Gov. Janet Mills speaks during the Democratic State Convention at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, Maine, Saturday, May 14, 2022. Credit: Ben McCanna / Portland Press Herald via AP

Leaders of two advocacy groups said Maine needs to create its own LGBTQ curriculum and policies after the administration of Gov. Janet Mills removed a video explaining transgender identities to children that was targeted by a Republican ad.

The video was part of a pandemic program the Maine Department of Education began in 2020 to provide optional, free online lessons created by teachers to schools or parents. The video, titled “Freedom Holidays,” was meant for children in preschool through 2nd grade. The entire module program was supported by $2.8 million in federal funding.

But the department took the video down last week before a Maine Republican Party ad characterized the video as a “radical school lesson.” The state said the video was removed because they felt it was inappropriate for the target audience. The Whitefield teacher who created the video criticized its removal.

The situation highlighted gaps in how LGBTQ issues are discussed across the state, top officials at two Maine advocacy groups said. Both called for the state to give more instruction to schools and to stand by teachings to ensure children and teachers are supported.

They said no teacher should have to go it alone in trying to teach a topic that has increasingly become a cultural flashpoint and called for the state to give more definitive instruction to schools and to stand by those teachings to ensure children and teachers are supported.

“There is a fear out there that they’re going to be attacked,” said Gia Drew, the program director for EqualityMaine, referring to teachers who try to educate students on LGBTQ issues. “…They have to ask themselves whether their principal is going to support you, whether your governor is going to support you.”

The LGBTQ-rights Human Rights Campaign counted roughly 130 anti-transgender bills introduced in state legislatures this year, including in at least four Republican-led states in which transgender children were barred from school sports. The ad was part of a national trend of conservatives targeting discussions of LGBTQ and racial issues in schools.

While Republicans prior to the ad had largely focused on economic issues, the Maine GOP’s platform calls for limits on discussion of LGBTQ and other issues in public schools. Jason Savage, the party’s executive director, called the video “LGBT activism” last week on WGAN.

The party’s criticism of the video came after it was featured on Libs of Tiktok, a conservative Twitter account that ridicules those holding progressive views on social issues. Its repostings have led to examples of teachers being harassed.

The ad was the first against Mills in her high-profile race against former Republican Gov. Paul LePage. The parties have already staked out major differences on these issues. Speakers at the Democrats’ state convention this month warned attendees LGBTQ rights could be in danger if Republicans take control of Augusta in the fall.

On Monday, a Maine Department of Education spokesperson reiterated that the video should have been reviewed by a state curriculum specialist and that the module program is being reviewed. Mills’ office did not respond to a request for comment, but it has said the governor supported the move.

Mills has a strong track record of supporting LGBTQ-rights legislation, including bills banning conversion therapy, not requiring court notices for name changes and clarifying a person cannot be discriminated against for their gender identity in state law.

For Quinn Gormley, the executive director of MaineTransNet, the video’s removal did not shake her belief that Mills is supportive of the community. She said the governor’s office reached out after news broke of the video’s removal to let her know the state had technical concerns about the video’s content but not the overall topic. 

But Gormley said she wished Mills had taken more time to review the video and had been clearer about why it was removed. If the state had guidelines on how to teach about transgender issues, a teacher would not have made their own, she said.

“I don’t particularly like any politicians revising policy in response to an ad,” she said.