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On Wednesday night, after the state Senate voted to approve House Bill 755, the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” State Rep. Cecil Brockman sounded exhausted.
“I can’t believe this is what we’re talking about right now in our short session,” said Brockman, a Guilford County Democrat and vice-chair of the house standing committee on K-12 education. “It shows the complete wrong priorities when it comes to education in North Carolina.”
“After we just saw 19 children killed in a mass shooting in Texas?” Brockman said. “We should be more concerned about guns in classrooms as kids are learning their ABCs than them learning about sexual orientation.”
The bill now heads back to the House. If that chamber approves a Senate amendment, the measure heads to Gov. Roy Cooper, who is expected to veto it. Republicans don’t have the votes to override the Democratic governor’s veto. However, Brockman said bills involving wedge social issues are often not expected to pass, but rather highlight divisive issues for coming elections.
Brockman, a Black Democat and one of only a handful of out LGBTQ state lawmakers, said Republicans see a rare opportunity to score with non-white voters.
A Black religious conservative, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson is expected to run for governor. He has made headlines condemning gay couples as inferior to straight couples, and LGBTQ people as “filth” that shouldn’t be referenced in public schools. Many of those speeches have been given in churches where that rhetoric resonates, Brockman said.
“When you talk to folks in the Black community and you say, ‘Democrats want to teach about homosexuality in our schools and we’re trying to get them not to,’ that, I think, plays with a lot of folks in the Black community,” Brockman said. “I fear us falling into that trap, looking like what we’re fighting for is LGBTQ issues to be taught to kindergarteners. That’s not what this is.”
The bill would ban any instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in Kindergarten through third grade. Brockman and other Democats say this doesn’t appear to be a legitimate issue and one that few oppose. But the controversy goes well beyond third grade.
The bill requires schools to notify parents if any student under 18 asks to be addressed by a different gender pronoun. It would also prohibit teachers or administrators from withholding “information about his or her mental, emotional, or physical health,” which would include LGBTQ students expressing frustration that they can’t come out to families who would not support them.
This would have the effect of outing LGBTQ students well before they’re ready, Brockman said. Young people who don’t have supportive families often talk to their friends at school, to teachers or counselors they trust, Brockman said. They join school gay-straight alliance groups where they can find support among their peers. But HB 755 threatens to pull those safe spaces out from under LGBTQ youth, Brockman said.
Brockman only publicly came out as bisexual in 2016 after the fight over HB2 made national headlines. “I can tell you for me, I wasn’t personally ready to come out until I was in my 30s,” Brockman said. “I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready then.”
Provisions of the bill would require schools to “establish a process for parents to learn about the nature and purpose of clubs and activities offered at their child’s school,” which conservative activists have already framed as a method for opposing and eliminating LGBTQ groups in public schools altogether, characterizing them as “sexual grooming.”
It would also require the school to tell parents which books students have checked out from the school library, setting up further challenges to materials that depict LGBTQ characters or discuss the history of LGBTQ people and activism as inappropriate in public schools.
“It’s the government saying there’s something wrong, something dangerous about homosexuality and parents need to be warned,” Brockman said. “And it’s only applying that to people being LGBTQ.”
Breaking a trust
The Trevor Project is a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth. Speakers at the Senate Rules Committee meeting this week cited the group’s estimate that 1.8 million LGBTQ youth in the United States ages 13-24 seriously consider suicide each year, and at least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds.
The Trevor Project’s 2022 national survey of nearly 34,000 LGBTQ youth found that fewer than 1 in 3 transgender or nonbinary respondents found their homes to be gender-affirming. LGBTQ youth who found their schools to be gender-affirming reported lower rates of attempted suicide. Concerns about getting parent or guardian permission for mental health services was one of the top reasons cited by youth who wanted mental health services but didn’t get them.
The bill “endangers the lives of our young people,” said Rev. Vance Haywood Jr. of St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh, said Tuesday.
Austin Horne, an LGBTQ+ specialist at Family Services of the Piedmont, predicted spikes in child abuse and youth homelessness if the bill becomes law.
In his work, Horne works with LGBTQ+ youth who have been abused or kicked out of their homes by their parents or guardians. He often turns to teachers and counselors to help create supportive environments for students.
“I can’t rely on the parents,” he said. “Often, I can rely on supportive teachers or guidance counselors to be there for the kid.”
The bill would turn teachers and guidance counselors into mandated reporters who tell parents if students come out at school or if faculty members overhear students using different pronouns, he said.
“The kid is going to completely lose trust in the institution that they work with, lose trust with the people they have at school supporting them,” Horne said. “When I meet the kid, I can’t rely on the parents. Now, often I can rely on supportive teachers or guidance counselors to be there for the kid. But I don’t think that that is going to be the case anymore, because they are going to be forced to break their students’ trust.”
Bill supporters point the language would excuse teachers and schools from reporting to parents “when a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in the child becoming an abused juvenile or neglected juvenile.”
But that language, like much of the bill, is far too vague, said Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham). As a former judge, Morey said she has seen much of the abuse and neglect children face at home happens in secret. Parents and children alike hide it out of shame and fear of consequences.
Asking already overburdened, underpaid teachers to determine whether a family may abuse a child if they follow a mandate to talk to them about their child’s sexuality or gender identity is too much, Morey said.
The provision would also only cover those things that are legally defined as abuse and neglect in North Carolina, Morey said. Despite multiple attempts to pass one, there is currently no law preventing parents from subjecting their children to so-called “conversion therapy” if they are outed by a teacher or counselor.
The practice – which purports to “cure” people of being LGBTQ – has been completely or partially banned for minors in 25 states and Washington, D.C. It has been condemned by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics as harmful. Decades of research has shown it increases the likelihood of depression, self-harm and suicide but has no impact on sexuality or gender identity.
Some of the largest and most prominent such “conversion” programs have fallen apart amid abuse allegations, lawsuits, criminal charges and their leaders coming out as still LGBTQ and repenting for their involvement in them.
“Unfortunately, in North Carolina, it is still perfectly legal to send children to one of these ‘conversion therapy’ camps,” Morey said. “We have tried to pass bills banning it and we can’t even get a vote. So I do think that would be one of the outcomes of this law, among other abuses, for families that don’t accept their children when they come out or they are outed.”
Morey said she left her hometown because it was not a safe place to be an out lesbian. Republican lawmakers should not be trying to expand the number of places LGBTQ young people have to fear being outed and ostracized, she said.
Young people come out first where they feel safest, said Craig White, supportive schools director with the Campaign for Southern Equality, and often that’s at home. If students are coming out first at school, it means that they are looking for an adult ally to figure out how to talk to their parents, he said, or they don’t feel safe going to their parents.
With a mandatory disclosure law, students won’t confide in adults at school, or could be kicked out of their homes by parents.
“One of the prime sources of youth homelessness is kids coming out to their parents as LGBTQ+,” he said. “We’re cutting off the little support that’s available at a time when they’re already in crisis.”
A chilling effect
Teachers, administrators and counselors say they are already reporting a chilling effect from debate over the bill, White said.
Conservative activists are predicting the bill, should it become law, will give them more ammunition to force public schools to align with their religious values.
White said it’s already having that effect, even before passage. He’s already hearing of principals who’ve told teachers to remove all LGBTQ content from all grades to preempt any trouble. He said he has received calls from educators in two North Carolina school districts where parents are complaining about teachers being out at school.
“If a teacher mentions that they have a partner, just a general neutral partner, not even a woman saying ‘I have a wife,’ the parents are considering that promotion of homosexuality and an attempt to convert children into being LGBTQ,” he said.
“I don’t think I can overstate the level of hostility in the environment towards LGBTQ people in schools right now,” he said. “After the Virginia governor’s race, there was a realization that going after trans kids is a winning midterm election issue. There’s no doubt that a lot of these politicians have mobilized their base and raised millions of dollars off of this hate speech, off of this fear mongering. The problem is the fallout really lands on some of our most vulnerable young people.”
White said that the wording of the bill is so vague that teachers are already concerned about simple assignments such as having young students draw pictures of their families, for fear that it might lead to questions about same-sex parents.
“Those assignments would be off the table,” White said.
The language is so vague and general, he siad, parents could make a complaint about anything.
That, said Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake), is the point.
“There are teachers and there are administrators and school systems where any mention of LGBTQ people is going to be a problem,” Dahle said. “And there are places where parents are going to make it a problem even if it’s not a problem. But it’s not going to be consistent. And in some of the places where these students are most vulnerable, they’re going to be targeted.”
Treating anything related to LGBTQ people or issues as de facto dangerous will only teach students they aren’t safe anywhere, Dahle said.
Transgender students are particularly vulnerable, Dahle said. The bill conflates students wishing to change their gender pronouns with having a mental health problem that must be disclosed to their parents, whether or not their family is supportive.
Gender dysphoria is not a mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association defines it as “a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify.”
More than 40 years’ of research into and treatment of transgender people experiencing dysphoria has led psychiatric and medical professionals to conclude the most effective course of treatment is support and acceptance. Gender transition — aligning one’s life socially and sometimes physically to better match their gender identity — is not something everyone experiencing dysphoria chooses, just as not all transgender people choose to medically transition. For those for whom it is judged necessary, medical experts agree that it can be life-saving.
But misinformation about gender dysphoria and the process of transition – including when and how young people may choose that path – is rampant, according to doctors who work with transgender youth.
Dr. Deanna Adkins is a pediatric endocrinologist who helped establish Duke Child and Adolescent Gender Care at Duke University Hospital. Having treated hundreds of transgender patients at her clinic, Adkins is one of the most widely sought medical experts on the issue in the state.
In an interview with Policy Watch this week, she said she is distressed at the characterizations of transgender people and their treatment she has heard in the debate of this bill.
“There are comparisons that are being made that are inappropriate and descriptions of what we do in terms of treatment that do not reflect reality,” Adkins said.
In a committee meeting this week, Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) told the story of how his son had to have a doctor’s signature and parental permission form to bring over-the-counter antacids and Lactaid to school.
“I understand the procedures that require that,” Hise said. “I understand that I had to be involved, my doctor had to be involved, in deciding for an antacid. Because there’s risk. If it were mixed with something, whatever else, the school doesn’t want it distributed. But compare that to a context where we would have a system in our school system whereby a teacher or a school employee, a child could be diagnosed and receive physical treatment or mental health treatment without ever notifying a parent.”
Hise was vague in his description, but referred to “dealing with a severe, in this case, issue that requires mental health treatment or requires medical care.” Parents must be involved in that process, Hise said, “regardless of how you feel about all these issues.”
Neither being LGBTQ or being transgender necessarily requires mental health treatment or medical care, Adkins said. But if care is needed, she said, parents would already – by law and codes of ethical conduct – have to consent to it.
“We don’t do any treatment of minors without parental consent and we never have,” Adkins said. “That type of treatment isn’t being done in public schools and it isn’t being done by medical professionals without parental consent and involvement.”
Hise’s comparison of his son’s medication and LGBTQ students being able to talk openly to supportive teachers and school staff is inappropriate, Adkins said, but far too common in political discussions of LGBTQ issues today.
Last month Hise was a guest at the conservative “Make Education Great Again” conference. During a panel discussion, he told the story of taking his family to Walt Disney World and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Hise said he was “done with Disney” when he saw rainbow-colored Mickey Mouse ears on offer at the parks. Now he takes his children to Dolly Parton’s Dollywood amusement park in Tennessee, he said.
Parton is a high profile supporter of LGBTQ issues who has released a number of songs and television shows with messages supporting that community. She spoke out against HB2 was nominated for an Oscar for her song from the film Transamerica, a narrative about a transgender woman struggling for acceptance.
Dahle said she was not surprised Hise would make such comments. “That is the mentality that is driving these ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills around the country,” Dahle said. “It’s not a coincidence it’s happening now, with elections coming, and it’s not a coincidence you’re seeing this kind of people with these kinds of views.”
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