In the late fall of 2020 an Instagram post from a former student of Governor Livingston High School in Berkeley Heights went viral. The poster who shared that he dropped out of school due to his traumatic experience as a young gay person, found himself inundated with comments and DMs as students and alumni opened up about their own experiences with the school district. Ultimately there were in excess of 300 stories shared—in just one small district. At the next Board of Education meeting (held virtually), more than 500 students, alumni, faculty and parents were in attendance, with more than 150 people speaking during the public hearing portion of the meeting. Both my daughters who had attended Governor Livingston and I were among them.
Many students shared experiences where they had felt targeted for their race, ethnicity, gender identity and sexuality. In the world of middle schools and high schools where social acceptance can play a formative role, artificial gender norms and stereotypes cause a lot of harm. The male student who is not into sports can easily be labeled as gay. So can the female student who does not wear dresses or make-up. This can lead to a lifetime of self confidence issues or worse. After all, New Jersey is the state where Tyler Clementi found himself on the receiving end of harassment simply because he was gay.
We must do a better job of teaching our young students tolerance. We must instill in them a respect for differences from a young age, break down stereotypes and normalize sexuality and gender differences. That’s what New Jersey’s LGBTQ+, diversity, sex education and now AAPI curicula seek to accomplish. Berkeley Heights leaned into the issues raised by its community and created a task force to formulate a strategic plan for diversity and inclusion. I applauded them for their initiative and volunteered to serve on the task force.
To the parents who resist the change I ask—why is it so important for you to be in control of what your child is learning in school? Are you in control of your student’s internet access? Do you know what they are watching on Youtube and Tiktok? Or more to the point, are you even aware of what control the parents of your child’s friend have on their access. Because you can be sure that your student is watching whatever their friends are watching.
Parents don’t seek to control or even question what is appropriate for their student’s math or chemistry class. Why? Because they know that they are not experts. So what is it about sexuality education that makes parents think that they know better? Question is—do they want students learning about masturbation, gender identity and sexual orientation from trained professionals, or Google?
Anjali Mehrotra is an unapologetic feminist and proponent of gender equality. She received her certification in Diversity and Inclusion from Cornell University. As President of the New Jersey Chapter of NOW, Anjali testified in support of the adopted health and physical education standards before the State Board of Education in February of 2020.