With a proposed “parental bill of rights,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski stepped Tuesday into the culture wars over transgender rights and how students are taught about race, sex and gender identification.
Stefanowski and his running mate, Rep. Laura Devlin, embraced a broad statement of principles, shying from specifics that can come with controversy, such as Florida’s ban on certain topics in the public schools.
How the bill of rights would translate into policy was left unclear after an appearance by Stefanowski on WNPR’s “Where We Live,” followed by a Stefanowski-Devlin press conference outside the state Capitol.
For example, the Republicans called for banning transgender athletes from girls sports, but Stefanowski said he was opposed to repealing or revising the Connecticut civil rights law that gives transgender children the right to compete based on their gender identification.
“We need to support the rights of any student to live as they wish and promote acceptance, diversity and tolerance in our schools and states. We absolutely need to have that,” Stefanowski said. “But at the same time allowing transgender biological males to compete against girls in high school, it’s not fair.”
In their press conference, Stefanowski and Devlin said they would work to find a solution with the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the governing body for high school sports.
“And hopefully they can look at that law. And hopefully we can come up with a compromise that works within that framework,” Stefanowski said. “Transgender athletes should have the ability to compete. This is not about telling them they can’t. We need to try to find a solution.”
But what that solution might be was left to others. CIAC offered no comment.
Gwen Samuel, the founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, suggested separate competitions for transgender athletes, like Special Olympics. She was invited to speak by the campaign, as was Cheryl Radachowsky, a parent who sued CIAC over its transgender sports policy.
Gov. Ned Lamont said transgender youth should not become campaign fodder.
“When it comes to transgender young people, keep the politicians out of it. I think our leagues and our coaches, they are going to make the right choices,” Lamont said. “Two months before an election, we don’t need to make a lot of political hay at the expense of these young people.”
Two gay Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Jeff Currey of East Hartford and Raghib Allie-Brennan of Bethel, said LGBTQ+ students face the highest rates of bullying and that transgender kids were the group most at risk of depression and suicide.
“This ban would not safeguard kids or empower parents — it would only ban children from the educational opportunities that they have a right to,” Currey and Allie-Brennan said. “It’s egregious and dangerous.”
The Republican ticket expressed solidarity with parents who object to how and when their children are taught about issues of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity but offered no concrete policy changes and took pains to acknowledge the importance of educating children on those topics.
“We’re not doing anything radical like Florida and preventing things from being talked about,” Stefanowski told WNPR. “This is more about kitchen table issues being spoken about at the kitchen table.”
For months, Stefanowski said, he has reliably drawn applause with mentions of “parental rights” and “parental involvement,” as have other Republican candidates across the U.S. He cast himself as occupying a reasonable middle ground, sensitive to cultural conservatives without declaring war on the left.
“This is not radical stuff here,” he said.
“We need to absolutely promote diversity and acceptance in our schools. No question about that,” Stefanowski said. “But at the same time, we shouldn’t be introducing complex topics like sexual orientation or gender ID before the kids have the capacity to understand it.”
The “kitchen table” image is one Stefanowski repeatedly used Tuesday.
“Leave the kitchen table issues to the kitchen table,” Stefanowski said. “Let these parents behind me and parents across the state decide when they want to enter those conversations. Don’t mandate.”
Stefanowski did not say if he objected to the State Department of Education curriculum guidelines that suggest middle schools address “gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation” and explain “sexual activity and their associated risks.”
He indicated he would not upend the current balance of power on curricula, where the state sets general standards but leaves implementation to local school systems.
“I think you got to leave it up to the parents working with the school boards. I don’t think you can dictate this type of stuff from the top down,” Stefanowski said. “I don’t think we should. I don’t think it’s the role of government to do that.”
The influence of critical race theory on how the public schools address issues of race went unmentioned at the press conference, but Stefanowski complained on WNPR that children of privilege were made to feel guilty or uncomfortable when taught about America’s continuing struggle with race and racism.
“Racism is part of our history. We need to teach kids about that. I don’t believe, though, in assuming that kids are guilty just because of our history,” he said. “Presenting this level of guilt on kids just because, you know, they’re either privileged or not privileged, I don’t think that’s the right way to go.”
His focus was on parental rights, but he riffed on crime, Lamont’s record on taxes, COVID-19 regulations, childhood vaccinations, social media and education reforms such as school choice.
Detailed inquiries on any of them were not possible. His press conference lasted 35 minutes, with most of the time devoted to prepared remarks by the gubernatorial nominee and his running mate. He took eight questions over nine minutes.
His parental bill of rights includes raising from 13 to 16 the age at which a child can subscribe to a social media platform without parental consent, as was proposed in a bipartisan bill this year that never came to a floor vote.
It also calls for using state surplus funds to increase security and improve air quality in schools, as well a demand to “allow school choice and expand access to charter, magnet, and technical schools.” He was asked for details.
“It could be a combination of vouchers. It could be a combination of school savings accounts. It could be tuition reimbursement, we need to work through the details, but we absolutely have to start this discussion,” Stefanowski said. “And it’s not about abandoning schools in the city. We need to build those as well.”
Staff writer Andrew Brown contributed to this report.