Identity Is Not Politics
There is no neutral way to censor aspects of a person's humanity.
On August 20, 2021, Waukesha School District sent out a memorandum to its educators confirming the District’s decision to “pause” work with its District Equity Leadership Team. Further in that same memo, Superintendent James Sebert and Deputy Superintendent Joseph Koch stated:
“Therefore, going forward, we are asking that all Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, Thin Blue Line, Anti-racist classroom, and any other posters or materials to the such, are removed from the learning environments. Our advocacy for curricular resources and supports for student learning are never ending, but our personal beliefs and convictions must stay out of the classroom. This practice is consistent with Board Policy 2240-Controversial Issues in the Classroom, and past practice related to other controversial issues relating to political stances, religious issues, and other non-curricular content. We have worked with our Board to understand our controversial topics policy to mean that staff can share professional opinions to enrich the classroom discussion, but must do so in a manner that individual political positions stay out of the classroom. In order to be successful in teaching students to think critically, we must work with our students to entertain multiple perspectives, while not being influenced by an adult to believe anyone’s perspective is right or wrong. Our role is educator/teacher, not activist/advocate in the classroom. We understand that this message is difficult for some of our educators. We know that there was never an ill intention to create environments that create barriers to some students, but we have learned through reflection and dialogue that we must create a balanced educational system so that we can all feel welcome and engage in learning.”
In October 2021, the District asked special education teacher Sarah Whaley to remove the Progress Pride flag she had displayed in her classroom. She refused. The District issued a letter of formal reprimand and repeated their demand that Ms. Whaley remove the flag. She refused again. On December 8, 2021, the District issued a one-day unpaid suspension and removed the Progress Pride flag from Ms. Whaley’s classroom during her absence. When interviewed, Ms. Whaley said Deputy Superintendent Koch informed her that “the expectation is that I follow District policy set forth in the Aug. 20 directive.”
Pride flags are not listed in either the memorandum or in any district policy.
Nondiscrimination is specifically mentioned, however. Policy 2260 states that “[t]he Board does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, creed, pregnancy, marital status, parental status, sexual orientation, sex, (including gender status, change of sex or gender identity), or physical, mental, emotional, or learning disability (Protected Classes) in any of its student program and activities.” Subsection E specifically references “selection of instructional and library media materials in a nondiscriminatory manner and that reflect the cultural diversity and pluralistic nature of American society” as a nondiscriminatory practice to be supported and promoted in all District and school activities.
On December 14th, the Alliance for Education in Waukesha, along with the Education Association of Waukesha, published a Facebook post asking teacher’s union members, families, and students “to wear rainbows in support of Sarah Whaley and in solidarity with all students, parents, and staff who continue to make an effort to create welcoming and inclusive learning environments in our schools.” Education Association of Waukesha President Carrie Kummrow said that supporting LGBTQ+ staff and students “was a human rights issue, not politics,” and that doing so did not infringe on anyone else’s rights. “We can be professional, focus on high levels of teaching and learning, support achievement, and still advocate for equity,” Kummrow said. Students, families, and staff members from Waukesha, other Wisconsin cities, and even other states participated in the December 17, 2021 Rainbow Day event, with no issues reported. Some shared pictures and messages of support for the event and for Ms. Whaley via social media using the hashtag #Rainbowsforsarah.
Waukesha School District’s policy changes did more than remove flags and posters from classrooms. They also prompted 63 teachers to resign and 20 more to retire. Several of those departing teachers addressed the school board on June 8, 2022, and said their resignations were directly prompted by what they described as the District’s withdrawal of support for LGBTQ+ and non-white students over the past two years. Superintendent Sebert, who joined the Waukesha School District in July 2020, said that while it was “upsetting” to see qualified teachers leave, the District’s policies would remain unchanged.
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Pot, Meet Kettle
Kettle Moraine School District, located less than 10 miles away, recently declared that the District’s ban on staff using their positions to promote partisan politics, religious views, and propaganda would now explicitly include Pride flags.
Superintendent Stephen Plum announced the new interpretation of existing policy during a July 26 school board meeting. He said the revised employee code of conduct would state that “teachers and administration will not have political flags or religious messaging in their classroom or on their person.” Other examples of prohibited “political” messaging included Black Lives Matter, We Back the Badge, and Make America Great Again. The new interpretation applies not only to classroom content and personal clothing, but also to emails, and it doesn’t stop there. School staff will also have a “professional expectation” to “refrain from using he/him, she/her, and they/them pronouns in their email signature.”
Why? Well, according to Superintendent Plum, “We're in a world where politics are highlighted. And it just puts people in uncomfortable positions.” School Board President Gary Vose fully supported the policy changes, saying they were needed to “allow staff to know where the line is drawn on these various things. It's not a popularity contest.”
Trey Korte, a former English teacher from Kettle Moraine High School, called the policy a “passive-aggressive, legalistic way of silencing” teachers and students who were either members of or allies to the LGBTQ+ community. In a phone interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Korte also said that while he felt it was “fair and sensible” for teachers not to promote political viewpoints in the classroom, he believed the District had failed in their duty to explain why they considered Pride flags to be “political.” He also questioned how banning teachers from using personal pronouns was not a violation of their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.
The public reactions on the Kettle Moraine School District’s Facebook page were overwhelmingly negative. Commenters called the decision “absolutely horrendous” and former Kettle Moraine High School graduates expressed concerns for both the mental health and physical safety of District students and staff. Two current Kettle Moraine School District students started a Change.org petition to reverse the policy decision. The petition has received over 2,500 signatures at the time of this writing.
Words Mean Things
The first thing to untangle here is the difference between “political” and “partisan.” Words have specific meanings, and those two are not synonyms.
Politics is the set of activities associated with making group decisions about resource distribution and leadership power. Nearly everything about public education is inherently political. That is not the same as an automatic preference toward or against a particular party, cause, or person. In government, that’s partisanship. In a school policy, it’s a bias that can lead to discrimination.
A Pride flag is not a partisan statement. Queer and transgender people represent all walks of life, all religious beliefs, and all political affiliations. Pride flags do not represent specific political action committees or activist groups. They represent people. First created in 1978 by Gilbert Baker, the rainbow Pride flag exists as a more positive and joyous alternative to the pink triangle used by Adolf Hitler during World War II as symbol of stigma, oppression, and death. The red, orange, yellow, green, indigo, and violet stripes represent life, healing, sunlight, nature, serenity, and the human spirit. The Progress Pride flag, developed in 2018 by Daniel Quasar, has pink, light blue, and white stripes to represent transgender and nonbinary individuals, and brown and black stripes to represent non-white queer and transgender people. The black stripe also commemorates those who are living with HIV and those who were lost to the AIDS crisis. Both the Rainbow and Progress Pride flags are symbols of identity, community, solidarity, and hope.
Not All Flags Are Created or Intended Equally
Black Lives Matter, founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of the man who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, is both an American political action committee and a global network of community action groups advocating for Black liberation. As an organization, Black Lives Matter is inherently partisan, and one could argue that their logo would not be appropriate for a teacher to display or wear in a classroom setting. However, the phrase “Black lives matter” has become synonymous with opposing anti-Black racism, which is a political issue that should never have become partisan.
Blue Lives Matter is a political countermovement created in direct opposition to Black Lives Matter. It originated in 2014 in response to the riots in Ferguson, Missouri over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old Black man who was fatally shot by a white police officer. Blue Lives Matter’s stated goal is “to honor and recognize the actions of law enforcement to strengthen the public support of an understandably naïve society.” The movement is credited with Louisiana’s “Blue Lives Matter Law,” which expanded the state’s hate crime statute in 2016 to include the targeting of police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel. Eight additional states passed similar laws in 2017, three of which had names such as the “Blue Lives Matter Law” or the “Back the Badge Act.”
The notion of a “thin blue line” originated with a 1911 poem by Nels Dickmann Anderson describing blue-uniformed United States Army soldiers marching into battle. The phrase later became a public relations slogan for police leadership starting in the 1920s. “The Thin Blue Line” was the title of a 1950s television program and a 1988 documentary film, in which a prosecuting attorney uses the phrase to describe “the thin blue line of police that separate the public from anarchy.” University of Michigan student Andrew Jacob created the Thin Blue Line flag in 2014 as a way of incorporating existing law enforcement flag imagery, a blue line on a black field, with the stars and stripes of the American flag. According to Jacob, “the black above [the blue line] represents citizens and the black below represents criminals.”
The Blue Lives Matter Movement soon adopted the Thin Blue Line flag. Unfortunately, so have certain white supremacist groups who display them alongside Gadsden flags, Confederate stars and bars flags, and Nazi swastika flags at protests and demonstrations such as the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Another place Thin Blue Line flags showed up was at the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots, where supporters of former President Trump attempted to stop the electoral vote certification for President-Elect Biden. Five police officers died in connection with that incident, and more than 150 other officers were injured. At least seven current or former law enforcement officers have been convicted of criminal charges for their involvement in the attack on the Capitol. Andrew Jacob’s company, Thin Blue Line USA, posted a statement on its website rejecting “any association of the flag with racism, hatred, bigotry, and violence.”
We Back the Badge is a nonprofit organization based in Kenosha, Wisconsin, formed in 2015 after the same Kenosha police officer fatally shot two suspects within a two-week period. Kenosha’s history of high-profile police shootings didn’t start with Jacob Blake. It goes back to at least 2004, when the death of Michael Bell, Jr., an unarmed white man killed by a point-blank shot to the head, led to a $1.75 million wrongful death civil settlement and a 2014 state law making Wisconsin the first in the nation to require outside agencies to investigate any case where a police officer is involved with a loss of life.
We Back the Badge’s purpose is to promote messaging that encourages public support for law enforcement, and to fundraise on their behalf through sales of signs, decals, and other merchandise. Put simply, We Back the Badge is grassroots copaganda.
If folks do not know the history and meaning of Pride flags, that is an easily solvable problem. If folks are unwilling to recognize the fundamental distinctions between a rainbow and a thin blue line, that’s an intentional bad faith conflation. If folks can’t say “Black lives matter,” without making a stink face or kneejerking to “All Lives Matter!” they’re perpetuating racism and have no business in public education. Matter is the minimum and equity is not pie. There can be plenty for everyone if we aren’t greedy about it.
Make America Think Again
Race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity are aspects of an individual person’s humanity. Queer and transgender lives exist. Black, brown, and Indigenous lives exist. There is no such thing as a Blue Life. Law enforcement is a profession, not an inherent trait.
Just as Pride flags are not partisan, banning personal pronouns is not political neutrality. There is no neutral way to censor aspects of a person's humanity.
Everyone has personal pronouns, regardless of gender identity. We use them to present and describe ourselves to others and to make them feel welcome to do the same. When cisgender people volunteer their personal pronouns, they help make it safer for everyone to do so without undue scrutiny. That’s respect, not ideology. Personal pronouns are only “political” in context with deciding whether transgender and nonbinary identities will be acknowledged or erased.
No one should ever reduce a personal identity factor to an intellectual exercise or confuse it with a political opinion. The fact that public school administrations would even consider such obviously targeted hostility toward LGBTQ+ identities is the real controversial topic here.