The Republican nominee seeking to become New Jersey’s next governor has come under fire from LGBTQ advocates after video footage emerged of a speech he gave during a campaign stop last month, in which he promised to “roll back” requirements that public schools provide LGBTQ-inclusive content in their curriculum.
Ciattarelli, a former state Assemblyman, made the comments during a June 26 appearance at the Tactical Training Center firearms store and gun range in Flemington, New Jersey, located in the more rural western portion of the state.
In remarks caught on video and later published by the blog Gothamist, the chief challenger to incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy (D) told the crowd of supporters he feels “lucky” that his children are in their 20s and he doesn’t “have to be dealing with what you’re dealing with right now.”
“You won’t have to deal with it when I’m governor, but we’re not teaching gender ID and sexual orientation to kindergarteners,” he said.
“We’re not teaching sodomy in sixth grade. And we’re going to roll back the LGBTQ curriculum. It goes too far.”
Ciattarelli is referring to a pair of bills signed into law by Murphy in recent years. The first, passed in 2019, requires boards of education to include instruction that accurately portrays the “political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” The premise behind requiring that instruction in schools was that if students were taught about the contributions of LGBTQ people such as Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, or Alan Turing, they might be less likely to bully their LGBTQ or gender-nonconforming peers.
The second bill, passed earlier this year, requires all schools in the state, beginning in the fall of 2021, to include instruction on diversity and inclusion, including gender identity and sexual orientation, although it has been left up to individual school boards to determine how and when that instruction is provided.
Right-wing and Christian groups, like the Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey, opposed passage of both the 2019 and 2021 laws. In order to rally parents around their cause, activists have sought to conflate the two LGBTQ-inclusion laws with a separate set of educational standards for health and physical education, issued by the State Department of Education last year, which says that students are expected to be able to “define vaginal, oral, and anal sex” by the eighth grade. Those standards also include instruction on sexual consent, contraception and abstinence, and ways to avoid the risk of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
That guidance may have been what Ciattarelli was referring to in his comments, although he referred to sixth graders, as opposed to eighth graders, and his campaign has declined to say specifically which provisions he objects to in the 2019 and 2021 laws.
Christian Fuscarino, the executive director of Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s leading LGBTQ rights organization, called Ciattarelli’s comments “offensive,” “uninformed” and “out-of-touch with New Jersey family values — love, acceptance, and compassion.”
“Our state classrooms educate students about the pivotal contributions of LGBTQ people in history despite the persecution and barriers they faced,” Fuscarino told NJ Advance Media. “It’s revolting to hear a gubernatorial nominee of a major political party regurgitate the same, tired talking points we have heard for decades from anti-LGBTQ leaders and discredited shock-jock personalities.
“Teaching LGBTQ inclusive lessons reduces the rates of bullying in schools and can save lives,” Fuscarino added. “At a time when suicide and bullying rates among LGBTQ youth are still at alarming levels, we deserve elected leaders who will prioritize inclusion, not pander to far-right ideologues.”
Steven Goldstein, the founder of Garden State Equality, objected to Ciattarelli’s use of the word “sodomy,” which technically refers to certain sexual acts between consenting adults of all orientations (such as oral and/or anal sex), but has historically been used to refer to consensual same-sex activity that was outlawed in a majority of U.S. states until a Supreme Court decision in 2003.
Right-wing activists often employ the term in a politically-charged context, in an effort to conflate a person’s sexual orientation with their sexual behavior. Thus, LGBTQ advocates argue, the use of the word “sodomy” is frequently used as a dog-whistle by Republicans to imply that a middle or high school student who is taught in a biology or health class that human beings have different and varied sexual orientations, for example, is equivalent to being taught graphic details about the intricacies of same-sex behavior.
Goldstein referred to Ciattarelli as “Frankenstein’s clone of Marjorie Taylor Greene for New Jersey” — a reference to the Georgia congresswoman who has become best known for her anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and belief in far-right conspiracy theories.
“He is a fringe crackpot who operates in a galaxy far, far away from human decency,” Goldstein said in a statement posted to Twitter, calling Ciattarelli the “most dangerous gubernatorial nominee of either party in my lifetime.”
But Ciattarelli, who is considered a moderate in Republican circles, has objected to the criticisms lodged against him, saying his use of the word “sodomy” has “absolutely nothing to do with someone’s sexual orientation and the inference that it does is purposefully misleading.”
“Read my statement,” he told WNYC. “It has to do with mature content being taught to young children. That is a parent’s job, not the school district’s.”
Ciattarelli claimed hears from parents who are angry about such content being taught in schools and feel they are being shamed when they object to the content of such lessons.
“All schools should be promoting diversity, inclusivity, tolerance, and respect for others, but that doesn’t mean pushing explicit subjects in elementary school classrooms,” he said.
He added that “everyone is, and should be, free to love whom they love, and resources should be made available to students who want to understand themselves as they grow into adults.”
“We should not, however, encourage the abdication of parenting or expect teachers to replace parents,” he said. “Let me be clear, as governor, nothing we do or teach in our public schools will ever supplant the role and responsibility of parents.”
Ciattarelli amassed a mixed record on LGBTQ rights over his political career, as a member of the Raritan Borough Council from 1990 to 1995, a member of the Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders from 2007 to 2011, and an Assemblyman from 2011 to 2018. In the Assembly, Ciattarelli voted against legalizing same-sex marriage but voted to ban conversion therapy on LGBTQ minors. He voted against a 2012 bill seeking to allow transgender individuals to change the gender marker on their birth certificates without having to undergo surgery, but voted for a nearly identical bill in 2014.
Both bills were vetoed by then-Gov. Chris Christie (R), but a third bill was eventually signed into law by Murphy in July 2018, six months after Ciattarelli had left office.
But critics of the Republican nominee are skeptical of Ciattarelli’s claims that he’s not attacking LGBTQ people, pointing to other remarks he made during his appearance at the gun range. After calling the GOP the “party of inclusivity, the big-tent party,” Ciattarelli then complained about seeing an advertisement for a “new LGBTQ bank card” on a recent trip to the bank.
“I’m sitting there saying, ‘The more we cater to each special interest, the more you remind us about how different we all are from each other.’ Right?” he said.
Fuscarino says that subsequent comment illustrates why LGBTQ inclusive lessons and resources are important.
“Inclusive curriculum isn’t about catering to special interest groups or people’s private lives, as Ciattarelli suggests — it’s about their public lives and the historical contributions they’ve made in the face of persecution and barriers,” he said.
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