CHEYENNE—The conference room at Little America had the air of an energetic church service. 

Beyond the direct references to Jesus and good and evil by Reps. John Bear (R-Gillette) and Chip Neiman (R-Hulett), the audience listened intently, enraptured by speakers who roused them to take action. At one point, Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R- Lingle) asked those in the audience to show their devotion.

“If you are in this battle and you’re in this fight with us, I would ask you to stand and show your support today,” she said.

The few people in purple “I read banned books” and “Moms for Literacy” shirts were swallowed by the rising crowd as Steinmetz finished. “You have now been recruited. You are a part of the army,” she said.

Brian Schroeder, superintendent of public instruction. (Courtesy, Department of Education)

The event organized by Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder was billed as a press conference to discuss the sexualization of children in Wyoming’s schools. Roughly a dozen speakers, including Schroeder, parents, national activists and state lawmakers, spoke Tuesday against the exposure of children to sexual imagery in books and teacher-led discussions. They argued for the rights of parents to shield their children and decide what they learn inside school walls. 

But throughout the event the speakers also peppered their speeches with anti-LGTBQ rhetoric and misinformation. That rhetoric impacts LGBTQ students and distracts from the challenges facing Wyoming’s education system, according to advocates. It also represents a growing backlash against inclusivity, they claim. “Now that we have been promoting inclusive and gender-affirming spaces there is this huge amount of pushback that [gender identity] is being forced on [children], that there is this indoctrination. And that is just not the case,” Lindsay Simineo, a licensed professional counselor and legislative advocate for the Wyoming Counseling Association, told WyoFile. “It’s really a reaction to these inclusive spaces that we’ve been promoting these last few years not just within the LGBTQ community, but in the medical community [and] in mental health spaces as well.”

A mixed message 

Schroeder began by drawing a connection between books with sexual imagery, sex addiction and a parent’s right to “protect the innocence of their children for as long as possible.”

Andy Wells, the Missouri chapter president of No Left Turn in Education, a national nonprofit that promotes parental rights, family values and school choice, argued that some books are inappropriate for minors. He brought a collection of examples he believes should be excluded from schools including “The Bluest Eye,” by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison which includes a rape scene, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margret Atwood, a novel in which women’s rights are severely curtailed following a Christian theocratic coup and “Speak,” a National Book Award Finalist novel by Laurie Hall Anderson about a teenage girl who is ostracized after being raped. 

A packed audience listens intently as parents, activists and legislators talk about parental rights, the removal of explicit books and the teaching of “gender ideology” in Wyoming’s schools. Though some of the speakers distanced their efforts from anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, many of them conflated issues like gender identity and LGBTQ representation with concerns about explicit books and the sexualization of children. (Aedan Hannon/WyoFile)

In his speech, Wells drew a distinction between efforts to pull books and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

“This is not about attacking people based on race, gender, gender ideology, religion, sexual orientation. It’s not about attacking the LGBTQIA+ community,” Wells said. “No, it’s about is the book age appropriate or not?”

While Wells made the distinction, many of the speakers did not, conflating issues like gender identity and LGBTQ representation with their messaging around explicit books and the sexualization of children. “We are here talking about ‘STD’ – school transmitted disease,” said Elana Fishbein, the president and CEO of No Left Turn in Education. “ … This is the school becoming the pipeline for the sex and transgender industries.” 

Others spoke against “gender ideology,” a term that has its roots in the Catholic Church and that health professionals say is inaccurate. Neiman, who compared gender dysphoria to eating disorders, shared some of the strongest rhetoric, as did Bear, who took aim at gender affirming care and claimed that there would soon be an “epidemic” of those wanting to “de-transition.”

Misinformation

A number of the statements made about gender identity and LGBTQ issues by speakers during Tuesday’s press conference constitute misinformation.

For one, Bear’s claim that many patients who receive gender affirmation surgery, or sex reassignment, will later want to “de-transition” is untrue, Tess Kilwein, a board certified and licensed clinical psychologist in Wyoming and a member of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health told WyoFile in an email.

Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) speaks during an event organized by Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder. The event was billed as a press conference on the sexualization of children in Wyoming’s schools, but Bear and other speakers peppered their speeches with anti-LGTBQ rhetoric and misinformation. (Aedan Hannon/WyoFile)

A 2021 analysis led by researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of Pittsburgh found that less than 1% of those who undergo transmasculine procedures (those who were assigned female at birth but identify with masculinity) regret their surgeries. Only 1% of those who undergo transfeminine surgeries (who were assigned male at birth but identify with femininity) regret their decisions, the study found. Both figures are much lower than the 14.4% of patients who regret elective surgeries and the roughly 7% of U.S. parents who say they would not have kids if they could “do it over.”

Those who do regret their gender affirmation surgery are often motivated by societal issues such as a lack of acceptance in their new gender identity or difficulty adjusting to a new gender role, Kilwein said.

Assertions by Nieman that gender affirming care and gender pronouns can “create a problem” for young children also do not comport with the science. 

Research has shown that gender identity becomes constant for children typically between  the ages of 5 and 7. Most trans women and men begin experiencing gender dysphoria, which is when the gender someone experiences or expresses conflicts with their assigned gender, before the age of 7.

Gender affirming care is robust and only involves support from a therapist before children enter puberty, said Diane Bruessow, a certified physician assistant who practices transgender medicine in Wyoming. As children transition through puberty and into adulthood, they may consider puberty blockers and hormones with input and guidance from their guardian, medical providers and behavioral health providers. Hormones can be started by the age of 14 and some surgeries performed at the age of 15, according to guidelines from the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.

“All of this is done with assessments in mind and with the support of their family,” Bruessow said. “If someone’s a minor, they’re not just going to show up at the school and get hormones, their parents have to consent. There’s a lot of places along the way that we will ensure this individual’s safety and well-being.”

Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) answers questions from the audience flanked by fellow legislators and activists with No Left Turn in Education, a national nonprofit that promotes parental rights, family values and school choice. Neiman compared gender dysphoria to eating disorders and claimed that gender affirming care and gender pronouns can “create a problem” for young children. Neither assertion comports with science or medicine. (Aedan Hannon/WyoFile)

Even the use of the term “gender ideology” by many of the speakers at the event can be considered a kind of misinformation. Ideology refers to a way of thinking, and it implies a sense of belief, according to the Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries. Using “gender ideology” in place of gender identity spurns the scientific understanding of gender supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, Bruessow said.

Real-world implications and misdirection

Though the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric used by some of the speakers is not rooted in science or medicine, it has real-world impacts for LGBTQ students.

More than 75% of LGBTQ students endured verbal harassment and roughly one-third faced physical harassment based on their sexual orientation, gender expression or gender, according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s 2021 National School Climate Survey, which looked at the experiences of LGBTQ students in schools. LGBTQ students who experienced discrimination had lower GPAs, were disciplined more often and were almost three times as likely to miss school than those who did not.

The rhetoric compounds the many challenges LGBTQ students already face. Almost half of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered suicide within the last year, according to The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, and substance use is 2.5 to 4 times higher for transgender youth than their peers. 

“Every person on the planet has a gender identity or sexual orientation and if you acknowledge and affirm it then we know that suicidality goes down, we know that drug and alcohol abuse goes down, we know that students stay in school longer,” said Sara Burlingame, executive director of Wyoming Equality, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder sponsored an event billed as a discussion of the sexualization of children in Wyoming’s schools. Remarks from invited speakers included anti-LGTBQ rhetoric and misinformation (Aedan Hannon/WyoFile)

None of the speakers declared that LGBTQ inclusivity in schools was driving their concern for the sexualization of children. For some of the speakers like Wells, the shielding of children from explicit material was the core of their argument. For others, it was the rights of parents to dictate what their children learn. But the inclusion of LGBTQ rhetoric by many of the speakers serves to distract, Burlingame said.  

“We have underfunded our public education to the extent that the state is now being sued for not funding education. We have a crisis in our energy sector,” which impacts education funding, Burlingame said. “You look at those factors and you look at the urgency of them and the need for leadership on them, and you ask yourself, ‘Why in the hell are we talking about what a kid wants to be called?’ It makes no sense unless you recognize that they don’t have answers for those questions and they are not interested in building a better Wyoming for all of us.”

The pushback against inclusivity 

A little more than 3% of Wyomingites identify as LGBTQ totaling some 15,000 people, according to data from the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law that conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity. Roughly 0.5% identify as transgender, though that figure grows from 0.29% of those 65 and older to 1.21% for 18- to 24-year-olds. Only approximately 200 children between the ages of 13 and 17 identify as transgender in Wyoming, a rate of 0.56%.

Over the last decade, the number of Americans identifying as LGBTQ has doubled, according to a 2022 Gallup poll. But the increase in LGBTQ identification has not been uniform. Roughly 1 in 5 of those in Generation Z identify as LGBTQ, as do more than 10% of millennials. Just 2.6% of baby boomers self-identify as LGBTQ.

As the number of young LGBTQ Americans has increased, so have inclusivity measures such as the use of pronouns and a focus on creating gender affirming spaces. And so has the backlash.

“There is a shift happening that is allowing people to exist in ways that they didn’t feel like they had permission to exist before. We look at that and see progress,” Simineo, the legislative advocate for the Wyoming Counseling Association, said. “Those that are worried about the over-sexualization of children, they see that as indoctrination.”

Tuesday’s rally represents a trend in Wyoming and across the U.S. Communities are increasingly being asked to debate what books and materials should be considered explicit and what should be accessible to children. But underlying those debates are hostilities toward gender identity, sexuality and the LGBTQ community driving the conversation, Simineo said.

“The banned books are the starter fuel for the bigger sexuality conversation,” Simineo said. “Where we start talking about sexually explicit material, then we’re starting to talk about different things that parents may or may not be uncomfortable with as far as sexuality and gender identities. And then we get into a bigger conversation of inclusive spaces and LGBTQ kiddos and if they should exist.

“Before you know it, you’re escalating from one issue to another,” she said.

Aedan Hannon

Aedan Hannon is a freelance journalist based in Fort Collins. He previously served as the environment and county government reporter for The Durango Herald in Southwest Colorado. A Colorado native, he...

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  1. If any of these zealots ever actually read the bible, they’d be shocked at what’s in it as well.

  2. I don’t trust studies by organizations with a built-in bias like the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. However, I am in total areement with the idea that these messages can be full of cruelty and shaming, and can do great harm to the very small number of students who fall under the outcast umbrella through no fault of their own.

    As for the books and conversations that reside in schools, I can also understand the position of those who would rather not have their children exposed to books and conversations that they don’t feel their children are ready for. Or, who would like the educational focus to be elsewhere. It’s not all about politically-motivated and religiously-inspired hatred toward others. In Wyoming, that seems like a pretty common theme presented by the media. And the people seen here may rightly fall into that category.

    No matter the outcry in Wyoming, it is unlikely that anyone can really stop the industrial media circus, the internet, movies, books, and/or music from exposing young adults to these topics, or far worse. That horse is out of the barn like Jerry Falwell Jr’s pool boy.

  3. In response to comments by T. Kissel and T. Vician:

    The public should not conflate the American ACADEMY of Pediatrics (AAP), with the American COLLEGE of Pediatrics (ACP). One of which is evidence-based, and the other ideology-based.

    The outdated diagnostic criteria for gender identity disorder (GID) were flawed and lacked specificity. GID didn’t differentiate gender identity from expression. More specifically, effeminacy in boys was enough to meet the diagnostic criteria for GID – even in boys who didn’t repudiate their gender. (It probably should have been called gender expression disorder.) The current criteria for gender dysphoria/incongruence have better specificity.

    The question that needs to be asked today is whether licensed healthcare professionals can differentiate the 85% of children who didn’t grow up to be transgender (for example, where GID indiscriminately included effeminate boys who were proto-gay) from the 15% who did grow up to remain transgender in adulthood, instead of waiting until 18 years-of-age for those transgender children to claim their gender and resulting in their psychological pain and suffering. The answer to that question is yes, with current criteria, we can. The margin of error which was 85% is now closer to 1%.

  4. Promulgating misinformation about gender diverse adolescents results in harm when they are denied care as a result. I would ask those who speak of a high rate of detransitioning among gender diverse people for data supporting their argument. The National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 report demonstrated that of 28,000 American gender diverse people, 8% detransitioned in some way. However, over 60% did so because of pressure from family or others, or due to cost.
    Puberty blockers simply offer the gender diverse adolescent time in which to discover their true selves while delaying puberty, which can be pure hell for them. Such drugs are and have been used for decades to treat other conditions such as endometriosis and fibroids.

    With regard to banning books: one of the marks of a free society is freedom of speech. An entity that bans books is headed toward or has already descended into fascism.

    Reference:
    James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

  5. My belief system is a little more pragmatic than the zealots shown here.
    If Supt. Schroeder used one dime of state money or one gram of state resources to stage this ideological carnival, that would appear to be a glaring example of misfeasance in office. The Governor who appointed him should step in and fire him for that reason , right there. But of course we live in a universe of Alternative Facts and distortion fields, so lacking sufficient cajones and a spines in the executive wing, appointee Schroeder gets to keep his job for another two months. Aaaarrrgh.

    The slender silver lining : the word on the street in Cody is Schroeder’s previous employer the Veritas Academy private Christian PreK-12 school doesn’t want him back .

  6. This article is in the Education section of the paper, but perhaps would have been better suited to the Opinion page.

  7. It’s completely inappropriate for the Superintendent of Public Instruction to be participating in an event like this, and same of the elected officials. This one sided presentation peppered with religious ideology, misinformation and lies steps way over the line of the separation of church and state. Apparently the only platform the GOP has left is social hot button topics that try to force their view on the world onto everyone (which they are fine with as long as no one forces their view on guns on them). I especially hate that they are targeting schools and teachers (as usual) in their long term plan to push for the use of public education funds to be used for religious charter schools and other charter schools that are free to exclude those who don’t agree with their religious views. That’s really what this is all about.

  8. You have presented what seems a balanced report of this meeting with informative notes and comments of others, unlike the diatribe of a colleague in this same edition. The American College of Pediatricians has reported that Gender Dysphoria (GD), “transgenderism”, has a prevalence rate of less than 1% in children, and when it occurs in the pre-pubescent child resolves in the vast majority by late adolescence. These children should receive support and counseling, but is it necessary to change the entire system on their behalf? The College also questions what is becoming the “new” treatment standard of GD in children involving puberal suppression followed by cross-sex hormones resulting in sterility of minors. The College feels this is founded on unscientific gender ideology, lacks an evidence base and violates the long-standing ethical principle of “First do no harm”.

  9. Not all medical professionals agree with the article’s premise that children are helped when adults encourage life-changing actions. From the UK NHS recently: “The clinical approach in regard to pre-pubertal children will reflect evidence that suggests that, while young people who are gender querying or who express gender incongruence may have started their journey as younger children, in most pre- pubertal children, gender incongruence does not persist into adolescence.”