From Massachusetts and California to Tennessee: Stacey Campfield’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill.

First things first: welcome to my blog!

I’ve had it up and running for about a week now, and for this entire time I’ve been flip-flopping over what should be the topic of my first post. After stumbling across the debate surrounding the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill (Tennessee bill #SB0049) that is slowly working its way through the American legislative process, any hesitation I had left choosing an appropriate topic to begin my first foray into the blagosphere has evaporated.

According to the official current wording of the bill, it proposes that

“No public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.”

According to Stacey Campfield, the Republican Senator sponsoring this bill, the reason why he has been spearheading this issue for close to seven years is because sexuality is a “complex subject” and until children are “sufficient[ly] matur[e]” to understand the issue, teachers should not be permitted to teach, instruct or provide materials to their students about homosexuality.

Understandably, this bill has managed to provoke some strong reactions from political pundits, bloggers, and almost anyone with a passing interest in US politics or LGBT rights. Campfield himself hasn’t exactly done his campaign any favours, claiming during a radio interview that teaching gay rights in schools is comparable to teaching bestiality rights. Campfield appears to be a man hell-bent on pissing off as many rights groups as possible, it seems; his distinguished political record includes comparing Tennessee’s Black Legislative Caucus to the KKK and proposing a bill that would require death certificates to be issued for abortions performed in Tennessee.

Fortunately, there is no need to resort to ad-hominem criticism to see why this bill, if passed, would severely harm The State of Tennessee, its LGBT community, and its future generations.

The underlying concern with this bill is that it reinforces the idea that non-heterosexuality is something to be shunned and repressed, to be tactfully ignored by teachers as if there is nothing to discuss at all. By legislating the discussion of issues surrounding nonconformist sexuality in school, children with questions about their sexual orientation, or the sexuality of others, will be sent the clear message that this is not an issue to be broached in civil debate.

There appear to be two dimensions to this concern, one relating to the welfare of the children themselves and one relating to its impact on the wider community of Tennessee. To start with the latter concern, the issue is that passing this legislature would be a clear signal that the Tennessee government perceives non-heterosexuality as a threat to the moral integrity of their youth, as something that is not welcome in their elementary and middle schools. There is also a wider worry that it will send the message to teachers and schools taking LGBT issues seriously that their influence is not welcome. Irrespective of the impact that this bill would have on the well-being of LGBT children and youths, it would ostracise LGBT teachers, parents and relations by forbidding them (or the children in their lives) from mentioning their sexual orientation within the school environment.

What message is the government sending to children of gay parents if they are forbidden by law from discussing their home life within school hours? And what is a lesbian middle-school teacher supposed to say to a student who asks if they are married, or who they spent their summer holiday with?

Furthermore, there are several reasons to suspect that this bill, if passed, would not only marginalise the wider LGBT community, but that it would have a measurable detrimental effect on the welfare of LGBT youth in Tennessee.

For one, the link between homosexuality (or nonconformist sexual orientation more generally) and suicide in adolescence is well documented, as is the link between depression in the LGBT community, and legislature that restricts LGBT rights.  There is good reason to suppose that placing a moratorium on the discussion of sexuality in schools will only serve to exacerbate this epidemic. One study, for example, shows that gay teens are less likely to attempt suicide if they are placed in an environment that provides support for them. The Tennessee government cannot expect children to go through a decade of education before even discussing homosexuality in school without negative social repercussions. It is unreasonable to think that children who reach the age of 14 without ever mentioning homosexuality in school will reach high school and still be as welcoming to their gay class-mates as those who have had issues of gender and sexuality tactfully explained throughout their education. The earlier we introduce these distinctions and ideas to children, the more likely it is that they are going to grow up with an understanding and compassionate attitude towards their non-heterosexual class-mates.

A good case study for this claim comes from Massachusetts, where a Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (MCGLBTY) was established over 20 years ago, and since then has been working with the government towards the aim of improving the welfare of LGBT youth in Massachusetts schools. The Commission published the report “Making Schools Safe for Gay and Lesbian Youth: Breaking the Silence in Schools and in Families” in 1993, which led to an improved focus on LGBT teen welfare in Massachusetts. The Commission identified five main areas of concern upon which it based its recommendations:

  1. Harassment of gay and lesbian students in school.
  2. Isolation and suicide.
  3. Drop-out and poor school performance.
  4. Gay and lesbian youth and their need for adult role models.
  5. Families of gay and lesbian youth.

It should be obvious that prohibiting the discussion of LGBT concerns in schools will at best fail to address any of the above concerns, and at worst will only serve to further isolate LGBT students and exacerbate most or all of the above issues. Furthermore, the latest report of the MCGLBTY explicitly recommends “expanding the scope of programs to include elementary and middle schools” and stresses “age appropriate instruction on bullying prevention in each grade that is incorporated into the curriculum of the school district or school” (emphasis mine).

This last quotation raises an important point: the appropriateness of discussion and education about sexuality in elementary- and middle-schools. One of Senator Campfield’s main arguments in favour of this bill is the claim that these issues are inappropriate for children younger than high-school age. Current Tennessee legislation already ensures that the curriculum is ‘age-appropriate’, including not teaching sex education to children in grades K-8. The bill, therefore, is intended to amend current legislature by singling out LGBT sexuality as specifically inappropriate for any kind of instruction whatsoever. The implication (in case it has not already been made excruciatingly clear) is that LGBT sexuality is more inappropriate to teach K-8 grade children than heterosexual sexuality, and needs to be explicitly restricted by the Tennessee government. This of course raises the question of exactly what it is about nonconformist sexuality that is so inappropriate that the government must explicitly legislate against it. I don’t believe that there is an answer to this question that isn’t bigoted, biased and discriminatory.

Returning to the MCGLBTY’s study, it should be obvious that this bill will only make it harder for K-8 grade teachers to stop harassment of gay and lesbian students in school, the top concern on the Committee’s list. Irrespective of what laws are passed, it is hopelessly naive to suggest that children won’t encounter the “complex” issue of sexuality before the age of 14. Children will talk, they will tease, and there will be bullying and harassment based on (real or perceived) sexual preference long before they reach high-school. Making it illegal for teachers to discuss these issues will make it inestimably more difficult for teachers to stamp out this kind of discrimination and provide support to those who need it.

There is a final and related concern with the bill’s suggestion to strip any and all material “discussing” non-heterosexuality from grade K-8 schools. For one, this suggestion goes explicitly against recommendations made by Commissions like MCGLBTY, which encourages school libraries and curricula to include LGBT resources and support for non-heterosexual students. Furthermore, just how far does the Senator expect this arm of the bill to reach? Should schools block LGBT websites from school computers? What about Oscar Wilde novels? Should Tennessee ban the Bible from school libraries? The idea that all material discussing non-hetero sexualities should be taken out of K-8 grade schools is not only hideously impractical, but it is immoral, and based on all available evidence it will only contribute towards bigotry and ignorance of LGBT issues in these children as they mature.

It is hard to believe that a bill like this has even made it past the committee when at the same time on the East Coast, Massachusetts is fighting to improve the lives of LGBT youths, and across the other side of the country on the West Coast California is set to pass a law that would require schools to teach gay rights history as part of the curriculum. It should be clear by now that if this bill is passed, it will damage the entire LGBT community, and plunge the Tennessee education system back 20 years behind states like Massachusetts and California. I hope for the sake of progressive and humanist interests in Tennessee that the bill never makes it that far.