The Anti-Trans Crusade Comes to New Jersey

The Anti-Trans Crusade Comes to New Jersey

The Anti-Trans Crusade Comes to New Jersey

I returned to my New Jersey middle school to watch the school board support a dangerous anti-trans policy.

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Marlboro, N.J.Sitting in the middle school where I came out as queer 11 years ago, I saw my neighbors step up to the microphone one after another and call transgender people like me “confused,” “deviant,” and “groomers.” It wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed queer bashing in that cafeteria, but this time I watched my elected officials nod in agreement.

On June 20, about 100 people sat in folding chairs at the Marlboro Township Public Schools board meeting to vote on revisions to Policy 5756, which governs how schools in various New Jersey districts accommodate trans and other gender-nonconforming students. The K–8 central New Jersey school district was deciding whether to require teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators to out queer students to their parents. The changes would also let parents override trans students’ requests to use their preferred pronouns at school or use the bathroom that aligns with their gender. All of these changes would violate state law.

New Jersey law gives trans students some of the most robust protections in the country, including the guarantee that trans students, regardless of age, have the right to access to the bathroom of their choice and be referred to by their chosen name and pronouns. School officials are also barred from outing students to a parent or guardian.

On that same night, two other Monmouth County districts, Manalapan and Middletown, were also voting to endorse forced-outing policies. In the lead-up to the votes, dozens of parents, residents, and board members argued that schools should not have the right to withhold from parents information concerning their own child, while trans people and their allies—teachers, mental health professionals, legal scholars, members of clergy, and more—said the policy changes would constitute an attack on trans students and their right to a safe learning environment. At the Middletown hearing, protesters locked outside because the meeting room was over capacity chanted through the walls, “Let us in!” and “Protect trans kids!” In Manalapan, queer students and alumni recounted being bullied and beaten.

“I don’t have to describe the horrors of what might happen if a policy like this passes,” Finn, a 17-year-old recent graduate from Manalapan High School, said in a speech to that town’s board. “You see it every night on the news.”

Meanwhile, Manalapan school board member Jesse Tossetti, a supporter of the anti-trans policy, compared himself to Jesus being crucified.

In Marlboro, I spoke about my own experiences with anti-LGBT violence at school. And I cited the overwhelming body of evidence that shows domestic abuse is most likely to occur in a situation where the victim is socially isolated. “This policy will not lead to greater involvement of parents in students’ lives. It will only lead to kids having no trusted adult they can speak to at all,” I told the Marlboro school board. “The expression goes, ‘It takes a village.’ Tonight, you’ve carpet-bombed that village.”

In Marlboro, the changes to Policy 5756 passed, seven votes to none. One board member recused herself because she is a guidance counselor, and another didn’t show up. By the time I got home, I had received a barrage of texts: Manalapan and Middletown had passed a forced-outing policy, too.

The next day, the New Jersey attorney general, Matthew Platkin, filed charges against all three districts, delaying the rule changes from going into effect.

On June 28, exactly 54 years after the uprising at Stonewall, the nearby Colts Neck Township Schools was scheduled to take a similar vote on forced-outing requirements. This time, the board opted to delay making a decision until the other towns’ litigation was resolved. Manalapan board members told Patch that they are attempting to meet with government officials to figure out a state-approved alternative to their forced-outing proposal. Middletown said it would fight to keep the changes to Policy 5756, and the Marlboro board released a district-wide e-mail that said it plans to “vigorously defend” its alterations.

Forced-outing policies are not new. The anti-trans movement has long pushed the practice at the local, state, and federal level. In May, northern New Jersey’s Hanover Township passed a forced-outing policy, but the board repealed it after Platkin issued an injunction. Statewide forced-outing policies have also been implemented in Alabama, Florida, Virginia, and elsewhere.

Defenders of the policy changes in New Jersey point to an exception in the rules that allows school employees not to disclose a kid’s gender identity if outing them will put the child in danger. But these special cases usually require “documented” or “credible” evidence for a staffer to be permitted to stay quiet. And these policies establish no meaningful threshold by which to measure that danger. Elizabeth Ehret, a graduate from Middletown schools and trans attorney who has worked both civil rights law and child abuse cases, told the Middletown board that this exception would still leave students vulnerable to violent parents. “Children may face dozens or hundreds of instances of abuse before a report is filed,” they said.

Fewer than one in three trans youth report having supportive families. Christian Fuscarino, the executive director of Garden State Equality, told me that having unaccepting parents increases queer youths’ already elevated risk of experiencing bullying, houselessness, and mental-health challenges. “So to pass a policy that puts them more at risk—that’s an act of violence.”

Speakers and board members at the meetings made statements that echoed national right-wing talking points. One person insinuated that school nurses are helping students medically transition behind their parents’ backs, which is not true. Residents spoke about “China” and “communism” and demanded to put Jesus back into the classroom. Greg Quinlan, who calls himself an “ex-gay” pastor, announced to the Middletown board that “nobody is born gay.” Another supporter, who identified himself only as an Iraq War veteran and Manalapan father, lamented, “Pretty soon, I’m going to be the minority—white, straight, and Catholic.”

At Manalapan and Marlboro, people who said they were members of Gays Against Groomers read nearly identical statements on the “sexualization” of children by trans people. The Southern Poverty Law Center has dubbed GAG an “extremist group” whose leadership equates transness with pedophilia.

GAG’s anti-trans advocacy has influenced school board members across New Jersey. Leonardo Manchetta, a member of the nearby Old Bridge Board of Education, shared a GAG TikTok on Facebook that implies that the teachers’ union is directing elementary school students to resources about BDSM. Anthony Jankowski, the husband of Marlboro board member Kerry Ann Jankowski, posted the TikTok from Manchetta to a Facebook group as part of the Parenting Over Politics campaign and shared another post accusing the teachers’ union of being “groomers.”

Kristen Sinclair, a member of the Medford Board of Education, is a regular contributor to Chaos and Control—a hate-filled, conspiracy theory-laden Substack published by the New Jersey Project, a far-right activist group that she co-runs. The newsletter doxes teachers, students, and parents to their 8,000 subscribers and spreads disinformation about the “social contagion” of transness. Chaos and Control has been repeatedly cited on Tucker Carlson and other Fox News shows.

In the 2022 election, the New Jersey Project claims to have backed 151 winning candidates in 85 school districts across the state—including in Marlboro, Manalapan, Middletown, and Colts Neck, where they endorsed a joint ticket running under the label “Colts Kids First,” which doubles as the name of their far-right advocacy group.

On its Facebook page, CKF members routinely promote anti-trans organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as hate and/or extremist groups. On Facebook, they’ve reposted Parents Defending Education, which, according to Media Matters, was “founded to promote the ongoing scare campaign against the supposed teaching of ‘critical race theory’ in schools”; the Pacific Justice Institute, which compared same-sex marriage to Nazi fascism and promoted anti-gay conversion therapy; Moms for Liberty, whose members have approvingly quoted Hitler (and then defended it) and made threatening remarks about gunning down librarians; and the Alliance Defending Freedom, which seeks to recriminalize “homosexuality” and forcibly sterilize trans people. (The CKF Facebook page notes that posts “do not reflect the views of active board members.”)

After the Colts Neck meeting, I spoke to one of the Colts Kids First organizers, Angelique Volpe, who also works with the New Jersey Project. She had also attended the Marlboro board meeting. She said that she was not aware that any of the posts came from organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center had called hate or extremist groups. She explained that her advocacy was about “parental choice,” and that she was not involved with any extremists. But I did discover that she inquired in a conservative Facebook group if anyone had connections to Gays Against Groomers, so she could bring the organization to a school-board meeting.

Parents told me that they have watched far-right officials lay the groundwork for an anti-LGBT insurgence. In 2022, for example, the Marlboro school board sidestepped state requirements for queer-inclusive sex education by removing gender identity from the school-day curriculum. Nicole Handler, a Marlboro parent, said that her child could only learn about it in an after-hours elective over Zoom that amounted to a 20-minute, prerecorded slideshow.

“The message you’re sending to transgender kids or kids with a gender-identity question is that this subject is too taboo to talk about in school,” she told me, adding that young people are more perceptive than adults give them credit for. Even young kids will understand the message that the board is sending: “Just put it back in the closet.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a TikTok shared on Facebook was meant to promote Kerry Ann Jankowski. It was shared to promote the Parenting Over Politics campaign.

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