Oregon Community Debates Hiring of Nonbinary Elementary School Teacher

by Vins

In September 2022 a school district in Medford, Oregon, began to field complaints from concerned parents and community members due to the district’s decision to hire a nonbinary elementary school teacher, the Advocate reported. The unnamed first-grade teacher is at the center of a debate, amplified by conservatives, over whether students should be introduced to the complexity of gender identity at such a young age.

As the Advocate reported, critics of the hiring, such as Kathy Hischar, argued that Medford’s children “should not have to question why their teacher is a girl but dresses like a boy.” Another district resident, Tanner Fairrington, whose children are home-schooled, said that “exposure to the complexity of preferred pronouns and gender roles is not appropriate for this age group.”

But Gina DuQuenne, founder and president of Southern Oregon Pride, saw the discussions about the hiring of a nonbinary teacher as “a chance to educate.” As the Advocate reported, DuQuenne “applauded the school district for hiring the unnamed teacher,” but said it “still had more work to do.” Using a person’s preferred pronouns is a way of showing respect for that person, DuQuenne said, adding that people who are protesting should “educate themselves and get with the program.”

The controversy in Medford, Oregon is part of a broader, national debate over what classroom content is appropriate for children, including discussions of gender and sexuality. The unnamed first-grade teacher in Oregon is one of many educators who have been targeted both online and in real life for teaching about, or introducing, divisive topics such as sexual orientation, gender identity, or racism. From book bans to legislative actions, the year 2022 has seen “137 bills restricting classroom conversations and staff training about race, racism, gender identity, and sexual orientation in K-12 schools,” Education Week reported in August. This wave of legislation constitutes a 250 percent increase in educational “gag orders,” compared to 2021, according to a PEN America report titled “America’s Censored Classrooms.”

The Advocate’s coverage of the Medford, Oregon controversy was based on original reporting by the community’s local newspaper, the Medford Mail Tribune. But, beyond the Advocate’s coverage and articles in Teen Vogue (republished from Them) and Yahoo News (which republished the Mail Tribune’s coverage) the story has not been covered by national news media.

Source: Diane Anderson-Minshall and Donald Padgett, “Residents Protest the Hiring of Nonbinary School Teacher in Oregon,” Advocate, September 27, 2022.

Student Researchers: Mariana Avila, Bryson Bergal, Kate Horgan, and Chanhwi Jung (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)