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Tennessee and Missouri legislatures consider "don't say gay" in public schools laws

April 25, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
This is a little disturbing: Legislatures in two states are considering passage of bills that would prevent teachers at public schools from discussing sexual orientation with their students.

In Tennessee, the so-called "Don't Say Gay" law sponsored by Republican state legislator Jon Hensley would prevent such discussion – beyond discussion of natural human reproduction – at the elementary and the middle school level. Discussion of sexual orientation would be allowed in Tennessee high schools. The Tennessee General Assembly House Education Committee recommended the bill for passage. A bill being considered for passage in Missouri has similar language: "Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, no instruction, material, or extracurricular activity sponsored by a public school that discusses sexual orientation other than in scientific instruction concerning human reproduction shall be provided in any public school."

The American Civil Liberties Union and gay rights supporters have objected, on grounds that the bills will chill freedom of speech in schools in those states and are targeted specifically at gays and lesbians.

"Rep. Hensley's decision to move the 'Don't Say Gay' bill forward despite earlier reports that he would not demonstrates his bias toward limiting speech about LGBT issues," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, in a statement. "Singling out particular speech for disparate treatment creates significant First Amendment concerns, let alone fostering discrimination and hampering educators' ability to determine the best instruction necessary to combat bullying or to teach about history."

Opponents further noted that children at the elementary and middle school levels regularly hear the word "gay" and other words associated with sexual orientation and the words they are hear are derogatory more than half the time. I can readily believe that, given how often I hear perfectly nice kids in school hallways around the area say "That's so gay," or use other derogatory words about gays without giving it a second thought. Kids who are gay or are perceived as being gay are a lot more likely to be ostracized or bullied and it starts as young as grade school.

On the other hand, I also can see the point of parents who object to schools undermining their religious beliefs with a classroom discussion of sexual orientation. Churches, particularly conservative churches, still teach that homosexuality is "disordered" and acting on homosexual attraction is a sin, though gays and lesbians themselves are to be treated with understanding and dignity and viewed as valuable children of God. This law is apparently designed to prevent schools in Tennessee and Missouri from usurping the role of the parents in educating their children about these issues.

Regardless of the intent, I think the laws are misguided. The ACLU's complaints about the chilling of freedom of speech is well-taken. Also, no mainstream religion teaches that it is acceptable to bully anyone for their sexual orientation or for any other reason, to call names or to be cruel in other ways. If teachers can't even say the word "gay" or any of its associated slurs in school, how are they supposed to tell the kids what they are doing wrong when they hurl an insult at another kid or bully him for being different?

I hope the Tennessee and Missouri legislatures fail to pass these very bad laws. I also hope the idea does not spread to other state legislatures.


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