GOP anti-trans school measures are back, and this time they may avoid Hobbs’ veto pen

Faced with the certainty of Gov. Katie Hobbs’ veto, GOP lawmakers are hoping to circumvent her entirely by sending a proposal to voters in November that would restrict how teachers respect the identities of their trans students, and bar those same students from using school facilities that best fit who they are. 

“This bypasses the governor and goes right to the ballot, where — if all the polling I’ve seen is correct —  it’ll probably pass with 60, 65 percent of voters who don’t really believe that this type of stuff should be going on in our schools,” said Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, the proposal’s sponsor, during a hearing in the Senate Education Committee. 

Senate Concurrent Resolution 1013 combines two bills rejected by Hobbs last year that targeted preferred pronoun use and inclusive policies in schools. The proposal would ask voters to require that teachers obtain written parental permission before using a student’s preferred pronouns or name and mandate that schools separate their restrooms, locker rooms and sleeping accommodations by biological sex and provide a single-occupancy alternative for trans students. 

Schools that allow trans students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity would open themselves up to lawsuits from cisgender students, who could win monetary damages for their “psychological, emotional and physical harm.” And school employees with a “religious or moral conviction” against using preferred pronouns or names would be protected from being forced to comply with a student’s request — even if that student’s parents gave their express written permission. 

Samual Kahrs, a trans teen, implored lawmakers on the panel to kill the measure, saying that schools are often the only supportive places for young people navigating their identities. Kahrs himself first came out at school at 11, and the acceptance of his teachers helped persuade his mother. 

Making it more difficult for teachers to create an affirming environment in school is a mistake, he warned, and jeopardizes the mental health of trans youth across the state. 

“I remember the first day my teachers called me Samual, and it was the best day of my life,” Kahrs said. “I’m begging you to vote no on this. I’m begging you to just leave trans kids alone.”

The committee, which is made up of four Republicans and three Democrats, voted 4-3 along party lines to approve the measure and send it to the full Senate for consideration.

Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, denounced the GOP’s push to move its legislative hostility directly to voters. She said she fears what the effects will be on trans youth if they’re forced to contend with an anti-trans ballot campaign. 

While Arizona Republicans have increasingly focused on anti-trans laws and rhetoric in recent years, succeeding in passing a trans athletic ban and a prohibition on gender-affirming surgeries for minors under former Republican governor Doug Ducey, LGBTQ advocates hoped the election of Hobbs, a Democrat, would help prevent any more discriminatory laws. And that has largely been the case, with Hobbs vetoing a bevy of anti-LGBTQ proposals last year, including several that sought to criminalize drag performers and another that would have allowed domestic violence shelters to discriminate against trans women

But, if GOP lawmakers send Kavanagh’s proposal to the November ballot, it’s likely that a wide-reaching messaging effort from anti-LGBTQ groups to convince voters to support it would emerge. 

“This will become a debate on a statewide level, harming god knows how many kids, forcing them into further isolation and harassment,” Marsh said. “I think that the effect of that will be incalculable.” 

Also considered and approved by the Republican-majority Senate Education Committee on Wednesday were two revised iterations of Kavanagh’s pronoun and bathroom ban from last year. Kavanagh reworked the bills on the off-chance that, in their pared down forms, Democrats and Hobbs might be more amenable to supporting them. 

Senate Bill 1166 requires a public school to notify a parent within five days of the first time their child requests the use of preferred pronouns or a name that doesn’t match the biological sex or given name the child was enrolled under. The caveat shielding school employees who refuse to honor the student’s request was still included in the new version. 

Kavanagh said he hopes the revisions will result in less opposition from Hobbs, noting that this year’s iteration simply requires a parental notification and doesn’t prevent teachers from using a student’s preferred pronouns or name until parental permission is obtained, like last year’s version. 

Parents need to be kept in the loop, he added, pointing to gender dysphoria as the reasoning for the notification requirement. Gender dysphoria is a medical condition in which a person feels extreme discomfort when their biological sex isn’t aligned with their gender identity.

“Students that identify with a different gender than their biological sex at birth have a recognized psychiatric disorder called gender dysphoria, which sometimes manifests itself with depression and even suicidal thoughts,” Kavanagh said. “So, if the school knows that a student has this, I think it’s really incumbent (on them) and their responsibility to at least let the parents know what’s going on.” 

But LGBTQ Arizonans, who crowded the hearing room to speak out against the proposals approved on Wednesday, disputed that justification. Erica Keppler, a trans woman, said that suicidality among trans youth isn’t caused by gender dysphoria, but rather by the lack of social acceptance and sometimes outright hostility they deal with.

“No one commits suicide because they are gender dysphoric. They do it because family and society won’t accept them or allow them to live as their true selves,” she said. “The biggest threat to the lives and futures of gender dysphoric youth are unaccepting parents.”

Removing the ability of schools to be welcoming, Keppler added, would only exacerbate the distress trans youth feel. A 2022 national survey from the Trevor Project found that only 32% of transgender respondents thought of their homes as supportive, compared to 51% who found their schools to be affirming.

And while suicidality among transgender youth is disproportionately high, research shows that simply respecting their preferred pronouns and names can decrease that risk by as much as 65%

The testimony from several speakers echoed the criticism made against last year’s bills. Both measures were denounced for threatening to expose the identities of questioning students to their parents without their consent, and both were accused of greenlighting the disrespect of LGBTQ students by protecting school employees who disagree with preferred pronoun use. 

Skylar Morrison, a trans teenager, urged lawmakers not to make high school more difficult for her and her gender nonconforming classmates. She warned that the bill forces trans youth to come out to their parents, and not all families are welcoming. 

“Requiring a parent or guardian to be notified puts vulnerable students at risk — particularly those with unsupportive families — jeopardizing their mental health and, unfortunately, in a lot of cases their physical well-being,” she said. 

Kavanagh disputed that claim, however, arguing that the vast majority of parents are supportive. And he defended the provision that protects dissenting school employees by saying that many laws include religious carve-outs to acknowledge the rights of Arizonans with different beliefs. 

The bill received lukewarm approval from Chairman Ken Bennett, who said he objected to the religious and moral shield because it was too broad. The Republican from Prescott similarly criticized last year’s version, but repeatedly voted for it regardless. 

With his voice shaking from emotion, Bennett told lawmakers on the committee that he found it difficult to consider the bill, despite being an advocate for parental rights, both because of his Mormon faith and because he has close relatives who would have been affected by the bill if it had become law when they were still attending school. 

“The author of the faith that I believe said, at least in my opinion, about the worst thing you can do in this thing we call life, is offend a child,” he said. “So, I find myself nearing that point where it’s very difficult to advance this legislation in the way that it’s written.”

Ultimately, Bennett joined the other Republicans on the panel to move the measure out of the committee on a 4-3 vote, with the addendum that significant changes would need to be made to earn his support on the Senate floor. 

Another bill that was approved, Senate Bill 1182, focuses on mandating that schools separate shower facilities by biological sex, and prohibit transgender students from accessing shower areas consistent with their gender identity. Schools would be required to provide a separate showering space for transgender students who refuse to use the areas designated for them on the basis of their biological sex, or else face lawsuits from uncomfortable cisgender students.

Kavanagh noted that he would have preferred that the proposal retain its original form, which required the same rules for bathrooms, locker rooms and sleeping areas, whether on school grounds or during school trips, but said he felt it was necessary to focus on the most “egregious” issue. 

“This bill simply says a 15-year-old biological female should not have to stand next to, terrified or certainly very uncomfortable, a 20-year-old biological male who identifies as a different gender,” he said. 

Kavanagh has frequently invoked alarming imagery to defend his school facilities bills — of which this is the third iteration — but has been unable to provide any examples of the hypothetical situation occurring in an Arizona public school. When pressed for evidence by Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday, he was still unable to offer any.

Lisa Bivens, an attorney who has represented teachers in court, warned lawmakers that the bill is too vague and would burden schools with lawsuits until the legal parameters can be clarified by the courts. 

The proposal prohibits transgender students from using showers consistent with their gender identity if people of the opposite biological sex “are or could be” present. That language, Bivens said, depends on a theoretical possibility that would be hard for judges to determine. And a provision stating that the bill doesn’t seek to prevent schools from accommodating young children in need of physical assistance during showers only adds further questions, she said. 

“How are my clients supposed to know when the child is young enough or the need is great enough?” she asked. “I am worried our educators will be put into positions where they hesitate to help students because they are unsure what is permitted.” 

Dawn Shim, a Chandler High School student who is nonbinary and founded a student-led organization to call for protections for LGBTQ Arizonans and speak out against hostile legislation, pushed back on Kavanagh’s claims. There is no problem for the proposal to resolve, she said, because shower facilities in schools already have single-occupancy, separated stalls.  

“Every single year, we hear bills that needlessly target trans youth and demonstrate ignorance towards the basic functions of public schools,” they said. “This anti-trans shower bill is a needless measure that only serves one purpose: to exclude transgender youth.”

Gaelle Esposito, a trans woman and a lobbyist for the Arizona branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill likely violates federal nondiscrimination protections. Title IX prohibits schools that receive federal funds from engaging in sex-based discrimination, including on the basis of gender identity. Ultimately, Esposito said, the proposal would only serve to hurt trans youth still navigating their identities and the reactions of those around them. 

“It is stigmatizing and it is discriminatory to expel trans young people from common spaces. No one should be told that they are so shameful that they shouldn’t be allowed in the proximity of their peers,” she said. 

The committee voted to approve the bill 4-3, with only Democrats in opposition. Bennett once more warned that his vote on the Senate Floor is not guaranteed.

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