A GOP senator defeated legislation asking voters to scrap trans-inclusive policies at AZ schools

A lone Republican lawmaker blocked the passage of a ballot referral that would have given Arizona voters the chance to kill trans-inclusive school policies across the state.

If it had been approved by voters in November, the mandates in Senate Concurrent Resolution 1013 would have eliminated a wide range of inclusive practices used by teachers and school officials to help trans and gender nonconforming students feel more welcome. 

Teachers would have been prevented from using a student’s preferred pronouns or name without first obtaining written parental permission, which critics warned might endanger youth with hostile families. And schools would have been forced to strictly monitor bathrooms, locker rooms, multi-occupancy showers and sleeping quarters on school trips to bar trans students from entering spaces inconsistent with their biological sex, or else face lawsuits from offended cisgender students seeking monetary damages for “psychological, emotional and physical harm.”



The initiative’s author, Sen. John Kavanagh, sought to combine two bills vetoed by Gov. Katie Hobbs last year. By sending them to Arizona voters, the Fountain Hills Republican hoped to avoid any rejection from the Democratic governor, who has said she will veto any and all anti-LGBTQ measures. Legislatively referred initiatives don’t require the governor’s approval before being placed on the November ballot. 

But early on, the proposal’s fate was unclear. Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, shared during the initiative’s hearing in the Senate Education Committee that he had family members who would have been affected by its provisions if they were still in school. And despite voting for it in committee, he warned that his support on the Senate floor was not guaranteed. 

Republicans control the upper chamber with a slim one vote majority, and any holdouts have the power to kill legislation. 

On Monday, Bennett delivered on his warning, voting against the measure. While he agreed with the intent of the underlying legislation, he said, wrapping it up in a ballot initiative was the wrong move. 

“If something goes awry, if there are unintended consequences, we can’t do anything about it here,” Bennett said. “We have to go back to the people to fix something and I am very concerned about that.”

That’s because Arizona voters in 1988 approved the Voter Protection Act, which amended the state constitution to forbid lawmakers from modifying voter approved initiatives without going back to the ballot for permission, unless those changes advance the purpose of the original initiative. 

Bennett told the Arizona Mirror that the resolution, which combines two bills that he voted in favor of last year, was simply too “extensive” to support, and threatened to result in problems that would be difficult for lawmakers to resolve.

“I’m always very cautious of putting complicated legislation in a referral to the voters because, if something goes awry, we can’t fix it,” he said. “We would have to wait two years, and I don’t want to fix things every two years.”

Bennett couldn’t share any specific issues he foresaw occurring, saying only that the legislation seeks to govern complicated areas of student life. 

“You’re talking about very delicate situations, about kids wanting to be called by nicknames or pronouns or whatever,” he said. 

The initiative failed by a vote of 15-14, one vote shy of the 16 needed for passage, with Bennett joining Democrats to vote it down. Every other Republican in the chamber voted to approve the measure. 

Kavanagh said he was disappointed in the proposal’s failure to move forward, but told the Mirror it’s not entirely dead yet. While it’s unlikely that it will be resurrected this year, as Kavanagh is unwilling to make any more amendments to the proposal, he noted that he anticipates introducing it again next year if he can secure the votes. 

This is the second time a GOP lawmaker has bucked their party’s support to defeat culture war inspired legislation since the party adopted a vehemently anti-LGBTQ stance two years ago. 

In 2022, Sen. Tyler Pace, a Mesa Republican, cast the deciding vote to kill a proposal that would have outlawed puberty blockers and hormone therapy for minors, saying he was unwilling to support a bill that over a dozen speakers testified would increase suicidality among trans youth. A week later, the proposal was revived as a ban on gender-affirming surgeries for minors which Pace voted to approve and then Gov. Doug Ducey later signed into law

But the damage was done; the move contributed to Pace being labeled a RINO, and conservative spending campaigns donated to primary opponents, leading to his loss in that year’s primary election. 

Bennett said supporters have already reached out to him expressing concerns about a similar fate, but said he stands by his decision and doesn’t vote based on his reelection bids. The multi-term legislator has served at the state Capitol in two different stints as a lawmaker since 1999, and represents a staunchly Republican district based in Yavapai County. 

LGBTQ and education advocacy groups celebrated the initiative’s defeat. Bridget Sharpe, director for the state chapter of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ lobbying organization, called it a win for students across Arizona. 

“After courageous advocacy from LGBTQ+ advocates and bipartisan rejection in the state Senate, this dangerous anti-equality ballot measure is now dead,” she said in an emailed statement. “All students deserve to feel safe and secure in school as their authentic selves, and (Monday’s) vote sends a powerful message that discrimination has no place in our state.”

Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, denounced anti-LGBTQ legislation, calling on GOP lawmakers to protect students, not continually enact measures that jeopardize their ability to focus on school. 

“LGBTQ students who experience discrimination at school are 3 times more likely to be absent, and they have lower GPAs, are less likely to graduate and experience more anxiety and depression,” she wrote, in an emailed statement. “As the tragic death of Nex Benedict in Oklahoma earlier this month reminds us, the stakes here can be literally life or death. 

Benedict, a16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, was beaten unconscious in the school bathroom by three girls, and died the next day. Their death ignited student protests and criticism against Oklahoma lawmakers, who have introduced more than 50 anti-LGBTQ proposals this year.

The defeated ballot initiative isn’t the only anti-LGBTQ proposal being pushed through the Arizona legislature this year, but it was the likeliest to succeed. Hobbs has repeatedly vowed to veto any anti-LGBTQ bills that end up on her desk. Still, Arizona Republicans continue advancing the bills, largely as a signal to their conservative constituents. 

On Monday, the GOP majority in the Senate did greenlight Senate Bill 1166, which would require teachers to notify parents of their child’s preferred pronoun or name use within five days, and Senate Bill 1182, which would keep trans students out of school shower facilities consistent with their gender identity. 

Kavanagh introduced the bills as revised versions of the pronoun and bathroom ban he sponsored last year that were vetoed by Hobbs, and has framed them as more tailored proposals that seek to address the concerns previously raised by opponents, including the governor.   

But for trans Arizonans like Kanix Gallo, a 16-year-old Chandler High School student, the bills are a terrifying and disheartening example that lawmakers still don’t see him for who he is. 

As a freshman student, Gallo experienced the misgendering and deadnaming that GOP proposals would effectively lead to for students without understanding parents. Some of Gallo’s teachers in his first year of high school repeatedly used the wrong pronouns and name, which left him feeling disillusioned in his education and unwilling to go to their classes. His intense discomfort resulted in a streak of absences. Gallo described being referred to by the wrong name as a “physical pain” and said it hurt to repeatedly correct one teacher in particular who refused to use the right pronouns and often dismissed his objections. 

By contrast, his senior year has been improved with teachers who do respect his identity, drastically raising his commitment to school. 

“It makes me want to be in their class,” he said. “It makes me want to learn what they’re teaching me and it makes me feel respected and not just a student to them, but a person.” 

But while Gallo now feels more accepted in class, the rhetoric at the state Capitol conflicts with that welcoming policy, spreading onto the school grounds and changing how his peers view him. Gallo said he’s seen kids who previously weren’t interested in LGBTQ issues voicing vitriol after hearing about discriminatory legislation. 

And the teen, who has at times spoken at school board meetings to request more support for LGBTQ students amid the hostility at the state house, has even been met with verbal attacks from a classmate who told him he didn’t “deserve to live”. 

“It’s terrifying, walking around school knowing that there are people who would physically harm you because of your gender,” Gallo said.

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