A Utah school is at the center of public outcry this week after a Thanksgiving activity was apparently marred by a teacher’s homophobic comments.
The substitute teacher at Deerfield Elementary School in Cedar Hills, Utah, asked fifth-graders what they were thankful for on the Friday before Thanksgiving, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. One boy said, “I’m thankful that I’m finally going to be adopted by my two dads.”
But the teacher, students say, asked the boy, “Why on earth would you be happy about that?” In a 10-minute lecture, the substitute, who has not been publicly named, also said “homosexuality is wrong” and “two men living together is a sin,” according to the paper.
One of the student’s dads, former Dancing With the Stars coach Louis van Amstel, spoke out about the incident on Twitter.
“I’m truly disgusted that the bully in this situation is a teacher in a public school,” he wrote.
Other students were also disturbed the lecture, and reported it to the principal. The teacher was ultimately escorted from the building, and the district says that the school investigated the matter and took appropriate action.
But the incident also took place against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s ongoing rollbacks of protections for LGBTQ Americans and their families. A rule proposed last month, for example, would allow foster care agencies to turn away prospective parents because they are gay. So although the school — and the American public — appears to have responded swiftly in this instance, other LGBTQ parents and their children around the country could face increased discrimination in the years to come.
For LGBTQ parents, proposals like the one involving foster care amount to “your government sanctioning discrimination against your family,” Denise Brogan-Kator, chief policy officer of Family Equality, a group that advocates for the rights of LGBTQ families, told Vox. And that, she said, it “sends a message to everyone else who might be inclined to think along those lines that, hey, it’s okay for me to express my bigotry openly.”
A substitute teacher unleashed a homophobic lecture on a boy with two dads, students say
Louis van Amstel and his husband, Joshua, say their fifth-grade son, who they asked only be referred to only as D.M., has had two failed adoptions in the past. The final court hearing for the van Amstels’ adoption is on December 19.
But when D.M. expressed his excitement about his family, he was met with a screed, according to van Amstel. The teacher, a substitute who works for the staffing company Kelly Services, told the boy his upcoming adoption by his two dads was “nothing to be thankful for,” students said.
Three girls in the class repeatedly asked her to stop, according to the Tribune, and when she wouldn’t, they alerted the principal. As she was being escorted out of the school, she was still insisting she was right, the van Amstels say they were told.
David Stephenson, a spokesperson for Alpine School District, confirmed to Vox that “there was a situation involving a substitute,” and said that “the school took appropriate action that day based upon their investigation.” Meanwhile, Kelly Services said in a statement to the Tribune that “we are concerned about any reports of inappropriate behavior and take these matters very seriously” and that “we’re looking into this situation.”
Alpine School District has a strict nondiscrimination policy, Stephenson told the Tribune. The district is located in Utah County, whose population was nearly 85 percent Mormon as of 2017. But a diversity of beliefs has been a topic of conversation at Deerfield Elementary School recently, Principal Caroline Knadler told the paper.
Students at the school have recently been learning that while people believe different things, it’s not okay to bully anyone based on those beliefs, Knadler said. She praised the girls who spoke up about the teacher: “I think they showed some pretty amazing citizenship.”
The Trump administration’s policies could leave LGBTQ people and their families more vulnerable to discrimination
The incident at Deerfield took place in a wider context in which policies affecting LGBTQ people and their families are rapidly changing.
Culture and politics in Utah are heavily influenced by the Mormon church, of which nearly 62 percent of residents are members. After enacting strict anti-LGBTQ policies in the past, including a 2015 policy classifying people in same-sex marriages as “apostates,” the church has been changing its stance more recently, according to NPR. It reversed the 2015 policy this year, and also threw its support behind a statewide ban on anti-gay “conversion” therapy.
The van Amstels, who identify as spiritual, told the Washington Post that they have always felt welcome in their predominantly Mormon community. “Not once have I been treated like how this woman treated us,” van Amstel said of the substitute teacher.
Meanwhile, the state of Utah has also moved to get rid of anti-LGBTQ policies in recent years. In 2017, the state repealed a law prohibiting the “advocacy of homosexuality” in schools, which, according to LGBTQ rights advocates, prevented many teachers from even mentioning LGBTQ people.
But while Utah and the Mormon church have been loosening anti-LGBTQ stances, the Trump administration has been moving in the opposite direction. Since the president took office, his administration has banned trans people from serving in the military, and rescinded an Obama-era guidance telling schools to let students use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity. In a brief filed in the landmark LGBTQ rights case R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. EEOC — one of three cases being considered together by the Supreme Court — the administration is asking the Court to find that employers can discriminate based on sex stereotypes as long as they do so for both men and women, which would open the door to anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere.
And in November, Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services proposed a rule that would allow foster care or adoption agencies to turn away prospective parents if they are gay or trans. The rule would affect LGBTQ prospective parents, who are disproportionately likely to form families through adoption. It could also make it harder for the 400,000 children in the US foster care system to find homes.
Proposals like these can also embolden people to express anti-LGBTQ views, Brogan-Kator, the Family Equality policy officer, told Vox: “The president is doing it. The government is doing it. It gives permission to bring your bigotry out and make it visible for all to see.”
For the van Amstels, the incident with the teacher has led to an outpouring of support both on social media and in their community, according to the Tribune. Neighbors even decorated their home with paper hearts that say “We love you” and “We support you.”
But with changes at the federal level, LGBTQ Americans could become more vulnerable to the kind of treatment that their son experienced, and could have less legal recourse if they try to challenge it.