By Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson
Has any mascot—bulldog, cougar or tiger—ever stood up for you in a terrifying moment in which you were being verbally, emotionally or physically assaulted in a school? Can one of those fictitious animals reasonably be credited for solving racism, classism, misogyny, religious hatred, or antagonism toward LGBTQIA+ people in schools?
Though everyone knows the answer is a resounding NO, students across the country are watching the adults running their school districts making the shameful decision to remove all rainbow flag-type support symbols schoolwide. New Jersey isn’t immune: In one school district, school leaders will replace these symbols of inclusivity with images of their school mascot as part of a “kindness” initiative.
In the last several years, we have witnessed a substantial uptick in attendance at school board meetings by outsiders who commandeer microphone time to espouse anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiments, to advance their personal queer-antagonistic agenda and to manufacture outrage. These tactics are called astroturfing, and they are anything but local, spontaneous or “grassroots.”
Named for the way it falsely represents community sentiments and lacks grassroots convictions, astroturfing is the practice of hiding the actual sponsors and financial backing of a message or intent and giving undeserved credibility to a cause. It is prevalent in New Jersey and is one of the reasons we see a spotlight on attempts to ban books, opt out of inclusive curricula, and hijack important school board business for things such as anti-CRT screeds.
When pressuring district leaders to pursue a regressive agenda replaces a real interest in the education and well-being of all students, it’s no wonder the dam breaks and our students are traumatized. When exactly does a queer kid, a trans kid, get to see themselves in their school? Using current statistics, if approximately 14% of the student body knows or expresses themselves as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, 1 in 6 of the students in any school that bans rainbow representation may not see themselves as having worth or being “seen” in the same ways their straight, cisgender peers are.
One might also ask: if the rainbow stickers come down, did a school district add books? Are they balancing their action with representations of a wide variety of cultural contributors on posters all around the school?
As queer Gen Xers, we vividly remember our own experiences with absolutely no LGBTQIA+ visibility in our school hallways, classrooms, policies, textbooks or in the language of the educators entrusted to educate us. The only LGBTQIA+ language we heard was the verbal violence of anti-queer insults. Our LGBTQIA+ peers were physically assaulted, and their high-school-aged assailants were exonerated with administrators’ “boys-will-be-boys” ideologies. We started our careers in schools like that too.
Let’s be clear: school mascots were never there to protect us or intervene or bring restorative justice to all parties involved. In their silence, school mascots may not have been exactly complicit in the social, emotional, and physical damage that LGBTQIA+ marginalization created, but neither were they agents of social change.
Claiming that a school’s mascot is all the support any student needed is an aggressive erasure of hard-earned and desperately-needed LGBTQIA+ affirmation.
The agency of social justice activism is alive and vibrant in schools—the critical thinking, the strategic inclusion, the impetus of young people’s passion for change—all to support the evolution of a school culture and, yes, our future society in which social-emotional principles are integrated as intended.