Story and photos by Matthew Giffin / Contributing Writer
Brian Wilson, an audio production student at Middle Tennessee State University, said he identified as queer. This senior from Delaware didn’t realize this until the summer after his freshman year of college, he said. However, he believed there was always “some underlying thing” that made him “feel different” since he was in high school.
Due to the social pressures of some of his family and friends, Wilson chose not to learn more about himself. “I don’t want any of those problems or stress in my life,” he stated.
Yet, Tennessee is looking to sign a bill into law that could prohibit public schools from using instructional materials for students that “promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender issues or lifestyles.”
Tennessee has revived a bill that many are comparing to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, popularly dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. House Bill 800 is on the Senate Education Committee’s calendar for Wednesday after initially being revived in January.
“I think it’s horrendous,” Wilson said about the bill. “These stories exist.”
The bill was first filed in Feb. 2021 by State Rep. Bruce Griffey.
What the bill Does and Doesn’t Say
The bill contains only one prohibition, but it is far-reaching: local education agencies (LEAs), like boards of education, and public schools cannot use “textbooks and instructional materials or supplemental instructional materials that promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.” The word “address” makes the bill seem like an attempt at erasing instruction about these topics altogether.
“I think the crazy part of it to me is that simply addressing LGBT issues would be banned,” another MTSU student said. Tracy Olsen is an aspiring public school art teacher who works as an Extended School Program caregiver at Scales Elementary School in Murfreesboro. Acting as if these issues do not exist is not what schools need to be doing, she also said.
Some have expressed fears that students won’t be able to discuss LGBTQ topics in school at all, but the bill clarifies that public school teachers’ instructional materials will be restricted, not student speech.
However, the bill’s meaning for classroom assignments that students submit to teachers is unclear. “What about students that come from gay families?” Wilson asked. “If they do a project about their [gay] dad, is that not allowed?”
Most of the bill’s text consists of a preface outlining the reasons for its prohibitions. The main reason outlined by the bill is to ensure that LGBTQ lifestyles are discussed in the same way as “Christian values” in public school classrooms. Furthermore, the bill says promoting, normalizing, supporting or addressing LGBTQ topics or any “controversial social issues” is “inappropriate.”
The Treatment of Christianity in Schools
The bill explicitly cites “Christian values” and offended Christian parents and students as a reason for banning instructional materials that address LGBTQ issues. The bill’s Republican author is seemingly one of those parents.
“The state of Tennessee is not allowed to teach my daughters Christian values that I think are important and they should learn, so I teach them at home,” Griffey told Fox19 NOW in January. “So, if those issues are not part of the school curriculum, I don’t see how LGBTQ and other issues and social lifestyles should be part of the curriculum.”
Christianity and religion have not been erased from Tennessee public school curriculum. Teachers still instruct students about Christian beliefs, historical figures who are Christian and events with religious significance.
Wilson, who also identifies as a Christian, said he doesn’t think this bill treats LGBTQ issues the same as Christianity and other religions. “Just cutting queer people out of existence isn’t doing what they want it to,” he said. Instead, he believes the bill is an “underhanded” attempt to “cut [LGBTQ people] out of the picture.”
The Current State of LGBTQ Topics in Schools
In Tennessee, public school instruction that promotes LGBTQ lifestyles is not common.
“LGBTQ topics, in general, aren’t widely discussed,” Olsen, who works mainly with third through sixth graders, said. Olsen said she hasn’t seen these issues instructed in class but has heard students initiate discussions about them.
She said she has overheard children use the word “gay” as an insult and recalled an incident where an LGBTQ student was made fun of by other kids for identifying as lesbian. As a result, kids have “learned that being gay is a taboo subject,” Olsen said.
Tennessee’s House Bill 800 appears to confront a concern that is not widespread in the state.
Wilson said LGBTQ issues were addressed when he was going to public high school in Delaware, but instruction did not go in-depth. Wilson said that ignorance about sexual health for LGBTQ students was widespread because it was not discussed.
“If anything, I think textbooks should include more discussion of LGBTQ history,” Olsen said.
Cover Photo by Toriana Williams / News Editor
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