Purple Penguins: How Conservative Media Make It Harder For Schools To Protect Transgender Youth

The conservative media's meltdown over a Nebraska school district's effort to train teachers about gender diversity demonstrates how conservative misinformation threatens even basic efforts to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students.

In late September, administrators from the Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) district in Nebraska began providing teachers with informational materials aimed at better equipping them to accommodate and protect transgender and gender non-conforming students. The materials included handouts from the group Gender Spectrum, which works to help develop “a gender sensitive and inclusive environment for all children and teens.”

One of those handouts, “12 easy steps on the way to gender inclusiveness,” listed recommendations to help teachers make their classrooms more gender-inclusive, including asking teachers to stop gender-based bullying and avoid the use of gender-specific terms like “ladies and gentlemen.” Instead, Gender Spectrum recommended teachers use terms like “readers,” “campers,” or classroom nicknames like “purple penguins.”

The school district's distribution of Gender Spectrum's materials sparked controversy when the conservative group Nebraska Watchdog published a report on the handout on October 2. The report was picked up by National Review Online and The Daily Caller before eventually making the jump to Fox News. The network ran multiple segments falsely accusing LPS of "banning" terms like “boys and girls” as part of a “political agenda.”

In an interview with Equality Matters, Gender Spectrum's Director of Education Joel Baum criticized the “disingenuous” reporting on his organization's training materials. “They're sharing information about work that's occurring in a school and not being accurate about ... the overall purpose of the work,” he said. "[B]y taking various things out of context - like “purple penguins” - they completely trivialize something that's really, really important and misrepresent our work."

Fox's misleading coverage of Gender Spectrum's handouts eventually prompted LPS Superintendent Steve Joel to call a press conference to dispel the network's misinformation. Joel criticized conservative media outlets for peddling falsehoods about the educational materials, calling it "regrettable" and “truly unfortunate” that the school was forced to waste time and resources responding to calls and questions about the handouts.

Baum stated that Fox News and other outlets failed to reach out to Gender Spectrum for information regarding the handouts, despite running multiple segments on the story. “It was just complete misinformation which, to me, leads me to believe that part of the motivation is to create controversy where there is none and to try to frame this issue in a much more...adversarial way than it really is.” 

But the misinformation campaign over LPS's handouts isn't an isolated event. Conservative media regularly attack schools that make even minor efforts to accommodate or protect transgender students. When a California elementary school introduced gender diversity lessons (led by Gender Spectrum), Fox News ran three segments in two days accusing the school of indoctrinating students. When a school district in Michigan proposed a new sex education curriculum to teach students about sexual orientation and gender identity, Fox attacked the lessons for being "topsy-turvy." Conservative media outlets also attacked a California law that would protect transgender students from discrimination, warning that it would create bathroom "free-for-alls." The list goes on and on.

The media firestorms created by conservative misinformation about efforts to protect transgender students can have a chilling effect on schools considering adopting similar measures. “It just creates a tremendous amount of work for school leaders who are overburdened and do not have time, quite honestly, to be responding to misinformation about what's happening in their schools,” Baum said. “One of the things that we find really powerful is for educators who are considering doing this work to talk to educators who have done this work. And to, you know, go through this, for some school leaders, it's going to be like, 'wow.' So that's going to be something which will discourage another person considering this work. Like, 'who needs it?'”

Transgender and gender non-conforming youth report facing extremely high rates of intolerance and bullying at school, which can negatively impact their academic performance along with their physical and mental health. Efforts by school staff to create welcoming and accommodating environments for transgender youth can dramatically improve the conditions experienced by these students. Unfortunately, conservative misinformation about trans-inclusive schools can deter school staff from helping students who need support the most.

“In some cases it's a matter of an individual teacher who wants to simply create space maybe for a particular child in her classroom. And that teacher, when this stuff happens, is going to be very nervous about doing that” said Baum. “Most of the kids that we do work with that are gender-expansive, those kids, what matters more than anything is that interaction with their teacher. And when a teacher is intimidated from doing this, then that kid really loses.”  

In the case of LPS, the school district refused to back down in the face of conservative criticism and pressure. Superintendent Joel told reporters that the school district was “not going to back away” from efforts to accommodate its diverse student population.

But Baum, who has experience as a school administrator, worries that the controversy created by conservative misinformation about trans-inclusive schools might convince other schools and teachers to forego efforts to accommodate and protect transgender and gender-expansive students:

“You have to make calls, and in making those calls, if there's added hassle, like 'I'm going to now have to deal with days of reporters and misquotes and I'm going to have to deal with reporters on my campus,' sometimes it's easier to say 'you know what, I'll pass on this.' So I think it's unfortunate that it creates that reality when there's a really great conversation to be had about why talking about gender is important. But the way it's being portrayed in much of the conservative media makes that conversation pretty impossible.”