the goal of parental-rights proponents is to dismantle bedrock liberal traditions such as public education and the separation of church and state.
“These people are very well organized, very well financed and they’ve got the jump on us,” Gottesman says. “I formed the coalition because we need to level the playing field and give the real majority of parents a way to be heard above the harassment, intimidation and bullying used by the other side.”
Another favorite tool of right-wing parent groups, Gottesman says, is misinformation. A study his group conducted showed only about 3 percent of all public school parents chose to opt their kids out of the state’s health and fitness curriculum, which names body parts and describes sex acts. The curriculum, intended partly to arm students with language to report sexual abuse, has been attacked by some parents as inappropriate sex education that turns kids into pornography addicts.
“The fact is that the vast, vast majority of parents in New Jersey want their kids to have this very basic information,’’ Gottesman says. “Does the curriculum talk about vaginal, oral and anal sex? Yes, in a basic way that’s necessary to defend against rape and unwanted pregnancy.”
Jennifer Velten has chosen not to take sides in Jersey’s parental-rights war. She’s too busy helping families that have been shattered as young people take the step to come out as LGBTQ+. As director of trauma services for CarePlus New Jersey, a nonprofit mental health provider in Bergen County, she’s spent nine years counseling families split apart by sexuality issues who want to come back together.
Velten says the pressures on young transgender people in school are immense. A large percentage, she says, are subject to verbal harassment or bullying. “There is no doubt that these kids experience fear at school—it’s real,” Velten says. “For some, coming out at home may ultimately mean getting kicked out. The school becomes their only safe space.’’
“But I’ve found that, for the vast majority of families I’ve worked with, the bottom line is that parents still love their kids, even if they can’t agree politically,’’ Velten says. “I think we’ve got to always remind ourselves of that, despite all the disagreement and controversy we hear about, parents still want to support their kids.”
Jeff Pillets is an award-winning investigative reporter.