Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tennessee's "Don't Say Gay" Bill

A group of Tennessee lawmakers in the state House Education Subcommittee voted Wednesday to place the controversial bill HB0229 on track to be voted on by the full House before their adjournment in the spring. HB0229, colloquially referred to by opponents as the “don’t say gay” bill, would declare it illegal for any “public elementary or middle school [to] provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.” The bill, the product of a cadre of representatives headed by House Education Subcommittee chair Joey Hensley, represents the most recent in a series of attempts by Tennessee conservatives to define what constitutes appropriate discussion of sexual orientation.

The drafters of the bill argue that discussion of homosexuality is a “complex subject with societal, scientific, psychological, and historical implications” and that kids are too immature and unready to appreciate discussion of the matter until they reach high school. Instead, they assert, any discussion of sexuality outside the realm of “natural human reproduction science” should be the exclusive purview of the parents. This casting of the bill as “pro-parent” instead of “anti-gay” has seen the measure receive support from both sides of the aisle, including prominent Tennessee Democrat John DeBerry, who said of the bill “The basic right as an American is my right to life, my right to liberty and my right to the pursuit of happiness . . . Within that includes being able to run my home, raise my children as I see fit and to indoctrinate them as I see fit."

Opponents of the bill assert that it represents another in a long line of efforts by state conservatives to silence and stigmatize discussion of “unnatural” lifestyles, as well as to send a signal that homosexuality is an unwelcome element in educational discourse. Community leaders across the state, such as Rev. Thomas Kleinert of Nashville, encapsulate opponents’ frustration: "Our children have to deal with [homosexuality] long before they've reached sufficient maturity . . . Silence in the classroom only adds to the cloak of pain and shame, whereas open, age-appropriate conversation may give them a chance and the courage to talk to an adult they trust."

The furor around this bill is centered around one of the most salient social issues of the last few years: the role of schools (and, by extension, the government) in influencing the ways children are taught to relate to LGBT individuals. Religious conservatives, traditionally in opposition to gay rights, use laws such as the one contemplated by HB0229 to silence discussion about topics they find immoral, quashing the contribution of dissenting voices. To them, this is beneficial, as it limits potential “negative” influences that would conflict with parents’ intentional indoctrination of their own sexual morays during their children’s formative years.

Is silence, even in the name of parents’ rights, the most sensible policy choice? Recent evidence suggests otherwise. A similar school policy prohibiting discussion of LGBT topics is already the standard in Anoka, Minnesota – a town located in Michelle Bachmann’s notoriously conservative congressional district – and has come under fire recently as a potentially-contributing factor in a number of suicides that occurred over the recent year. Supporters of the “gag rule” on LGBT discourse, such as the Minnesota Family Council, argue that the school district is merely employing a “policy of neutrality” and that discussion of sexual orientation should not advertently attempt to portray representations of homosexuality in a positive light. Such portrayals, they argue, contravene the moral lessons that they are teaching their children, and are so controversial that they do not belong as part of the public curriculum.

The effects of the gag policy look somewhat different from the perspective of the actual teachers and school administrators, however, leading several prominent educators to express their frustration publicly. They argue that the neutrality policy creates arbitrary limits to effective education by disabling discussion of the role of gay rights in American society, the contributions of LGBT Americans throughout history, and the mechanics of sexual attraction in both biology and health classes. More insidiously, however, the policy, in the eyes of Colleen Cashen, a school counselor, creates “an air of shame” and stigmatization, sending the not-so-subtle message to LGBT individuals that any unconventional expressions of their gender/sexual identity will not be tolerated.

The net effect of this is twofold: 1.) It does nothing to stop the repeated instances of homosexual bullying reported at Anoka schools, as school administrators fear that they are being obliged to “ignore, minimize, dismiss, or in some instances, to blame the victim for the other students’ abusive behavior” as a result of the policy. 2.) LGBT students are unable to find guidance in this environment, leading to assumptions that their identity confusion is a source of guilt and lessens their worth as individuals.

Ultimately, the opposition to gag rules, such as the one contemplated in Tennessee, derives from the recognition that discussions about sexual identity and orientation don’t end simply because they are declared off limits by the legislature. By blocking the entrance of the guidance of teachers and trained counselors into the discussion that children are already having about themselves and their peers, Tennessee conservatives may very well be inviting their own climate of stigmatization and isolation. 

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