LGBTQ groups criticize Texas bill’s broad restrictions on school lessons and activities about sexuality and gender identity

Free pronoun buttons at the Austin school district "Pride Out!" Party in the Park event at Eastside Early College High School in Austin last year. (Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune, Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas Senate’s latest sweeping public education bill would severely restrict classroom lessons, school activities and teacher guidance about sexual orientation and gender identity in all public and charter schools up to 12th grade.

Senate Bill 8’s Republican backers say the legislation is needed to expand the rights of parents, whom they say are the best people to teach their children about these issues. But bill opponents say the legislation would violate constitutional free speech protections, ban lessons on some aspects of American history and force the Texas school system to ignore that LGBTQ people exist.

The proposed restrictions are part of a new version of the bill unveiled Wednesday just as lawmakers began debating the legislation, which largely focuses on allowing parents to opt out of the public education system and use taxpayer money to pay for their children’s private schooling.

As legislators heard testimony from hundreds of people supporting or opposing education savings accounts on Wednesday, dozens of LGBTQ rights advocates and allies rallied inside the Texas Capitol in opposition to the proposed restrictions on sexual orientation and gender identity — and numerous other bills they say are targeting their community.

[Texas Republicans have filed dozens of bills affecting LGBTQ people. Here’s what they’d do.]

“Where does it stop?” Andrea Segovia, senior field and policy adviser for the Transgender Education Network of Texas, told The Texas Tribune during the rally. “I don’t know how much more clear we can get on the absolute attack that is happening to LGBTQ people, LGBTQ students in this state.”

SB 8 is a priority for Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate. Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, authored the bill, which brings together several education proposals that are part of the GOP’s broader push to expand parental rights this legislative session.

Gov. Greg Abbott has also made expanding parental rights a priority, even though state law already ensures parents have a range of access and veto powers when it comes to their children, including the ability to remove their child temporarily from a class or activity that conflicts with their religious beliefs and review all instructional materials.

SB 8’s supporters have framed education savings accounts as a tool to give parents more choices when deciding how and where to educate their children. In an interview with the Tribune last week, Creighton said SB 8 packages the education savings program and restrictions on LGBTQ instructions because parents he had talked to view these issues as “inextricably linked.”

An earlier version of the bill would have allowed such lessons and activities if they were “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” The new version bans lessons or programming about gender identity and sexual orientation up to 12th grade outright with very limited exceptions. The current iteration of SB 8 also goes further than two House bills — which have not yet been debated — that would ban such lessons before ninth grade.

Creighton told the Tribune that the bill’s proposed ban includes all grade school levels because he doesn’t want to set an arbitrary target.

“It’s not personally for me a third, fifth, or eighth or 10th, or 11th, or 12th grade issue — it’s just not having any of that instruction at all,” he said. “That’s more of a conversation between family members and parents.”

The current version of SB 8 does not specifically target learning about LGBTQ people. But given its broad ban on school instructions and activities regarding gender identity and sexual orientation, the bill’s opponents worry that it would be used to restrict acknowledgement that the community exists. Republican lawmakers this year are also trying to block transgender kids’ access to certain transition-related health care treatments that major medical groups support, limit when kids can see drag shows and restrict the college sports teams that trans student athletes can join.

“This … is just another example of [them] trying to remove LGBTQ people from the state that they live in at all costs,” Segovia said.

SB 8’s current version also could be construed to mean that teachers couldn’t acknowledge that some people are straight or that many people’s gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth. Creighton’s office did not immediately respond to questions late Wednesday, including whether the bill would prevent teachers from mentioning, for instance, that Abraham Lincoln was with his wife when he was assassinated.

Many of the criticisms about SB 8 also echo a Florida ban that critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which currently limits classroom lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation only through third grade. Florida is now looking to expand its restrictions through 12th grade.

In Texas, LGBTQ advocacy and teachers groups say they have a lot of questions about what SB 8 could affect. In a statement to the Tribune, Equality Texas CEO Ricardo Martinez raised concerns that high school students would not learn about key moments in U.S. history, like the Stonewall riots and the recent passage of the Respect for Marriage Act.

In a separate statement, Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, questioned whether teachers could be penalized for discussing pronouns relating to gender identity. Altogether, advocates worry that the bill could create a chilling effect on speech in schools, especially for teachers and staff who are LGBTQ.

Some also said that the bill ignores the rights of LGBTQ parents and parents who want their children to know about gay, lesbian and trans people.

The new bill explicitly allows school personnel to offer physical or mental health-related services to students, as subject to parental consent. It also notes that its language “may not be misconstrued to limit” a student’s First Amendment right to engage in speech or expressions.

“It’s not about the students expressing their opinions or certain thoughts. It’s about teaching instructions,” Creighton said during the Wednesday hearing.

But Brian Klosterboer, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas, is unconvinced by those assertions and noted that Florida’s ban has faced legal challenges which argue that the law is unconstitutional.

“The fact that they try to say, ‘It may not be construed to limit student’s First Amendment rights’ is almost a mockery of the First Amendment rights that students have because the [ban] is so vague and overbroad that it chills so much speech in the school environment,” he told the Tribune. “But the Supreme Court has been very clear that students not only can engage in speech, but they also have a First Amendment right to receive information … and so even that one clause doesn’t salvage this bill.”

Opponents also say the proposed ban won’t keep kids from learning about gender identity and sexual orientation — thanks to the internet and other resources outside of campus. But, they say, it would increase the odds that students will turn to unreliable places since they can’t discuss the issues with their teachers who can provide trustworthy information.

“We can keep our head in the sand, but every kid from at least middle school is walking around with a smartphone,” Capo told the Tribune prior to the hearing. “Sometimes parents would rather have the schools and the teachers do it because it’s an uncomfortable place for them as well.”

Creighton said it’s important to address the problem of students accessing unreliable materials online, but he said he still thinks families are the most reliable place to discuss these topics.

But opponents say the bill is focusing on the wrong issues.

“The additional section to restrict instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity is a theme of continuous attacks on the LGBTQ+ community,” Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said in a statement to the Tribune. “We need to stop with political pandering and instead focus on providing all students with a quality education — this begins with fully funding our public schools.”

Disclosure: Equality Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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