GOP bill restricting pronouns advances, despite resistance from LGBTQ advocates

After listening to nearly an hour of testimony from transgender constituents and advocates imploring them to reject a proposal that would restrict preferred pronoun use in schools, Republicans on the Senate Education panel voted to pass the bill on Wednesday. 

The measure, Senate Bill 1001, would bar teachers from using the pronouns or names that a student requests unless written parental permission is obtained first. It would also protect staff who have a “religious or moral conviction” against doing so from being forced to comply. 

Daniel Trujillo, a 15-year-old trans boy, spoke against the bill, saying that it would take away a safe space from trans students across the state who might not have the benefit of a welcoming home environment. 

“I couldn’t imagine having to focus on schoolwork while my teachers are being my biggest bullies,” he said, “That’s what this bill does: It encourages teachers to hurt students.”

Fountain Hills Republican Sen. John Kavanagh, who introduced the legislation, framed the proposal as a protection for students who struggle from gender dysphoria. Keeping parents in the loop, he said, ensures that they’re able to place children in counseling or offer other support. 

He also dismissed concerns that the bill may lead to children being harmed or thrown out by hostile families, saying the majority of parents want to help and in the few cases where it does happen, organizations like Child Protective Services can step in. 

“You don’t want a kid committing suicide because parents are kept in the dark,” Kavanagh warned. 

Erica Keppler, a trans woman and co-founder of Arizona TransAlliance, strongly objected to his assertion that gender dysphoria — a condition wherein a person’s sex at birth doesn’t match the gender they identify with — leads to a higher risk of suicide risk.

“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, eliciting loud applause from the audience. 

Enacting legislation that creates a discriminatory environment at school only worsens that problem, she said. Studies show that gender-affirming care, which often includes preferred pronoun use, fosters a sense of belonging at school and acceptance from adults, which  contributes to lower rates of suicide risk

Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, pointed out that her name could be shortened to ‘Chris’ — a nickname often perceived as male. Kavanagh acknowledged the loophole but said he wouldn’t “lose sleep over it”. Marsh, a former high school teacher, also questioned the logic behind allowing teachers with religious or moral objections to undermine parents who gave their children permission to use preferred pronouns, given that the bill purports to defend parental rights. 

“I’m trying to balance the employee’s right,” Kavanagh explained. “All of society is about balancing rights. To go back to a classic Supreme Court example, I have a right to swing my fist, (as long as) it stops at your nose.” 

Karen Orlando, who shared the story of her trans child finding a supportive community at school when she was slow to provide it, rebutted that teachers aren’t allowed to share their religious and moral convictions in other areas, and the same should hold true in how they address students. 

“We don’t allow teachers who might have a moral objection to evolution to not teach that in science. We don’t allow teachers who might morally believe the world is flat to teach that in geography,” she said. “Are pronouns such a big ask?”  

Sadie Redfern, a Phoenix school teacher and trans woman, said the bill was a burden on both teachers and students. She cited studies from GLSEN, an education organization that provides guidance on how to best support LGBTQ youth, that show absenteeism rates decline and performance improves when students feel supported in the classroom

Kavanagh’s bill, Redfern said, does the opposite, by removing critical student supports and telling students that school isn’t a safe space to be themselves. 

“Such legislation sends a message of hopelessness to LGBTQ students,” she said. 

Not everyone agreed that preferred pronoun use is a practice that is beneficial to students. Conservative activist Heather Rooks, a member-elect of the Peoria Unified School board, criticized the policy as an attempt to “sexualize” students. 

“Asking for preferred pronouns is asking someone to reveal their sexual attraction,” she said, to confused murmurs from the audience. “Why are we so focused on the sexualization of these kids? We need to focus on the academics. These kids are struggling right now.” 

Gender identity and sexual orientation are not correlated; the first denotes a person’s internal sense of being and the second refers to their physical or romantic attraction to others. 

Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, echoed that idea in her final remarks, noting that the “politics” of pronouns should be left out of the classroom and that parental rights should take precedence. 

“It’s not the job of the teacher to make sure that children feel safe with their sexuality in the classroom, that is the job of the parent. If there’s a problem with somebody’s safety or they’re feeling unsafe in the classroom, then that’s a whole other topic entirely,” she said. 

Wadsack added that she sympathized with trans students, who face worsening mental health outcomes when they aren’t affirmed in the classroom, but said she worried also about the mental health of students who are forced to use pronouns they don’t agree with. 

Democrats on the panel slammed the bill as cruel and unhelpful at a time when so many other concerns are threatening schools across the state. 

“In a year when we’re facing this very significant fiscal cliff for our public schools, in a year that we have this growing public school teacher retention crisis and pressing student mental health needs, we’re sitting here and debating the merits of a bill that will be nothing, ultimately, but a press release,” said Marsh. 

It’s unlikely that the bill will ever become law. Gov. Katie Hobbs has denounced anti-LGBTQ laws in the past and vowed to only sign bills that earn bipartisan support. Despite this, the proposal was moved forward along party lines, with the backing of all four Republican committee members and the opposition of the panel’s three Democrats. 

Committee Chairman Ken Bennet, R-Prescott, warned, however, that his vote in support wasn’t an indication of his future approval, saying that he disagreed with the provision that allows teachers to go against explicit parental permission. 

“If you’re going to teach in public schools, you should respect the wishes of the parents and their students as to how they’re addressed,” he said.

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