by Chris Jensen
I’ve known I was gay since I was 10 years old. That made growing up in an Oklahoma town of less than 5,000 lonely, intimidating, and even dangerous.
The community was dominated by fundamentalist Christian groups, aggressively preaching about hellfire and eternal damnation. Hateful words and damaging stereotypes about what it meant to be gay, bisexual, transgender, or “queer” (which they used as an insult) was a frequent refrain.
A majority of our teachers and school board members shared these beliefs, and they weren’t shy about it. From their mouths, I remember hearing LGBTQ+ folks described as sinners, perverts, sodomites, pedophiles, rapists, and other choice terms.
Hearing this from people I looked up to left me feeling alone, that my life had no hope, and that there was something wrong with me. Frankly, it left a depressed shell of a kid. It’s no wonder how such harsh words repeated can lead a child to suicide.
Another term these people often threw around was “indoctrination,” as if an essential part of LGBTQ+ existence was to recruit young or vulnerable people. My small town didn’t have any LGBTQ+ recruiters as far as I knew. Yet, there I was — young, gay, and over a hundred miles from the closest pride center.
The recent comments by Natalie Cline, who represents District 11 on the Utah State Board of Education, brought back memories of isolation and misunderstanding.
In a series of posts on her official Facebook page and private messages, she attacked the Utah Pride Center’s “Pride, not Prejudice: An LGBTQIA+ Conference for Utah Educators, Students, and Caregivers” as a means of brainwashing children and teachers with “LGBTQ ideology including important strategies and tactics to deal with parents who oppose!”
This couldn’t be further from the truth. The conference is a free service offered by UPC to introduce issues faced by school-aged, LGBTQ+ youth, such as bullying and suicide prevention. Also, it encourages best practices for education professionals.
The truth is, there are LGBTQ+ children all over Utah who are just like me. They don’t need to be recruited or indoctrinated. It’s an immutable part of their identity.
Policymakers like Cline represent them, too. And while everyone is entitled to their personal beliefs, they are not entitled to make life difficult for LGBTQ+ students (or students of color or immigrant students).
As a public official, Cline’s primary responsibility is to ensure our schools are safe and welcoming to all students. Her recent comments are not only an abdication of her duties, they put queer students at risk of bullying, harassment, and mental anguish.
Utah has the highest rate of youth suicide in the nation, a fact Cline should know all too well given her position.
Cline should remove herself, and apologize for her comments that contribute to toxic narratives that put young LGBTQ+ lives at risk. She should also accept UPC’s open invitation to understand what we do, and how she can positively impact the lives of all Utah students.
To any queer students and educators who read this, know that there’s a community (and advocates) that loves and respects you every single day. You are why we do what we do at UPC. You are in our hearts, and we are here for you, even when others are not.
Chris Jensen is the chair of the Utah Pride Center board of directors. A version of this column first appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune.