Sometime in the next week or so, the Senate of the state of Tennessee will probably approve the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It’s a proposed law that states, “No public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality” in grades K-8.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, has advocated for this measure, without success, for six years in the state House of Representatives. But Republican victories in the 2010 elections moved Campfield to the Senate and gave the GOP majorities in both houses. As a result, “Don’t Say Gay” now has a chance of becoming law in Tennessee.
The state’s “family life curriculum” on sex ed already makes it very difficult to talk about LGBT issues in grades K-8. SIECUS reports that any sex ed must include “presentations encouraging abstinence from sexual intercourse during the teen and pre-teen years.” Both the state Board of Education and the Department of Education say there’s zero evidence that teachers are currently discussing gay and lesbian issues in elementary or middle schools.
But this virtual ban on LGBT matters is not enough for Campfield. By passing this law, he wants Tennessee schools to pretend that gays and lesbians don’t exist. Heterosexuality is fine to discuss. But whatever lies students grow up with about gays and lesbians must be allowed to stand unchallenged by accurate information from school. Meanwhile, LGBT students—coming to grips with their sexuality in middle school—should be allowed to sit and suffer as any teacher inclined to help them is muzzled.
That is the climate “Don’t Say Gay” would make inevitable. LGBT students nationwide are already bullied far more than their peers. A 2005 student found that 90 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally or physically harassed or assaulted, compared to 65 percent of other students. And according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, both victims and perpetrators of bullying are at a higher risk of teen suicide. LGBT teens attempt suicide at a rate at least 2 to 4 times higher than other students.
On the flip side, a positive climate can lower suicide numbers dramatically. A recent study showed that LGBT students who live in supportive social environments were 25 percent less likely to try killing themselves. The silence imposed by “Don’t Say Gay” is designed to rob them of that support and cement them in the role of outcasts.
If Tennessee’s Senate approves “Don’t Say Gay,” the bill will go to the House. Fortunately, there is hope of killing it there in committee. Tennessee educators are already busy trying to stop other bills hostile to public education. But they should waste no time mobilizing against this one. Contact members of the House Education Committee and let them know how you feel.
Price is managing editor of Teaching Tolerance.