A bill introduced in both houses of the Tennessee Legislature would prohibit public schools from using textbooks or instructional materials “that promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.”

Tennessee flag

The House bill (PDF) says that this type of material is “inappropriate” and “offends a significant portion of students, parents, and Tennessee residents with Christian values.” It claims that “the promotion of LGBT issues and lifestyles should be subject to the same restrictions and limitations placed on the teaching of religion in public schools,” and should therefore not be permitted. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Bruce Griffey (R – District 75) and will get a hearing March 30. A similar bill in the state Senate awaits a committee hearing. Another pair of bills would require schools to notify parents or guardians before “instruction of a sexual orientation or gender identity curriculum.” I guess that’s just in case the complete ban doesn’t pass.

Fact is, at least two federal lawsuits brought in the past two years against states that had banned mention of LGBTQ people in their health curriculum led to overturning those laws (in South Carolina, by a court ruling and in Arizona by legislative repeal after the lawsuit was filed). The Tennessee bill isn’t restricted to the health curriculum, but would presumably include it.

Currently five other states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas) have similar “Don’t Say Gay” laws, according to the Movement Advancement Project. In contrast, six states require inclusion of LGBTQ people in the curriculum (California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and Oregon). A similar law in the U.K., Section 28, was enacted in 1988 but fully repealed in 2003.

“Don’t Say Gay” laws get fuzzy (and ugly) really fast when, say, a kid with same-sex parents starts talking about their family vacation and another kid asks how they can have two moms or two dads. Could the teacher (or the kid) stop to explain without running afoul of the law? Could they look to LGBTQ-inclusive kids’ books to help? What might the child with two parents think if the teacher just shuts down conversation? Or what if a kid brings in a book for reading time that includes LGBTQ characters? Or if a child is transgender or gender creative? Can the teacher help other children understand this or must the trans or gender creative child be the one to change who they are? There’s a fragile line between banning materials that depict certain identities and banning people with those identities.

In addition, a number of other current Tennessee bills are explicitly anti-transgender, including ones that would force transgender athletes to compete on teams of their gender assigned at birth, and several that could negatively impact gender-affirming care for trans youth. Tennessee is also one of eleven states that allows adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others in the name of religion.

Want to take action? Visit the Tennessee Equality Project to see what’s happening next week (and in the future) and what you can do about it.