At least 15 states are considering bills in the 2021-22 legislative session that would affect ways of discussing, addressing, or interacting with LGBTQ youth in schools, according to an Education Week analysis.
The bills—nearly 30 of them in all—variously take aim at school clubs for LGBTQ students, would put limitations on teachers’ and students’ use of gender pronouns, and would restrict or proscribe curriculum, instruction, and library books that feature LGBTQ themes, an Education Week analysis finds. They are only a subset of what LGBTQ-rights organizations have described as a sudden explosion of legislation aimed at LGBTQ people in 2021 and 2022.
Education Week’s analysis shows that, while few of the proposals have passed as legislative sessions come to a close, they often go far beyond Florida’s much-discussed recent legislation, which forbids certain topics in grades K-3.
The bills generally echo broader fears that educators are indoctrinating students in liberal ideas or about social justice. That discourse has fueled legislation aiming to curb how racism and race are discussed in classroom settings. In fact, Education Week found that many of the LGBTQ provisions are located in broader legislative packages that address those topics, or are otherwise styled as a “parent bill of rights.”
Quite a few of the laws take aim at transgender students in particular—a newer theme that has gathered steam in recent legislative cycles. In 2017, many states considered proposals to require trans students to use bathrooms and changing facilities that matched the sex on their birth certificates. In 2021 and 2022, lawmakers have considered restricting which sports teams trans women can play on.
The latest crop of proposals, say those who have studied them, reflects both old and new anxieties.
“Because of all the Zoom schooling, a lot of parents have had a peek into the classroom, and those that didn’t have read or seen reports that in some classrooms some very unorthodox, very liberal, LGBTQ+-type and other controversial position statements and lessons are being taught,” said Arizona Rep. John Kavanagh, who sponsored a bill in that state that would require parents to sign off on students’ decision to join an LGBTQ club at school. “I’m not saying it’s pervasive throughout the school system, but I think a lot of parents want to be assured it’s not something their students are being exposed to, if it’s controversial to the foundational beliefs of the parents.”
But in another sense, the fear driving these is older, said Chris Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, which advocates for LGBTQ people in that state. He pointed to the plethora of bills that address mental health screening, social-emotional survey tools, and sex education.
“One of the old accusations against our communities, and I think this fits into this, is that mental health screenings are this tool to be used to find out who might be gay, and somehow these tools might be used to help solidify people into gender identities or sexual orientations that aren’t cisgender,” he said. “It’s the old accusation of recruiting.”
Education Week has grouped legislation into several categories.
Note: We have not included bills that would outlaw gender-affirming care for transgender people, except those that specifically implicate school personnel. We have also not included bills prohibiting trans athletes from participating on school sports teams that match their gender identity; such legislation has now been passed in 12 states and introduced in many others. We have included only curriculum-related proposals that specifically mention LGBTQ students, though other, broader proposals could also lead to censorship of books and materials with LGBTQ themes.
Curriculum and instruction
The most widely known bill on these topics is Florida’s law, which prohibits instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade and says in later grades, teaching must be “age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate.” The law has already been challenged in federal court. An Ohio proposal introduced this week lifts the Florida bill’s language.
A Tennessee bill would prohibit schools from adopting or using textbooks or materials “that promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.”
A Louisiana bill would prevent any teacher or school employee from covering the topics of sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through 8th grade, and it would prevent them from discussing their own orientation or gender identity as well.
A Kansas parent-rights and curriculum transparency proposal, as introduced, would have prevented both public and private entities from using materials that included depictions of homosexuality. A substitute version eliminated that language, but still would designate some materials as recommended for parental review for their “sexual content.”
One Arizona bill would change the curriculum of sex education to “emphasize biological sex and not gender identities.” A second bill in the state would prohibit schools from giving students “sexually explicit materials.” Initially, the proposal included homosexuality in that definition, but that language was stripped out before it was passed in the House.
A South Carolina bill would prohibit state entities, including schools, from subjecting minors to “instruction, presentations, discussions, counseling, or materials in any medium” that involves topics including “sexual lifestyles, acts, or practices” or “gender identity or lifestyles.”
A Missouri bill would prevent public schools from requiring students to engage in “gender or sexual diversity training,” as would an Indiana bill; a South Carolina bill would extend that to teachers, staff members, and district employees. The language in these bills is identical to draft legislation prohibiting such training at the university level, which has been introduced in numerous states, but lawmakers in only these three states appear ready to extend it to K-12 education.
Three states—Alabama, Arizona, and South Carolina—have introduced a version of legislation called the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act. Its primary focus is to outlaw gender-affirming care for minors—a spectrum of services that can include the use of drugs to delay puberty and cross-sex hormones. (Sex-reassignment surgery is exceedingly rare before age 18.)
What distinguishes this proposal from other such legislation—like Arkansas’ controversial 2021 law, which has since been challenged in federal court—is its specific mention of school district employees in the list of people prohibited from providing gender-affirming services.
It also stipulates that “no nurse, counselor, teacher, principal” at a public or private school shall “encourage or coerce a minor to withhold from the minor’s parent or legal guardian the fact that the minor’s perception of his or her gender or sex is inconsistent with the minor’s sex,” or withhold any information related to that perception.
An Arizona bill would require students to get their parents’ written permission to participate in a group or club involving “sexuality, gender, or gender identity,” and allows parents to review foundational documents of any such club.
A Tennessee parents’-rights proposal does not specifically reference LGBTQ clubs, but would require parents’ permission for students to participate in clubs, and would allow them to see which library books their children had checked out, among other things.
Disclosure of student pronouns/gender identity
Several proposals seek to make clear that parents have the right to determine the names and pronouns used for their child at school, or direct educators to disclose a student’s gender identity to parents.
A Wisconsin proposal includes parent’s rights to choose pronouns in a larger parents’-rights piece of legislation; the bill has been approved by both chambers in the legislature but has not yet been signed into law.
An Iowa bill would require schools to give a week’s notice to parents before educators ask students which pronoun they prefer or before administering a survey on pronoun use, and to send them the response upon request.
A wide-ranging Rhode Island bill would also require children to “be addressed by their common names and the pronouns associated with their biological gender” unless parent permission is given to change them.
An Indiana proposal would include parents’ written consent for students to receive sex education, including on “transgenderism” [sic]; it would also require parents to give consent for medical inspections or mental health treatment, including on counseling about “gender transitioning issues,” pronoun selection, and referral to other agencies that provide these services.
An Arizona parents’-rights proposal initially stated that school officials cannot “withhold or conceal,” or “facilitate, encourage, or coerce” students to conceal, a student’s gender identity or “requested transition” if it is “incongruous with their biological sex.” Parents also would need to consent before students are asked questions on a survey about gender expression, perception, or stereotypes. Both provisions were removed before the bill advanced.
A North Carolina bill, while primarily focused on outlawing gender-affirming care, would also require any state employee to report to parents if a minor has “exhibited symptoms of gender dysphoria, gender nonconformity,” or “otherwise demonstrates a desire to be treated in a manner incongruent with their biological sex.”
Several of these proposals appear related to several lawsuits in which parents have sued school districts that have allowed students to select new names or pronouns, allegedly without the parents’ consent or knowledge.
Two proposals in Oklahoma would submit library books to scrutiny over sexual themes; one of them specifically would prohibit public schools or libraries from holding or promoting “books that make as their primary subject the study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender issues or recreational sexualization.” It would also prevent teachers from administering a survey about gender or sexuality.
Book banning and censorship is currently experiencing a boom probably not seen since the McCarthy era of the 1950s, but it is occurring primarily via local school district decision-making, not through legislation.
Teacher beliefs/use of pronouns
Several bills on this theme are derived from the Partisanship Out of Civics Act, model legislation developed by the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, a nonprofit. Its provisions include one that specifies that “no teacher shall be compelled by a policy of any state agency, school district, or school administration to affirm a belief in … the so-called multiplicity or fluidity of gender identities, or like ideas, against his or her sincerely held religious or philosophical convictions.”
A Tennessee bill would indemnify teachers who refused to use a student’s pronoun that is different from their sex at birth. It would make them not civilly liable for doing so and shield them from penalties or firing.
The context for this legislation is a handful of lawsuits in which teachers have allegedly been disciplined for refusing to use the pronoun a student uses, or for speaking against a policy that required them to use pronouns different from their sex at birth. The most high-profile instance occurred in Loudoun County, Va., and ended in a settlement.
Are there other pieces of legislation we’ve missed? Tell us. Write firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2022 edition of Education Week as Beyond ‘Don’t Say Gay’: Other States Seek To Limit LGBTQ Youth, Teaching