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New right-wing group is gearing up against Michigan schools over LGBTQ+-inclusive sex ed

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New right-wing group is gearing up against Michigan schools over LGBTQ+-inclusive sex ed

Jan 24, 2023 | 4:32 am ET
By Allison R. Donahue
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New right-wing group is gearing up against Michigan schools over LGBTQ+-inclusive sex ed
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Editor’s note: This story previously misidentified a Grand Rapids attorney named Matthew Nelson as being a GSI co-founder. That Grand Rapids attorney has no connection with GSI. The Michigan Advance apologizes for this error.

A recently formed group in Michigan, Great Schools Initiative (GSI), is arming parents with a new sexual education opt-out form that focuses heavily on cutting out any conversation about gender identity and sexual orientation in schools. 

Starting this week, GSI is encouraging parents to submit an opt-out form the group drafted to be added to their students’ files as part of their statewide “Operation Opt-Out” efforts. 

This is the latest fight in the right-wing parental rights battle against schools that sprouted during the COVID-19 pandemic, with activists rallying against health measures like masking in schools. 

Various groups have formed in Michigan in recent years that target schools for teaching about LGBTQ+ issues, critical race theory, social-emotional learning and diversity, equity and inclusion. Many activists have GOP ties and got involved in 2022 school board races across the state with mixed success. Top Republican candidates, including failed gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon, also made banning books and adopting a Florida-style “don’t say gay” law top priorities, but that failed to gain traction. Democrats swept all top offices and flipped the House and Senate.

Efforts to ban books that these groups deem as “pornographic” from public schools have continued into the new year, including Milan Area Schools earlier this month. 

Sex ed debates start gaining traction as state wrestles with reproductive health access

The opt-out form, which includes misspellings, requires the student be excluded from “any and all instruction on gender ideology, the physiological (including endocrinological), psychological and functions of reproductive health as it relates to human sexuality. This opt out includes, but is not limited to: gender identity, gender expression, gender assignment, sexual identities, sexual expression, sexual attraction, sexual orientarion [sic], gender fluidity, transitioning, and expicit [sic] sexual activity or behavior.”

Michigan law already allows parents to opt their kids out of sexual education.

Brittnee Senecal, a Jackson County parent and member of Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools (MIPASS), a statewide parent organization that supports public schools and safe in-person learning, said GSI is “trying to sabotage our children’s futures by pushing an agenda that belongs in the 19th century.”

“What every parent and member of the school community should know is that ‘don’t say gay’ policies and other so-called ‘parental rights’ efforts will harm people and put children’s health and safety at risk,” Senecal said. “The efforts of these hate groups will also worsen a range of real-world challenges that affect young people and their families, including teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other healthcare-related realities.”

GSI was founded in September by three Michiganders — Monica Yatooma, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for Oakland County commissioner, and Nathan Pawl, a Walled Lake-based entrepreneur. 

But the address provided to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulation (LARA) for each of the incorporators is attached to a Chicago-based law firm, the Thomas More Society, which has frequently intervened on right-wing issues in Michigan and across the country.

In February, The Thomas More Society threatened to file a taxpayer lawsuit against Walled Lake Schools and Oakland County if the mask mandate for schools was not rescinded. Within the week, Oakland County dropped the mask mandate. 

The firm also came out against Proposal 2 of 2022, which expanded voting rights in Michigan and Proposal 3 of 2022, which enshrined abortion rights in Michigan’s Constitution. 

During a Thursday GSI meeting, which was later posted publicly on Youtube, Pawl said that if hundreds of parents drop off opt-out forms to their schools, “this is going to change everything because it’ll be too much for them to handle.”

MI Parental OPT-OUT NOTICE 1.9

“And with the ability for us to bring lawsuits, we’ve got a whole system set up simultaneously across many different places. We think we can make a very strong move with this,” Pawl added. 

With a list of prohibitions nearly three pages long, the opt-out form demands schools ban information related to reproductive health, family planning, contraceptives and LGBTQ+ and social justice issues.

Under state law, all schools in Michigan already offer opt-out forms for parents to fill out that would exclude students from some or all of the district’s sexual education curriculum. 

However, the GSI opt-out form goes a step farther to exclude students from what they call “rogue sex-ed,” which includes school-affiliated student clubs that support LGBTQ+ students, displaying pride flags in schools or educators and staff asking for students’ pronouns, among many other things. 

LGBTQ+-inclusive groups and efforts provide support and social activities for students. However, right-wing activists have argued, without evidence, that anything that supports LGBTQ+ students should be considered to be of a sexual nature and also have smeared educators as “groomers.”

Erin Knott, the executive director of Equality Michigan, said she is concerned how these efforts will impact LGBTQ+ youth mental health and safety. 

“Inclusive curriculum, coupled with comprehensive nondiscrimination policies and anti-bullying policies at the school level, as well as supportive educators and access to gay sexuality alliances or gay straight alliances is what makes LGBTQ+ youth successful, and feel like they belong at their elementary, middle or high school,” Knott said. “LGBTQ+ youth who see their full selves or their full identities reflected in the classroom and the hallways have a stronger educational attainment and better mental health.”

Pawl said the Thomas More Law Society is ready to provide “a significant amount of resources” in legal support, including taking legal action against school districts that reject GSI-initiated opt-out requests or fail to comply with the conditions to opt children out of either regular sexual education, “rogue sex ed” or both.

New right-wing group is gearing up against Michigan schools over LGBTQ+-inclusive sex ed
Moms For Liberty event in Troy on Oct. 14, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue

To get enough parents to inundate schools, Pawl called for an organized effort among different “parental-rights” groups, like Moms for Liberty, Let Them Be, formally known as Let Them Play, and other similar groups that have popped up across the state in the last few years. 

“If we can create this statewide movement of simultaneous action, we believe we can unify all of these different groups,” Pawl said. “We can bring momentum throughout the month of February across all these groups, and really encourage parents that they’re not alone.”

There are already ties between GSI and other groups. Katie MacFarland, chair of Oakland County Moms for Liberty — a right-wing parental rights group with GOP ties founded in Florida that got involved in local school board races last year — spoke during the GSI meeting Thursday. She explained that she joined GSI because of the Thomas More efforts in Walled Lake. 

Jayme McElvany, the founder of Let Them Be who most recently made headlines for reading pornography from Penthouse at a Milan School Board meeting this month, also promoted the GSI meeting on Facebook and encouraged others to attend. 

McElvany also led efforts with then-Let Them Play to sue the state to end COVID-19 restrictions on high school sports. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, but the state did rescind the restrictions shortly after. 

She also was featured at a rally for failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Garrett Soldano, who’s running for Michigan Republican Party co-chair and has remained active in the parental rights movement.