These states are making it harder for schools to acknowledge LGBTQ people exist

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Montana, Tennessee, and Arkansas want to keep gender identity and sexual orientation out of school curricula.

Legislation allowing parents to opt their children out of LGBTQ-inclusive school curricula is making its way through several state legislatures across the country.

Experts say that's a concerning trend — one that has escalated significantly in recent months.

In Tennessee, lawmakers sent S.B. 1229 — a bill that requires 30-days notice to parents and guardians for any lessons mentioning gender identity and sexual orientation and lets students opt out of that lesson without being penalized — to the governor's desk on Thursday. LGBTQ advocates in the state have opposed the bill and said it would serve to stigmatize these issues in schools.

"The teacher is going to have to announce in front of the class that we're going to be covering this, so make sure your parents get their permission slips or whatever in by a certain date. And what signal does that send about the LGBTQ students in the room?" said Christopher Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, speaking with the American Independent Foundation. "It's really frustrating because the kids are already struggling in our schools as it is with few resources, and here we're looking at ways to take away another resource."

Meanwhile, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R), who approved a ban on transgender girls playing on the team of their gender in March, said of the bill on Friday, "Parents should be the absolute final decision maker on what their children learn in a school."

In Arkansas, S.B. 389, which was delivered to the governor on April 1, would require schools to give parents and guardians prior written notification of materials on sexual orientation and gender identity, allowing them to see which content schools plan to teach on those subjects, and lets parents notify the school in writing if they don't want a student to participate. The student's grades would not be affected by their withdrawal from any curriculum, tests, surveys, or activities on gender identity and sexual orientation.

And on Friday, the Montana legislature sent S.B. 99 to its governor, legislation that echoes the bills in Arkansas and Tennessee by allowing parents to opt their children out of any instruction, class period, class assembly, or school function that relates to human sexuality education, which, as the bill specifies, includes gender identity and sexual orientation.

School districts would have to notify parents or guardians each year in advance of teaching about human sexuality, to allow them to withdraw their student from the instruction, and would ensure that all curriculum materials are "available for public inspection prior to the use of the materials in actual instruction."

"State legislators across the country were elected to represent all of us, not just some of us and yet they continue to send hateful and discriminatory anti-LGBTQ bills to the desks of governors to sign into law, threatening the well-being, health, and fundamental rights of thousands of LGBTQ Americans in states from coast to coast," Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement on April 16.

David added, "The governors of these states are responsible for protecting their citizens, and they must refuse to sign these baseless and unconscionable cruel bills into law. Otherwise, they should and will be held accountable for the consequences."

The governors of Montana and Arkansas have approved other similarly discriminatory pieces of legislation this session. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed a bill into law on Thursday, the Montana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that LGBTQ advocacy groups say permits discrimination in goods and services under the cover of sincerely held religious beliefs.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) has also signed a transgender sports ban and a bill that allows health care providers to block people from accessing services if it conflicts with their religious, moral, or ethical beliefs, which experts say would enable anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Although Hutchinson vetoed a separate bill that would prohibit transgender youth from receiving gender-affirming care this year, the legislature voted to override his veto.

According to the Human Rights Campaign's analysis of this year's anti-LGBTQ legislation, which was released on Thursday, Arkansas, Tennessee, Montana, and Texas are among the states leading the nation "as the most egregious drivers of discriminatory legislation." Last week, Equality Texas' CEO, Ricardo Martinez, said his state had filed the most anti-LGBTQ bills this year so far.

On April 22, Wyatt Ronan, press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, stated, "The previous record — six years ago in 2015, when 15 anti-LGBTQ bills were enacted into law — is poised to be shattered as early as this week, as eight anti-LGBTQ bills have already been enacted into law and another ten are already on governors’ desks awaiting signature (if signed into law, more anti-LGBTQ legislation will have been enacted this year than in the last three years combined)."

The decision to advance such discriminatory legislation has come at a particularly low point for many LGBTQ minors.

The vast majority of LGBTQ students in Arkansas and Tennessee reported experiencing some form of anti-LGBTQ harassment and assault in 2019, according to an assessment by GLSEN — known previously as the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network — a group working to end bullying and harassment based on gender identity and sexual orientation in schools.

According to the assessment, between 78% and 95% of students said they had heard negative or discriminatory remarks about LGBTQ issues, and more than half had been subjected to direct harassment or assault based on gender expression or sexual orientation.

LGBTQ students in schools with an inclusive curriculum, by contrast, have been statistically less likely to hear negative remarks about LGBTQ people or feel unsafe at school compared to students in schools without such curricula, according to at the organization's 2019 school climate report.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.