Tennessee bill lets parents forbid their kids from learning anything about LGBTQ issues

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Anti-LGBTQ extremists 'are targeting young children purely for their political gain,' said an advocate for supportive education.

LGBTQ advocacy groups say that S.B. 1229, a bill introduced in the Tennessee Senate, and its companion bill in the Tennessee House, H.B. 0529, would be harmful to queer, transgender and nonbinary students in the state.

If the bill becomes law, schools will be required to notify the parents or guardians of children 30 days in advance of any lesson plans that mention sexual orientation or gender identity. The act "permits a parent or guardian to excuse the parent's or guardian's student from a sexual orientation or gender identity curriculum, and prohibits the [local education agency] or charter school from penalizing an excused student."

Under the legislation, an excused student would be expected to work on an "alternative lesson." It provides no exceptions for mentions of gender identity or sexual orientation within a sex education program or family life program.

The Senate version has been recommended for passage, while the House version is under consideration in the House Committee on Education Instruction, where it will be discussed on Wednesday.

Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, interim executive director of GLSEN, an organization that advocates for more supportive education for LGBTQ students, said bills like this one are trying to erase LGBTQ students from schools.

"Anti-LGBTQ+ education bills are on the rise this year as a result of a well-funded campaign by anti-LGBTQ+ extremists, who are targeting young children purely for their political gain, when we should be instead focusing on strengthening our education system as we recover from the pandemic," Willingham-Jaggers stated. "Ultimately, these bills will harm every child who attends school in the state. GLSEN's research has shown that LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum and other supports for LGBTQ+ students benefit those students' mental and emotional well-being, and make schools safer for everyone."

At least six bills introduced this session in various state legislatures focus on limiting teaching about LGBTQ topics in schools.

A bill introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly as H.B. 0800 and S.B. 1216 says schools can't adopt or use textbooks that "promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender issues or lifestyles" and that the state Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission can't recommend or list any materials that would fit that description. The bill has recently advanced in the house.

Christopher Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, said that if it is enacted, S.B. 1229 will be stigmatize LGBTQ students.

"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. That's going to have to be said in front of the class every time this comes up across the state," Sanders said. "And what signal does that send about the LGBTQ students in the room? 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."

In addition to these bills, Tennessee recently passed a ban on transgender athletes playing on the sports team of their gender, which Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed into law last week. A bill that puts burdensome requirements on or outright bans gender-affirming health care for transgender youth is also making progress in the House. H.B. 0657 would ban prepubescent minors from receiving "sexual identity change therapy" and would mandate that minors who have entered puberty need a parent or guardian to get at least three recommendations from physicians before proceeding with any health care related to their transition.

And another bill targeting transgender people, H.B. 1182, passed the state House on Monday. The legislation requires businesses that allow transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender to post what the Human Rights Campaign called "offensive and humiliating" signs on bathroom entrances stating their policies.

Sanders said this legislative session has been brutal for LGBTQ people in Tennessee.

"I've been working on state legislation in Tennessee since 2005 and this is the worst year in the legislature that I have ever seen," he said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.