The Republican nominee for governor in New Jersey, Jack Ciattarelli, is vowing to roll back school curricula that centers LGTBQ inclusivity, falsely claiming that “sexual orientation” is being taught to kindergarteners and sixth graders are learning “sodomy.”
The comments, made during a campaign stop at a gun range last month according to a video obtained by Gothamist/WNYC, were criticized by the state’s gay-rights group, Garden State Equality. Sodomy is a term referring to sexual acts that people of all sexual orientations engage in, but it has historically been used to equate homosexuality with deviancy, and anti-sodomy laws were long used to prosecute people for their sexual orientation.
Ciattarelli is a former Republican assemblyman who last month defeated two more conservative candidates in a GOP primary. He will face Democratic Governor Phil Murphy in November. At the June 26th event, Ciattarelli said:
“I feel lucky [our kids] are in their 20s and I don’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. We’re not teaching sodomy in sixth grade. And we’re going to roll back the LGBTQ curriculum. It goes too far.”
Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, said Ciattarelli’s use of the word “sodomy” sounded as if he was “speaking in code or virtue-signaling to a very specific group of people.” Fuscarino added: “He goes on to say more bluntly that he wants to roll back some of the progress the LGTBQ community has made. We’ve seen enough of that at the federal level the last four years with the Trump administration.”
Asked about the comment about sodomy, Ciattarelli said in a statement that it had “absolutely nothing to do with someone’s sexual orientation and the inference that it does is purposefully misleading.” He added, “Read my statement. It has to do with mature content being taught to young children. That is a parent’s job, not the school district’s.”
The campaign did not provide specific instances of mature content being taught to young children in New Jersey.
Ciattarelli is widely seen as a moderate Republican, and conventional political wisdom in New Jersey suggests that to win statewide office a Republican should focus on fiscal matters, like high property taxes, not cultural wedge issues. Indeed, his website makes no mention of his desire to end LGBTQ inclusivity education, and it did not come up publicly during the primary campaign.
But issues involving education and racial or sexual identity have caught fire on the right. Controversies over transgender student athletes and teaching so-called critical race theory dominate right-wing media outlets and animate Republican candidacies around the country.
In New Jersey, two laws recently signed into law address sexual orientation and schools. One law requires all schools beginning this fall to provide instruction on diversity and inclusion, including on gender and sexual orientation. It is said to be the first state to require LGBTQ-inclusive teaching for all subjects, but it’s up to individual school boards to determine how exactly this is implemented into curricula.
The other law requires school boards to include instruction for middle and high schoolers that portrays the “political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” This is intended to decrease bullying that LGBTQ students and those with LGBTQ parents face in schools.
Such changes to curricula have been criticized by Christian activists, like the Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey. They opposed the law requiring LGBTQ-inclusive lessons and linked it to educational standards for health and physical education, issued by the state in 2020, that says students are expected to be able to “define vaginal, oral, and anal sex” by eighth grade. That could have been part of what Ciattarelli was referring to in his comment about sodomy, but his campaign didn’t specify.
That wasn’t the only thing Ciattarelli said related to LGBTQ issues at the campaign event, which was held at the Tactical Training Center firearms store and range in Flemington. Ciattarelli complained about a sign he had seen recently at the bank that advertised “a new LGBTQ bank card.” He said: “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?”
Fuscarino said that Ciattarelli’s comments demonstrate why LGBTQ inclusive lessons and resources are so 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, adding that suicide and bullying rates among LGBTQ youth are at alarmingly high levels.
In his statement, Ciattarelli said he hears from parents across the political spectrum and across the state “who are angry that extremists like Governor Murphy are infringing on their right as parents to educate their children about life’s most personal and intimate topics – and then trying to shame them when they dare speak up.” He added, “All schools should be promoting diversity, inclusivity, tolerance, and respect for others, but that doesn’t mean pushing explicit subjects in elementary school classrooms. As a candidate and as governor, I will always fight for what is right and be a champion for parental rights.”
Ciattarelli also said, “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. Let me be clear, as governor, nothing we do or teach in our public schools will ever supplant the role and responsibility of parents.”
Prior to the Murphy administration, Ciattarelli had attended Garden State Equality events, though his record on issues of importance to LGTBQ rights activists is mixed.
In 2012, Ciattarelli voted against legalizing same-sex marriage but the following year he voted for a ban on gay-conversion therapy, the controversial and unfounded practice that attempts to change the sexual orientation of gay minors.
That same year, Ciattarelli voted against allowing those who do not undergo gender-reassignment surgery to change the gender marker on their birth certificates. Still, two years later, he voted in support of a similar bill. Both bills were vetoed by Republican Governor Chris Christie and a similar measure was ultimately signed by Murphy.
Murphy is seen as an ally to the LGBTQ community, and he received endorsements long before the general election began. LGBTQ leaders even cited the new LGTBQ inclusive curriculum as a reason for an endorsement.
Campaigning on cultural issues proved successful for former President Donald Trump in 2016, though he still lost decisively in New Jersey, which is a blue state with a generally more moderate Republican base. The last two Republicans to win statewide—Govs. Chris Christie (2009 and 2013) and Christie Todd Whitman (1993 and 1997)—both ran campaigns focused on fiscal matters.
“Republicans in New Jersey are successful statewide when they focus on economic and fiscal issues that tend to unite Republicans and independents and even some conservative Democrats,” said Mike DuHaime, a veteran Republican operative who was a chief strategist for Christie’s two gubernatorial campaigns.
“And they tend to be much less successful when they focus on divisive social issues. And especially since New Jersey is a very pro- LGBTQ state, so being divisive on an issue like that is certainly not a recipe for success.”
Facing off against two overtly pro-Trump candidates in this spring’s GOP gubernatorial primary, Ciattarelli ticked rightward just a bit. He had opposed Trump in 2016 but said he voted for Trump’s reelection because he agreed with his policies, not his style. Since the primary, his campaign mostly focused on criticizing Murphy over the state’s high-property taxes, long-standing physical and sexual abuse at the state women’s prison, and the high rate of Covid-19 deaths at nursing homes.
Still, in this free-wheeling chat at the gun range, which was billed as a meet-and-greet, Ciattarelli appeared to go beyond his typical talking points. An Italian-American, he is a staunch defender of keeping Columbus Day as a recognized holiday, and he has sought to link Murphy to a school board decision in Randolph, NJ, to eliminate all holidays from the school calendar in order to avoid celebrating Christopher Columbus. (The decision has since been reversed.)
“When I’m not calling Phil Murphy the panderer-in-chief, I call him the divider-in-chief. And that’s what was going on in Randolph Township in Morris County. I said, ‘What exactly is it you’re trying to achieve when you remove the holidays from the calendar? You’re only dividing us more, right?’” Ciattarelli said.
He called the GOP the “party of inclusivity, the big-tent party,” and then told the anecdote about being bothered by the sign inviting people to sign up for the new LGBTQ bank card.