Whoever takes the role of state superintendent of public instruction over the next four years will engage with a precedent-setting cultural conversation about the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth.
But between the two candidates running for the position, LGBTQ advocates say one has failed the leadership test.
Earlier this year, Erin Jones, a former assistant state superintendent and award-winning educator, responded to a conservative blog’s question about “teaching transgenderism” in elementary schools by saying “I do not think it is appropriate” and that such instruction could cause students to “feel additional pressure to ‘choose an orientation.’” Jones’s comments accepted the flawed premise of the right-wing blog’s talking points and language (“transgenderism” is a term used mainly by anti-trans activists, and likewise for the idea that a person is able to choose their sexual orientation). Her comments also run contrary to state curriculum guidelines and fly in the face of scientific research about how kids learn and process ideas about gender and sexuality.
Further, in an August 25 interview with The Stranger, Jones declined to answer directly when asked whether she thinks being gay is a sin. And in a late August endorsement interview with Equal Rights Washington (ERW), the largest group advocating for LGBTQ rights in this state, Jones reportedly talked about LGBTQ identity as a “lifestyle.”
As a result, ERW has announced that it cannot support Jones and will be endorsing her unambiguously pro-LGBTQ opponent, Chris Reykdal, a former educator and Tumwater school board member.
“We recognize that [Jones is] learning, but this person has to be on the job in just a few months,” said Monisha Harrell, chair of the ERW board. “The future of our kids is too important.”
At first glance, the two candidates duking it out for the statewide position of superintendent of public instruction can both appear to be strong advocates for progressive ideals. On the campaign trail, both Jones and Reykdal say they will fight to fully fund public education and close the achievement gap between students of color and their white counterparts. Both candidates say they want to address the burden of standardized testing on public school students, as well as make sure teachers are being evaluated holistically and fairly. (Jones is more supportive of charter schools than Reykdal, but the left is perpetually split on the charter schools issue.)
If elected, Jones would also be the first African American woman to hold statewide office. The Stranger Election Control Board (full disclosure: I’m a voting member) endorsed her in the August 2 primary—in part because members were excited about the groundbreaking potential of a Jones victory, and also because members were impressed by Jones’s powerful comments about being the mother of black children and her commitment to fighting for equity.
In the nine-person primary race for the open superintendent of public instruction seat, Jones finished first, with 26 percent of the vote. Reykdal finished a close second with 21 percent of the vote.
But when it comes to the candidates’ views on gender and sexuality, it has since become very clear that it’s Reykdal who is far ahead of Jones.
It was early June when the Southwest Washington Education blog, a conservative online outlet, posed a question to candidates about “whether kindergartners should be taught transgenderism.”
The language should have set off alarms. It’s drawn from a right-wing, transphobic fiction—a fiction about Washington’s public education system that, in this case, was invented by the Daily Caller, a national conservative blog based in D.C.
The fiction traces in part to March, when a work group of Washington State health educators updated the state’s curriculum guidelines to include education on concepts like gender and sexuality in elementary school. Research shows that most kids are aware of gender expression by the age of 3, and in keeping with national sex and education standards, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) added a section on “self-identity” to the recommended state standards for elementary school education.
“For kindergarteners, self-identity is an awareness of gender expression and identity,” Nathan Olson, spokesperson for OSPI, said. “It could be as simple as asking, ‘Is it okay for boys to wear pink? Is it okay for girls to play sports?’ I wouldn’t say it’s even tackling gender norms, but opening up [students’] understanding of what they think of as gender—and that’s it.”
In response to the new guidelines, the Daily Caller published a story headlined, “Washington State to Teach Transgenderism to Kindergartners,” framing the new, optional standards as a way for the state “to force a set of beliefs upon its students.”
To the education blog’s question about “teaching transgenderism,” Erin Jones then submitted a four-paragraph response articulating her support for the LGBTQ community while also expressing concern about the new standards.
“I do not think it is developmentally appropriate to talk about gender or sexual orientation with 5 year olds,” Jones wrote. “I do not think it is appropriate to talk with 4th graders about sexual orientation. I do not want 4th graders to feel additional pressure to ‘choose an orientation.’”
Jones continued: “I am concerned about the prioritization of this curriculum over all else.”
Nora Gelperin, director of sexuality education and training at national sex education nonprofit Advocates for Youth, told The Stranger that naming concepts like gender and sexuality for elementary school kids are “absolutely developmentally appropriate.”
“I think the distinction needs to be drawn between defining terms and explaining concepts, and encouraging someone to become something,” Gelperin told The Stranger. “That’s a misunderstanding of what we do in sex ed. You can’t change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity by teaching them something in the classroom.”
And in stark contrast to Jones’s lengthy, right-wing-premise-accepting response to the question about “teaching transgenderism,” Reykdal’s answer to the conservative blog was terse and corrective. “The standards do not promote cross-dressing and other fabrications of the extreme right,” Reykdal wrote. “They teach gender identity and self awareness. These are good things not to be vilified.”
Jones has told The Stranger that she now considers her comments to the Southwest Washington Education blog to be a mistake. She said she’s since spoken to many LGBTQ advocates who educated her on some of the issues—like homophobic and transphobic bullying—faced by LGBTQ youth in schools.
At the same time, Jones told The Stranger that she didn’t “know exactly” whether kids “choose an orientation.”
“I think they’re born that way,” Jones said. “I’m not a scientist. I don’t know exactly. I think for most children it’s not a choice.”
Jones added that she informally adopted two LGBTQ children she met through her church, one of whom was disowned by his parents for being gay. But when The Stranger followed up by e-mail to ask (again) whether Jones believes kids can choose their sexual orientation, she hedged her answer in personal anecdote. “I am not a scientist, but I think if kids could ‘choose’ their sexuality, the kids I know would not have ‘chosen’ to be gay.”
When The Stranger asked Reykdal if he thinks kids’ sexual orientation is a choice, he replied simply that it’s not.
Jones’s explanations of her views on gender and sexual orientation aren’t the only things that have drawn scrutiny from the LGBTQ community. Her leadership position with the Christian youth group Young Life from 2006 to 2008 is also a point of concern.
In early June, Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large wrote about a mother who had decided to leave Young Life because the organization’s local area leader told her she had to take down a Facebook post publicly celebrating Pride. “She was just supporting gay rights,” Large wrote, “and that apparently is not OK with Young Life.”
But Young Life remains a big presence in many public school districts. Jones stressed to The Stranger that different Young Life chapters had different perspectives on LGBTQ youth, and that she didn’t agree with them all. But she declined to clearly answer the specific, direct question The Stranger had posed, which was whether—like some Young Life members—Jones believes being gay is a sin.
“I am not Young Life in the way that other people are Young Life, just as I am not black in the way that other people are black,” Jones told The Stranger.
In light of the continuing right-wing campaign against LGBTQ youth, Harrell of ERW said that this year’s race for state superintendent of public instruction is, in some ways, “a more important position than any single senate or house seat on the table.”
Harrell continued: “We need the allies who aren't just allies when they know they’re going to get caught, but who are allies when we are not even in the room.”