Tennessee Lawmakers Pursue Legislation Even More Transphobic Than South Dakota’s

CREDIT: Shutterstock/Justin Sienkiewicz

Tennessee lawmakers are considering an anti-transgender bill that is remarkably similar to the recently vetoed legislation in South Dakota, but one quirk of Tennessee law makes it particularly pernicious.

On Tuesday, the Tennessee House Education Administration & Planning Subcommittee held a hearing on HB 2414, which dictates that public schools must require students to use bathrooms and locker rooms according to the sex “indicated on the student’s original birth certificate.” Unlike South Dakota’s bill, it also explicitly applies to the state’s public universities as well, potentially impacting students of all ages, not just those in grade school.

By tying the bill to individuals’ birth certificates, it guarantees that no transgender person could ever secure access to the bathroom that fits their gender. Tennessee is one of the few states in the union that has absolutely no mechanism for changing the sex marker on a person’s birth certificate. In fact, it’s the only state that explicitly prohibits it; a 2006 law states: “The sex of an individual shall not be changed on the original certificate of birth as a result of sex change surgery.”

The legislation would have the same implications for the mental health of transgender people and create the same legal liabilities for schools as the South Dakota bill, but would have further implications for any transgender person engaging with the state education system. Though the bill specifies that it the bathroom regulations only apply to “students” at public institutions of higher education, faculty and staff use those same restrooms and would thus likely be held to the same expectations.

On hand to testify Tuesday was Matt Sharp of the Alliance Defending Freedom, who similarly advocated for South Dakota’s bill in the same fashion.

Sharp claimed that “letting boys into girls’ restrooms” — referring to transgender girls as “boys” — is “an invasion of privacy and a threat to student safety.” He insisted that “biology” defines everybody’s gender. “The Tennessee Department of Education needs to stop hiding behind all these specious arguments and develop an ethical spine regarding human sexuality and biology,” he said. “It needs to say that there is something true about the nature of human biology or there is not, and then support policies accordingly.”

LGBT groups have attacked the legislation for “singling out transgender youth for discrimination,” and so have families across the state. Gretchen Peters, a Grammy-nominated songwriter from Nashville, wrote a poignant op-ed about regretting that she could not affirm her son who first expressed his transgender identity at age 3, but suppressed that identity for 20 years.

“I understand parents who feel fearful around gender issues,” she wrote. “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is accept that the child I raised as a girl for 26 years was, and had always been, a boy.” She decried the bill, because it would amount to “telling teachers that these kids are somehow not who they know themselves to be. We are telling children that the world cannot be trusted to believe them.”

“When we institutionalize this kind of discrimination, we force transgender kids deeper into the closet, shut them off from the support they so desperately need, and very possibly inch them closer to suicide. I don’t like to think about how close my son came to ending his own life. I don’t believe this is what we want for any of our children.”

The subcommittee deferred taking action at Tuesday’s meeting, but will consider it again next week.