Recently, legislators in California have made strides towards including more gay historical figures and role models in public education curriculum, in response to the fact that gay kids tend to grow up happier, healthier, and less likely to kill themselves if they can see themselves reflected in a positive light. This week Tennessee makes a move in the exact opposite direction, with a proposed bill that would prohibit teachers from discussing the concept of homosexuality in the classroom.
Charmingly nicknamed the “don’t say gay” bill, the legislation claims that discussion of gayness or gay people — “any sexual behavior other than heterosexuality” — shouldn’t be allowed in kindergarten through the eighth grade. (I imagine that the theoretical reveal in ninth grade is very dramatic, there may be guidance counselors on hand.) It cleared a Senate committee this week, and while it seems to have been held up temporarily, it’s not because anyone called BS – it’s because someone noticed that discussion of homosexuality is already discouraged under the state-mandated “family life” curriculum.
This presented no obstacle for Senator Stacey Campfield, the sponsor of the bill. Staying true to the GOP’s bizarre obsession with making gay things DOUBLE ILLEGAL (i.e. in states where gay marriage is illegal, there’s also a push to create a state constitutional amendment to that effect), he maintain’s that it’s necessary because “homosexuality is being discussed in the classrooms.” The bill now contains an amendment that requires the Board of Education to “study the issue” and determine what should be done about it. The fact that this amendment makes the bill MORE reasonable, when school systems all over the country are struggling to pay teachers and only 57% of K-8 classrooms in Tennessee are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, is insane.
The criticism of this bill has been sound: it’s based on the premise that trying to keep kids from finding out about things has never made them go away, and that the instinct of many parents in America to force schools to teach about a fantasy world that they wished we lived in, rather than the one we do, is not well founded. On a fundamental level, teaching children about something does not doom them to become it; after all, generations of children have learned about World War II without growing up to commit genocide. But for gay kids, the stakes are higher than just educational standards. As the California legislature has recognized that giving gay kids gay role models helps them grow up healthy and safe, we need to recognize that trying to deny to gay kids that they even exist is a way of ensuring that they grow up confused and unhappy – or don’t grow up at all.
The implications for teachers here are not entirely clear, either. Would this legally prohibit gay teachers from being honest with their kids about their families and home life? It’s already risky for teachers to be out at their jobs, but in public schools many of them do have tenuous legal protections. Would this bill, if passed, require teachers to lie to their kids? Honestly, the answer is yes – even if not about their home life, about the world we live in and the people who exist in it.
Education is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, and to see someone who is willing to sacrifice it to satisfy their own agenda is deeply disheartening. Passing the “don’t say gay” bill won’t protect kids, gay or straight or anything else. It will just ensure that “gay” continues being said on the playground, on the school bus, and in the home – except it will be said with disgust, and queer kids will have no way of knowing that they’re not the only ones to ever have to live through it. The future of this bill and the Board of Education’s “study” is unclear – we can only hope that it ends in a real education and a safe future for all of Tennessee’s kids.