Today the Tennessee Senate may take up the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which, though it cannot become law this year because it didn’t make it through the House committee schedule, could eventually prevent any recognition of same-sex families in grades K-8. Still, another bill is working its way through the legislature that could also limit students’ access to resources related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender identities.
SB 0426, which is also sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield (R), would give parents control over what extracurriculars students can participate in. The bill seems to target Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), clubs that serve as support groups or educational advocates for LGBT teens but are often opposed by school districts and communities. The bill was considered with an “opt-in” provision, which would have required parental permission to join any club, but passed out of the Senate Education Committee with an “opt-out” provision, which reads (PDF):
(b) No school shall permit a student to become a member or participate in any activities of a club or organization if the parent or legal guardian of such student has tendered a written communication prohibiting such student from such membership or participation. In order to be valid, the written communication shall be signed and dated by the parent or legal guardian.
The distinction seems negligible. Even if students can join a club without needing permission, this would still allow parents to pull them right back out. It’s unclear, as written, whether parents would be notified of what clubs students are participating in, but regardless, the bill would make students feel much less free to explore interests or access resources they might need.
Though numerous individual school districts have tried to prevent the formation of GSAs by threatening to cancel all clubs at the school (a strategy that the ACLU successfully legally opposes each time), only one other state has taken legislative steps to try to stymie the growth of the clubs. Utah passed Student Clubs Amendments in 2007 designed to create numerous obstacles to forming clubs, but GSAs are thriving there nonetheless, with now more than 32 statewide.
In 2009, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) studied the climate of schools for LGBT students, and though rates of bullying and harassment were quite high, students at schools that had GSAs experienced fewer homophobic remarks, less victimization because of sexual orientation and gender expression, less absenteeism because of safety concerns, and a greater sense of belonging to the school community. By trying to limit students’ access to GSAs, Campfield and other supporters of the bill are essentially advocating against safer schools for LGBT students.