Austin, TX (TEXAS TRIBUNE) – Two bills to ban classes in Texas public schools on sexual orientation and gender identity below a certain level are due to gain Republican support in legislative session this year. But critics warn that the legislation could further marginalize LGBTQ students and their families and expose teachers to potential legal threats.
The two bills, sponsored by Representatives Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, are very reminiscent of the Florida law that critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. House Bills 631 and House Bills 1155 are among the anti-LGBTQ bills awaiting lawmakers when they return to the Capitol on Tuesday.
Florida law prohibits schools from teaching information about sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. Both Texas bills reflect such a ban. HB 631 Tota will expand the restriction to the fifth grade. Patterson’s HB 1155 will expand it to eighth grade.
Their proposals also ban lessons on sexuality and gender identity at any level of instruction unless they are “age or developmentally appropriate”. Patterson’s bill does not specify what is appropriate for different age groups. Thoth’s bill requires lessons to meet state standards, but does not specify which standards.
Like Florida law, the two Texas bills do not explicitly ban the use of the word “gay” in schools. The bill’s sponsors also argue that the legislation will protect “parental rights” by allowing parents to more directly control what their children learn in school, including having different sexual orientations and gender identities.
“Parental rights are paramount to the safety and well-being of a child,” Patterson said in a Jan 3 tweet introducing your bill. “So I filed HB 1155 to make sure no school teaches radical gender ideology to any child in K-8th grade and where parents must verify and sign off on any health related services.”
Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick signaled that he would support passage of the Texas version of Florida’s law even before the bills were even filed.
“I will make this legislation a top priority in the next session,” he said in a campaign email last April.
Critics of the law argue that the vague nature of the bills will hinder discussion of issues related to LGBTQ issues and representation.
“The reality is that everyone has a gender identity and sexual orientation; It’s incredibly difficult to avoid those conversations,” Adri Perez, organizational director of the Texas Freedom Network, told The Texas Tribune. “It becomes a tool that can be used specifically against LGBTQIA+ people because it’s not people who fit in that stand out, but people who are specifically targeted and attacked as being different.”
The bills are passed against the backdrop of a political environment in which LGBTQ people are seeing increased hostility. Texas Republican lawmakers are supporting legislation in this session to promote gender-affirming care for trans youth and drag shows. The official party platform of the state Republican Party openly opposes “efforts to affirm transgender identity.” According to the American Psychological Association, homosexuality is also defined as “an abnormal lifestyle choice”, although most people have “little or no choice about their sexual orientation”.
Thoth’s office told the Tribune that he was unable to answer questions about the article. Patterson did not respond to requests for comment.
Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, an LGBTQ organization, is concerned that one aspect of the bills could result in some students being dropped prematurely or being forced to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity to their parents before they are ready to share it. personal information. Information.
Both bills require school districts to notify parents of changes to how campus officials provide services or monitor the student’s “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.”
“This divisive and inhuman list of bills forces the government to interfere in our most personal decisions and seeks to ban any honest conversation about race, gender identity and sexual orientation,” Martinez said.
Both bills also propose that the Texas Education Agency “revise and review” various frameworks for school counseling and educator practice prior to the new school year in 2024.
The offices of Patrick and Speaker of the House Dade Phelan did not respond to Tribune’s requests for comment.
Since last year, Texas educators have noted that there is already little formal instruction in gender identity or sexuality in the state’s elementary schools.
Patty Quinzie, director of public affairs and legislative advisor for the American Federation of Teachers of Texas, said the content of sex education in public schools is determined by local school boards. These governing bodies typically appoint parents and administrators to school health advisory boards that help ensure that community values are included in health education.
Quinzie said no one provided significant examples of how schools teach elementary or high school students about sexual orientation and gender identity.
“It seems like a bad decision in search of a problem, because I have not heard that it was a problem at all,” she said.
The only significant issue raised by parents is the presence of books with LGBTQ characters in school libraries, which has led to demands to remove some books from school shelves. A September report by PEN America, a non-profit organization that advocates free speech, found that Texas banned more books on race and LGBTQ issues than any other state in the country.
“We’re wondering how this will affect LGBTQIA teachers, and does it mean someone can’t post a photo of their family?” Quinzie said. “What kind of fear will this create in teachers and allow them to be themselves?”
Quinzi worries about the effects of teacher suppression on LGBTQ students, who may not have a safe home environment in which to be themselves.
“It’s very important for children to see themselves in their teachers,” she said.
These proposed bans on classroom teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity could limit or ban discussion on issues ranging from marriage equality to adoption to the AIDS epidemic. They can also cover smaller topics, such as gender dress code and questionnaires that ask students if they are boys or girls, Perez said.
And, as in Florida, there are fears that these Texas bills could restrict free speech.
“This creates an intimidating environment where a teacher can be prosecuted, assaulted or fired from a job they love,” Perez said.
For teachers, the legal gray area associated with avoiding these topics – should any of the bills become law – can be messy.
Chloe Kempf and Brian Klosterbur, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas, said the bills could pose clear risks to teachers and school districts in the form of lawsuits from parents who believe they are not following the law.
Thoth’s bill describes a mechanism by which parents can sue school districts for violating his proposals, which includes the parent notification portion of that bill. Part of these bills could require teachers to potentially expel their students, experts say, and parents could sue school districts if teachers don’t comply. Experts say school districts will be saddled with the cost of these lawsuits.
More broadly, Kempf said the bills would pose risks to schools and educators in the form of potential ultra vires lawsuits that would allow citizens to sue officials who violate state laws. While it’s unclear whether these types of lawsuits will succeed, more impact causes more confusion and headaches for schools, Kloosterbur said.
“When the law is vague, it allows for discriminatory and targeted enforcement. And it also creates a very hostile and chilling atmosphere where people … go out of their way to resort to self-censorship,” Kempf said.
The vague language of the bills can also create problems for schools trying to protect teachers from potential lawsuits.
“[Schools] may not even know what to say to teachers and staff, how to actually protect themselves and the school district,” Klosterbur said.
Klosterbur added that it seemed “highly likely” that if Gov. Greg Abbott signed one of the bills into law, it would cause legal problems.
Last month, a coalition of 18 Democratic attorneys general from across the country submitted an amicus memo in support of a lawsuit filed by Florida families and LGBTQ advocacy groups against the state law. The lawsuit, filed shortly after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill, alleges the law violates free speech, as well as rights to due process and equal protection.
On the other hand, Florida received the support of 14 Republican-led states. “The law does not violate anyone’s right to express opinions or be informed, does not discriminate, and is not unconstitutionally vague,” said an amicus memo filed Dec. 7 by Attorney General Ken Paxton on behalf of Texas and 13 other states.
Even before these bills, transgender people in Texas were already facing significant negative scrutiny from senior Republicans.
Following a non-binding legal opinion from Paxton last February, Abbott directed the Department of Family and Protective Affairs to investigate child abuse by parents who promoted gender-affirming care for their children. In the weeks following his directive, hospitals and healthcare providers across Texas restricted critical care for fear of legal repercussions if they provided gender-affirming treatment approved by all major medical associations. But Abbott’s decision also ran into significant legal problems.
The Washington Post also reported last month that Paxton requested data on trans Texans from the Texas Department of Public Safety. Officials did not say why the information was requested.
Ultimately, LGBTQ advocates argue that these legislative moves are just another attack on an already marginalized population. Texas Republican lawmakers already filed 35 anti-LGBTQ bills for the 2023 session last week, far more than the number of such bills filed through the 2021 session, Martinez said.
“The legislation aims to stigmatize LGBTQ people, marginalize LGBTQ children, and make teachers afraid to provide safe and inclusive classes,” he said.
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