A free-speech advocacy group reports that Republican lawmakers have filed since May 15 bills in nine states to ban gender identity discussions and LGBT materials in schools, building on a movement for more parental involvement in academic policies and curricula.
The legislation includes Florida’s H.B. 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill that critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” act, according to New York-based PEN America. The group also notes South Carolina’s H.B. 4605 and H.B. 4343, Tennessee’s H.B. 800, Kansas’ H.B. 2662, West Virginia’s H.B. 4016 and Kentucky’s H.B. 14.
The other bills are Indiana’s H.B. 1040, H.B. 1228 and S.B. 415; Oklahoma’s S.B. 1141, S.B. 1142 and S.B. 1654; and Missouri’s H.B. 1669 and H.B. 1484.
Republican lawmakers filed the 15 bills between May and this month, with most of them coming in the past four weeks.
“The latest onslaught of bills that specifically target classroom discussion and materials about sexual orientation and gender identity is a dangerous attack on students, teachers and the queer community writ large,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America director for free expression and education. “And banning any discussion of an entire group is an effort to erase them and make them invisible, which must be interpreted as an effort to set back their rights overall and indeed deface their humanity.”
But Meg Kilgannon, senior fellow for education studies at the Family Research Council, said parents have a reason to support the bills.
“People who demand the right to put sexual material in front of children over the objections and behind the backs of parents are telling you something very important about themselves,” Ms. Kilgannon said.
The legislation suggests that parents do not trust educators to discuss the experiences of “sexual minorities,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The only question is whether we can muster the faith in each other and our schools to allow American students and teachers to address LGBTQ issues openly and honestly,” Mr. Zimmerman said.
The bills largely target K-12 schools, although some address colleges and universities.
Florida’s bill, backed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, would tell public K-12 teachers not to encourage “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity.”
In Oklahoma, S.B. 1141 would prevent public colleges and universities from requiring students to take any class “that addresses any form of gender, sexual, or racial diversity, equality, or inclusion.”
Some of the bills include book bans, building on recent efforts by parents in some school districts to remove titles like George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a nonfiction “memoir-manifesto” about growing up as “a queer Black man.”
If passed, Oklahoma’s S.B. 1142 would prohibit public school libraries from stocking any books that “make as their primary subject the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, or gender identity or books that are of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know of or approve of prior to their child being exposed to it.”
Oklahoma’s S.B. 1654 proposes a similar ban on libraries distributing any materials that “make as their primary subject the study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender issues or recreational sexualization,” but extends this prohibition to teachers.
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said the laws could set a troubling precedent.
“Legislatures should not ban books, nor should they limit the ability of teachers to discuss topics relevant to the education of their students,” Mr. Grossman said. “Gender and sexuality are important aspects of the human past, and history teachers should be able to include these topics in those cases where they are relevant to the overall landscape of the course.”
However, Tamra Farah, executive director of MomForce at the nonprofit Moms for America, said parents have a right to not let their children read “pornographic-style books” with explicit descriptions or drawings of sexual activity.
“It is time that educators understand it’s not ‘anything goes’ when it comes to curriculum in schools,” Ms. Farah said. “The reality is the education bureaucracy does not have free reign when it comes to classroom content, and pushing gay sex through graphic books and training teachers to urge K-12 children to change their gender is a far cry from showing basic respect for LGBTQ+ students.”
Some faith-based and parental rights advocacy groups have supported the new bills, which would require K-12 schools in Indiana to consult parents before changing a student’s gender pronouns and get parental permission in Arizona for students to join a gender or sexuality club.
Jeff Myers, president of the evangelical Christian education resource Summit Ministries in Colorado, said the legislation would prevent strangers from “sexualizing children at an early age” against parental wishes.
“Opponents of these bills call them ‘gag orders,’ as if they are denying teachers’ freedom of speech, but that’s spin,” Mr. Myers said. “What is happening in classrooms is that pro-LGBTQ literature is being mandated for distribution. Teachers who question it or oppose it are being punished.”
Sheri Few, president of U.S. Parents Involved in Education, said many parents lobbied for the bills to emphasize that compulsory K-12 education “should necessarily focus on core subjects, leaving attitudes, values and beliefs to parents, families, churches and communities.”
“The bills for which PEN America objects are a direct result of the outcry of parents and taxpayers to end the liberal indoctrination of children and protect the authority of parents to teach moral-laden topics to their children,” Ms. Few said.
According to the report, many of the gender discussion bans are folded into larger parental rights bills that focus primarily on race. For example, most of the Kansas bill addresses racial topics before it proposes amending the state’s obscenity law to make it a class B misdemeanor for a teacher to use any material in the classroom depicting homosexuality.