Say No to the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill

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.

You can also check out Teaching Tolerance resources on LGBT students here, here and here.

Price is managing editor of Teaching Tolerance.


I grew up in Nashville, TN

Submitted by Kate on 1 May 2011 - 2:07pm.

I grew up in Nashville, TN and went to school in (relatively) gay-friendly environments but still had several close friends suffer from depression and choose to remain closeted in school because of the already hostile environment. A bill like "don't say gay" only enhances the hostility. It's discriminatory and it affects every single person, gay and straight. I made a little animated video about it.


I realize that little details

Submitted by Keith Moore on 30 April 2011 - 3:39pm.

I realize that little details are largely immaterial to the point but it seems worth asking: why is it inappropriate to hold off on discussing homosexuality until high school? Moreover, a ban to raise an issue and be considered worth fighting, people must desire to do the thing that is being banned. We must be mad, frankly, to contemplate a time when we are dumping the extremely contentious struggle with LGBT issues on top of kids who are still learning their ABCs. And junior high, for me, was home economics and dissecting cuttlefish (which, by the way, was pretty cool); where exactly does one fit in an adequate discussion of homosexuality... and why would you in the first place? I'm sorry to seem a bit insensitive here but all I'm seeing is a law meant to defer the discussion of an EXTREMELY sensitive and contentious issue until the kids are on their way out of their bad-judgement era (which science informs us lasts until 21) instead of on the way in.

It's only EXTREMELY sensitive

Submitted by Hank Single on 3 May 2011 - 9:30pm.

It's only EXTREMELY sensitive because we find ways not to talk about it. I'm confident we once thought it was too much for kids to handle to discuss women's rights, racism and a host of other things they need to be taught.

If you held off on discussing

Submitted by Anne Blair on 3 May 2011 - 5:55pm.

If you held off on discussing homosexuality until age 21 (or even until high school), you'd be way too late. I went to middle school in the 80's, and yes, I knew what gay meant. Not discussing it is not going to keep kids from knowing about homosexuality, or prevent homosexuality from existing, but it will allow inaccurate ideas to get passed around, since if adults don't discuss things with kids, the kids will come to their own conclusions and get information from what are frequently very bad sources.

"Why is it inappropriate to

Submitted by Jillian Tegtmeyer on 3 May 2011 - 2:55pm.

"Why is it inappropriate to hold off on discussing homosexuality until high school?" For the same reason it's inappropriate to hold off on discussing sex until high school. Middle school students know what gay is and they know what sex is. Some of them are starting to realize they're gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Some of them are being called "gay" and "fag" and "dyke" on the playgrounds, even though they may not be LGBT or even know what those words mean. Some of them are having sex. Some of them are getting pregnant because no one ever told them about contraception.

Teachers cannot be expected to only teach part of their students. We must teach our “whole” students. I cannot expect my students to leave who they are outside of the classroom and only bring the part of themselves that is relevant to learning the skills of reading and writing.

For more reasons why we need to be able to talk about LGBT issues in all grades, you should read Dr. Wendy Willingham's letter to the senator above.

Editor's Note: This letter

Submitted by Annah on 29 April 2011 - 2:57pm.

Editor's Note: This letter was sent by a constituent who identifies herself as “Professional School Counselor & Irate Voter” to every TN Senator who voted for the bill.

Dear Senator Campfield,

I was so thrilled to see that the “Don’t Say Gay” bill had passed in the Senate subcommittee until I learned what your bill is really about. I am a middle school counselor, and it is clear to me that you have not set foot in a middle school in recent years. If you had, you would know that sexuality is, unfortunately, something that we must confront every day.

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with Jaheim Herrera and Carl Joseph Walker Hoover This month is the two-year anniversary of their deaths (by suicide), which were the result of the relentless daily torment that they each received at their respective middle schools. Both were in sixth grade, and both were tired of being called “gay.” I’m not sure if either of these young men was, in fact, gay, and, quite frankly, I don’t care. What I do care about is the fact that your bill supports the idea that one’s sexuality is grounds for separation and, therefore, oppression.

You were quoted as saying "I think the schools should stick to the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. And maybe some civics," says Campfield. "But teaching transgenderism to middle school students ... I don't think that's the road we should go down. I think that's what parents should be doing."

Here are the problems with your ideology: First, many students don’t feel that they can discuss their sexuality or gender identity issues with their parents. For many middle school students, their teachers and counselors are the only ones with whom they feel comfortable discussing their many emotions and concerns about their own sexuality or about the sexuality of those around them. Second, it turns out that students who are struggling with any personal issues at all have a difficult time learning reading, writing, arithmetic, and, yes, even civics.

What do you suggest that I say to my students who are struggling with their sexuality? How about the ones whose parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, or friends are gay? What would you suggest that I say to my students who call other students “gay” or “faggot” or “dyke?” What do you propose that we do, as educators, when we encounter students being tormented on the basis of sexuality? Should we ignore it and then, like you, contribute to the inexcusable ignorance and violence that is allowed to exist in our society? Should we say, “That’s not nice, Billy! We don’t talk about you know what in this classroom!” I have news for you, Senator Campfield. Students in EVERY middle school in Tennessee deal with sexuality and bullying EVERY day.

Are you aware that students who struggle with their sexuality or gender identity are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts? Are you aware that talking about their experiences and fears vastly reduces the chances that an adolescent will attempt suicide? Based on your logic, if a student comes to me or to one of his teachers to discuss his situation, I am to tell him that it is illegal for me to talk to him about this topic and send him on his way. I assure you that I will risk losing my job before I EVER risk the life of one of my students.

Your bill is a blatant violation of the civil rights of my students, as well as the perpetuation of the intolerance and bigotry that so many citizens of Tennessee have worked so tirelessly to eliminate.

Furthermore, there seems to be some concern among your colleagues regarding the teaching of homosexuality in the classroom. I would like to know how, exactly, one might teach homosexuality, or, for that matter, heterosexuality. I have been able to conclude only one possible justification for your concern, which is that open discussion of homosexuality might encourage students to consider homosexuality for themselves. I cannot even address such remarkable ignorance on the grounds that I live in a city with a teen pregnancy rate that nearly doubles the national average, and that city is located in a state that disallows the teaching of contraception in public schools.

You are completely out of touch with the battles that the educators in Tennessee face every day in every school, and I speak with confidence when I ask you, on behalf of my colleagues, to please use your time and the taxpayers’ dollars in an effort to protect the rights of students and educators rather than attacking those rights. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill has made me, for the first time in my life, ashamed to be from Tennessee, and I sincerely hope that you will reconsider your position to best meet the needs of Tennessee’s middle school students.



Dr. Wendy Willingham
Professional School Counselor & Irate Voter

Well said Wendy. I have a

Submitted by Kathleen Sopko on 4 May 2011 - 7:31am.

Well said Wendy. I have a daughter who is in 7th grade. She has several friends who consider themselves to be gay and several that she believes are not sure (which is understandable at this age). She says, it dioesn't matter to me what they are, they are my friends and I love them all.
Homosexuality is something that each and every person, regardless of age, social status, etnicity etc...has to deal with. It has become part of our Multicultural (which includes sexual orientation) environment in the schools, the work place and our community.
Tennessee Senator Campfield, I feel that you are taking a step back in the overall goal to have all of human race live in a world without bias', prejudices, and the cruel harshness of our past that so many people have fought and given their lives for.
As Wendy stated, children do not feel comfortable discussing these things with their parent, parents may not have enough information to accurately inform their children. Teacher's are the best person to help teach this information and alot of school that I am familiar with incorporate it into their bullying programs.
I just hope this is not the start of something negative for our country!

Dr. Willingham I applaud your

Submitted by Judith Henry on 3 May 2011 - 10:56pm.

Dr. Willingham
I applaud your letter to your state representatives. In fact, it motivated me to write to your representatives as well, and I am not even a resident of TN (though I am a frequent visitor).
As I tell my students every day, it is hard to believe that people will believe things because of fear that others know not to be true. I am so sorry to see that it appears that you in TN have a legislative body that is largely comprised of people who are living based in fear, not in facts and reality.
Know that you have support from across the country in this battle.

Thank you for your support and strength for your students. They are lucky to have you on their side.



Submitted by Heather F Johsnon on 3 May 2011 - 1:27pm.

THIS IS AMAZING! Thank you so much for writing such an important letter, voicing what I feel so many of us educators deal with on a daily basis! I hope you received a positive reply!

Heather Johnson, M.Ed
Health Education Teacher
Hutchison High School
Fairbanks, AK

Okay... but this provision

Submitted by stormkite on 29 April 2011 - 12:13pm.

Okay... but this provision needs to be accompanied by one requiring that American History classes include in their curricula the discussion of precisely how the Confederates morphed into the KKK, thence to the White Citizens' Committees and into their modern incarnations, the Republican and Tea Parties. (And enforcement of Federal standards mandating the teaching of American History....)

Shame on Senator Stacey

Submitted by Rachael Poe on 29 April 2011 - 10:08am.

Shame on Senator Stacey Campfield! And shame on Tennessee! I live in Arizona's, and it's on a par with Tennessee. You cannot make any positive references to homosexual relationships or LGBT people in regards to sex and HIV/AIDS education. We're an abstinence only state. It's a sad state of affairs. It's attitudes like this that made me afraid to be who I was as a teenager.