Like an irksome zombie, Tennessee’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which so many opponents had thought was dead, is alive once again—and this time there’s a twist. The infamous measure was first introduced in 2011 and prohibited any instruction or discussion of homosexuality in classrooms from kindergarten through eighth grade. After passing the state Senate but dying in the House, the bill was reintroduced Wednesday with a new provision: teachers would be required to out their gay students to their parents.
Could it pass this time? And who’s pushing this thing, anyway? Here are five things you should know about Tennesee’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
1. Last Time Around, It Died for a Good Reason
The “Don’t Say Gay” bill first cleared a Tennessee Senate panel in April 2011. Officially called S.B. 49, the bill was sponsored by Republican State Sen. Stacey Campfield—who had previously tried unsuccessfully to push the idea as a member of the state House for six years. Prohibiting the discussion of any sexuality except for heterosexuality in kindergarten through eighth grade, “even with students who may be gay or have gay family,” the measure quickly earned its now widespread nickname.
Even so, the bill passed the Senate, ultimately dying an expensive and embarrassing death in the House after two years of debate. “We found out there really is not sex education curriculum in K-8 right now,” GOP Rep. Bill Dunn said at the time, pointing out that sexuality isn’t discussed at all in Tennessee schools until ninth grade, rendering the bill useless.
It took two years to realize this.
But wait, there’s more. Campfield reintroduced the legislation Wednesday with a new caveat: not only would discussing homosexuality be banned, but teachers would have to tell parents when students are—or even just might be—gay.
2. It’s Really Called the Classroom Protection Act
The new, and Campfield thinks improved, measure is S.B. 0234, or the Classroom Protection Act. It begins by stating that “certain subjects are particularly sensitive and are, therefore, best explained and discussed within the home.” The bill states that “human sexuality” is among those subjects.
The key language—and the wording that earns the “Don’t Say Gay” nomenclature—is the reference to “natural human reproduction” in this passage:
3. Even If a Kid ‘Might Be Gay,’ Teachers Have to Report It
The bill does not prohibit school officials from counseling students who are engaging in—or “who may be at risk of engaging in”—activity “inconsistent with natural human reproduction,” but it does require that they notify parents or legal guardians of the counseling. In other words, if students seek advice or counseling about being gay, question being gay, or are treated by peers in a way that indicates they are suspected of being gay, school officials must out them to their parents.
It goes a step further, requiring that school officials notify parents if they notice a student “whose circumstances present immediate and urgent safety issues involving human sexuality.” So if a teacher even suspects a child might be gay, he or she must out the student to parents. How can we be sure that Campfield thinks homosexuality is one of those “immediate and urgent safety issues”? He flat out said it: “The act of homosexuality is very dangerous to someone’s health and safety.”
Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project says that the provision “seems to force counselors to become tattletales.” Requiring that they inform parents about any counseling related to LGBT issues or questioning will “erode the trust between students and counselors and leave students without any confidential resource in a place where they might be enduring bullying or other issues related to their sexuality, gender, or other factors."
4. The Bill’s Sponsor Is Confused About AIDS
That Campfield construes gayness to be a dangerous act may be rooted in his faulty understanding of HIV and AIDS. “My understanding is that it is virtually—not completely, but virtually—impossible to contract AIDS through heterosexual sex,” he said during a radio interview last year. “Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community—it was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot, I believe.”
(Renowned scientist Jacques Pepin’s book The Origin of AIDS differs greatly from Campfield’s account.)
True to the wording of his bills, Campfield does find homosexuality unnatural. Homosexuals “do not naturally reproduce,” he says. “It has not been proven that it is nature. It happens in nature, but so does bestiality. That does not make it right or something we should teach in schools.” And he does find homosexuality dangerous: “What’s the average lifespan of a homosexual? It’s very short. Google it.”
In the past, Campfield has proposed bills requiring aborted that fetuses receive death certificates (thus publicly identifying women who have abortions); forcing voters to register for the political party that most closely represents their views; and, recently, cutting welfare to families with children who are performing poorly in school.
5. It Could Actually Pass
According to Campfield, the bill already has a House sponsor, and he says he is optimistic that it will pass. After all, the earlier version did pass the Senate, and only expired because it wasn’t necessary—not because it lost a vote. It actually passed through several House committees before dying, and reintroducing the measure with a sponsor attached increases its chances of approval.
Last year, a bill proposed by Republicans in the Missouri General Assembly also earned a “Don’t Say Gay” label, as it prohibited the teaching of sexual orientation in public schools, but it stirred such controversy and faced such staunch opposition that it was eventually buried. (Though it, too, could find a new life this year. The legislator who introduced it, Steve Cookson, was recently named the new chairman of the Missouri House committee that eventually squashed it.)
With near-instant outrage from liberal-leaning blogs when Campfield’s bill was reintroduced Wednesday, the Tennessee senator can probably expect a similarly strong movement to move the measure off the docket. As ThinkProgress points out, “Family rejection is a serious risk for LGBT youth. Kids who are LGBT often face alienation, if not outright abandonment, because they come out.”
But for many of Campfield’s supporters, the new rallying cry might just be “Don’t Say Nay.”