State Sen. Carden Summers (R-Cordele), right, with attorney Tom Rawlings, discussed Senate Bill 88, dubbed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill by opponents, during Senate’s Education and Youth Committee hearing on Feb. 14. No vote was taken on the bill. Another committee hearing is planned to vote on a tweaker version of the bill. (Screen capture Georgia Senate)

A Republican bill that would ban teachers from talking about gender identity and sexual orientation with students without first getting written permission from their parents is being considered by the Georgia senate.

Opponents of the bill compare it to Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law, but also note it is one of hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills being introduced in GOP-led state legislatures across the country. More than 100 of the anti-LGBTQ bills are related to schools and education and target transgender youth.

Last year, Gov. Brian Kemp successfully pushed through legislation to allow the Georgia High School Athletic Association to ban transgender students from competing in public high school athletics.

“What’s going on here in Georgia is bad, but it’s part of what is happening across the country with this concerted effort to actually target and harm transgender kids,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.

“SB 88 is really is a much more expansive censorship bill that really puts a chilling effect on the relationship between teachers and their students that they need in order to build trust,” Graham said. “We know that for an effective learning environment, students and teachers need to be able to communicate with each other, and in far too many instances it is actually in the interest of the students’ health or mental well being to be able to confide what is going on with a trusted adult like a teacher.”

Georgia’s “Don’s Say Gay” bill is Senate Bill 88, sponsored by Sen. Carden Summers (R-Cordele). The bill got its first debate during the Senate’s Education and Youth Committee on Feb. 14. Summers asked the bill not be voted on by the committee so he could come back with a substitute version that addressed concerns from parents and educators.

Sen. Clint Dixon (R-Buford), chair of the committee, said another hearing would be set but did not know the date yet. The substitute bill would need to be voted on in committee and, if approved, sent to the Senate for a vote before Crossover Day, which is March 6.

SB 88’s official name is the “Parents and Children Protection Act of 2023.” The current version of the bill would prohibit teachers or other faculty members at private or public schools, including charter schools, from discussing sex education, sexual orientation or gender identity without first getting permission from a student’s parents or legal guardians. The bill also takes aim at other places where adults supervise children under the age 16, such as camps and libraries.

Violations of the law, if passed, would threaten the tax-exempt status for nonprofit organizations and withhold funding to public schools.

The bill also says that a student who wants to change their gender on official school records would need to present a copy of an amended birth certificate and a written consent form from the student’s parent or legal guardians.

“This bill is intended simply to protect children — that’s exactly what this bill is designed to do,” Summers said during the Feb. 14 committee hearing.

“We’re trying to limit the exposure that person would have on a child regarding gender,” Summers said. He said the reason banning teachers discussing gender identity with those younger than 16 is because that is the age of consent in Georgia.

“This is simply a bill that gives protection and allows people in charge to know what is being taught to their children, and the curriculums that are dealing with,” Summers said.

Attorney Tom Rawlings, who helped Summers write the bill, said support for the bill could be found in the pages of the New York Times. He quoted an unnamed article about students socially transitioning their gender at school without telling their parents. The article, he said, quoted parents saying they felt “villainized by educators who seem to think that they and not the parents knew what was best for their children.”

Rawlings, who was forced to resign as head of the Division of Family and Children Services in 2021 after calling an off-duty police officer “boy,” also told the committee the SB 88 was needed because of an apparent rise in gender dysphoria.

“In an age in which the number of teenage girls who are finding themselves with gender dysphoria has doubled recently, we simply want to make sure that in appropriate cases, that parents know what’s going on with our children, and that educators and administrators are not hiding that fact,” he said. Rawlings did not say where this information came from.

Democrats Sens. Elena Parent and Sonya Halpern, both of Atlanta, sit on the Education and Youth Committee. They questioned much of the language of SB 88, saying sometimes children do not feel safe telling their parents about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I think that there is such a thing as a school and home partnership,” Halpern said. “And what I would love to see when this bill comes back to us is a less cynical view of the school part of that partnership.”

Buddy Costley, executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders, testified that his organization also has many issues with the current version of the bill. For example, he said, one line of the bill says, “If a child indicates a desire to discuss information of a sensitive nature with an adult acting in loco parentis [in place of a parent], such adult shall not engage in such discussion without the presence or the express written permission of the child’s parent or legal guardian.”

Educators are confused and afraid what could happen if a student approaches them after a state mandated sex education class to discuss something raised in the class, he said.

“This is what scares a lot of our members,” Costley said. “This teacher is going to wonder if I allowed to talk to my students about a class that I taught.”

Also testifying was Sarah Hunt Blackwell with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

“SB 88 would chill protected speech,” she said. She said reports that rising suicide rates among LGBTQ+ teens suggests “that educators need more resources for the students and should and should be having more of these conversations, not barring them altogether.”

After the hearing, students, parents and educators gathered to speak out against SB 88. Zainab Abdelsabou, a junior at Innovation Academy in Alpharetta, said the bill is a “deeply flawed piece of legislation that will undoubtedly have a profound impact on a lot of Georgia students and have an earth-shattering impact on young LGBTQ students.”

“Teachers who are there to openly support LGBTQ students have had an amazing impact on the well being of their students,” Abdelsabou said. “The impact a supportive and loving teacher has on LGBTQ students is undeniable and taking away the freedom of a teacher to express this love and support is vile.”

On Feb. 15, GLAAD, an organization that monitors how LGBTQ issues are portrayed in the media, denounced the New York Times for its “irresponsible, biased coverage of transgender people.” More than 100 organizations and individuals as well as nearly 200 New York Times contributors are demanding the newspaper to stop irresponsible reporting on transgender issues and to hire transgender writers and editors.

Georgia Equality signed onto the petition, noting that a New York Times article was used as evidence to support the anti-LGBTQ SB 88 the day before.

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.