Equity & Diversity

In a First, a State May Ban Its Schools From Teaching About Gender Identity

By Evie Blad — February 08, 2018 4 min read
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A South Dakota lawmaker has proposed a bill that would prohibit public schools from teaching kindergarten through 7th-grade students about gender identity or gender expression.

If the legislature approves the bill, the state would become the first with such a restriction, which has stoked concerns from groups who advocate for transgender students. A handful of states restrict teaching about homosexuality in schools.

“Why are we getting into something as controversial as gender identification education when our test scores are horrific?” the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Phil Jensen, told the Argus Leader. He said schools need to use their time to focus on traditional academic subjects.

Jensen also co-sponsored a bill that would require public schools to publicly post their policies on restroom access for transgender students. That bill stops short of a 2016 measure passed by the legislature and later vetoed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard that would have made the state the first to restrict students’ restroom access based on their biological sex at birth. North Carolina later passed a similar measure, setting off a series of lawsuits between that state and the federal government that ended shortly after Donald Trump became president.

South Dakota civil rights groups oppose both bills related to transgender students proposed this year. The proposal to prohibit teaching about gender expression “plainly targets transgender and non-conforming students,” the ACLU of South Dakota said.

“By prohibiting any mention of transgender experience in school, it prevents teachers and administrators from creating a safe and welcoming environment for their students,” the organization said on its website. “But this bill is so broad it affects every student in South Dakota. Everyone has a gender identity, so this bill would affect all students by inhibiting discussion of everyone’s experience of gender in the world. Everybody deserves to be safe and respected at school. This bill would prevent teachers and staff from providing essential support to all of their students.”

Gov. Daugaard told the Argus Leader he supports leaving classroom content to local school districts, which apply standards set by the state board of education.

“I don’t know that our standards of education are properly the subject of legislative enactments,” he said.

It’s not clear how many schools in South Dakota address issues like sexual orientation and gender identity in their teaching.

As the issue of gender identity has risen in prominence in recent years, some schools have made efforts to accommodate children going through gender transitions. They’ve ended practices like dividing students into groups of boys and girls, relying on other methods of breaking up a class for activities. Some have read books about the experiences of transgender children, like one created by reality TV star Jazz Jennings.

The Lincoln, Neb., district faced public pushback in 2014 when it trained its teachers on gender inclusiveness. That training included a handout that portrayed gender as a spectrum, rather than a binary system.

While no state has a law specifically restricting teaching about gender identity, the LGBT student group GLSEN counts seven with laws that prohibit “the promotion of homosexuality” in public schools. Those laws can affect everything from what gay and lesbian students learn in sex education classes to whether they are portrayed in books carried in school libraries.

“While ‘no promo homo’ laws do not necessarily preclude educators from portraying transgender people and issues in school, educators who are prohibited from presenting homosexuality in a positive light may believe these prohibitions apply to transgender people and issues as well,” the organization said in a research brief. “Thus, we believe that ‘no promo homo’ laws may also stigmatize transgender individuals and restrict transgender youth from learning about themselves and their communities in school.”

Schools face some legal uncertainty after a shift at the federal level related to the rights of transgender students. Civil rights guidance issued by the Obama administration previously asserted that Title IX, the federal gender-nondiscrimination law, guarantees the rights of transgender students to have access to restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. That guidance also said schools must address bullying related to gender identity and call students by their desired names and pronouns.

The Trump administration rescinded that guidance in February, leaving it to schools to interpret federal law and stirring concern from some student advocacy groups.

Related reading on LGBT students and schools:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.