A watered-down version of a bill opponents called Georgia’s version of “Don’t Say Gay” legislation appears dead in the water after failing in a crucial Senate committee Wednesday.
The first version of the bill would have restricted schools, camp counselors and other authority figures from answering children’s questions about gender identity or sexual orientation. The latest version would have required all local boards of education to develop a policy for dealing with parental involvement and child privacy related to issues of gender identity.
It also would have required all private schools or camps that planned to instruct children on issues of gender identity to get parental signatures first, with exemptions for religious schools or camps. A violation could have led to withholding of funds for a public school or loss of accreditation for a private school.
Tom Rawlings, a child welfare attorney assisting Cordele Republican Sen. Carden Summers with the bill, said the changes were made in response to complaints from LGBTQ advocates.
“I understood from our colleagues who advocate on these issues that there were some significant concerns,” he said. “And so we made our best effort to address those concerns while focused on the real purpose of this bill, making sure that when a child is dealing with an issue that is so important as gender identity, that to the extent that it is appropriate and safe, that parents be involved in that decision.”
“We are not here trying to shut down any conversation,” he added. “We’re not trying to limit. What we are trying to do is make sure that for private institutions that parents who sign up to send their child to a private school can, if they’re going to talk about gender identity, if they’re going to have a curriculum or instruction in gender identity, then they just need to tell the parents, to get their buy-in.”
Many advocates were not convinced. More than 30 people signed up to speak, mostly against the measure, though only a handful got the chance because the meeting included discussion of three bills and was only allotted one hour.
“I want us to say no to this,” said Tracey Nance, the 2020-21 Georgia teacher of the year. “I want us to trust teachers, and I can tell you one of the very best ways to run off the best teachers in this state is to tell us that we have to lie to our students and that we have to turn them away.”
Nance said she believes the real issue is that too many children do not feel like they can trust their parents.
“I have had children come to me and come out to me, even in a foreign country on study abroad,” she said. “I’ve had children from families where they have four moms. What message are we sending when we other our LGBTQ+ students and their families?”
Speaking to the Recorder after the hearing, one group of LGBTQ students said the conversations with adults that stuck with them were not dramatic coming-out stories but small acts of kindness.
The students asked that their last names not be published for privacy concerns with their schools and extended families.
Isabella, a Forsyth County student who identifies as lesbian, said her middle school choir teacher made a big difference in her life by treating her like everyone else, chatting about girlfriends and crushes the same way she did with straight students.
“It really did mean so much in that moment to have not a grand gesture, support, but even just that subtlety, that confirmation that I’m not really that different from anybody else,” she said. “I can’t fathom what it would have been like if a bill like Senate Bill 88 was in place, I just would not have that freedom at all.”
Arya, a Gwinnett student who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community, said she remembers an incident where a student used a homophobic slur in class and the teacher interrupted the lesson to have a conversation about respecting others.
“That was the first time that I had a teacher openly address queer subjects and homophobia within their classroom, and it made me feel safe,” she said. “Like, I had not felt safe inside of a classroom until that moment.”
Neha, a Fulton County student who identifies as queer, had a similar story about an orchestra teacher calling out another student for homophobia.
“It’s small displays of allyship and small displays of people saying that, hey, doing things that are homophobic and disrespecting people who are different than you is not okay, and we should be open and accepting to all types of people,” she said. “Large displays of support aren’t really what I want, and I appreciate even the small displays of just like, we’re here for you, and we support you, even if it’s not directly aimed at yourself.”
Georgia School Board Association lobbyist Stephanie Tanner said a blanket policy could lead to cases of child abuse and open educators to lawsuits. It could also prevent the types of reassuring interactions the students described.
“It takes away local autonomy by forcing local boards to have policies around gender identity and parental notification,” she said. “It’s impossible to account for every situation, so that opens boards up to more lawsuits. So instead, GSBA wants to handle these on a case-by-case basis so that we can maintain the dignity of all involved parties.”
Even the Georgia Baptist Convention opposed the bill. Lobbyist Mike Griffin said he appreciates the goal of encouraging parental involvement.
“However, we have heard from many folks including our legal partners and activists from around the state on this issue with this bill, and we believe that this bill has dramatic unintended consequences for parental rights and for children in public schools as well,” he said. “Those concerns have not all been addressed, and so as it stands, we’re concerned with this bill, although we certainly share the motivation of the sponsors.”
Members of the Republican-controlled committee appeared to feel the same way. A motion to table the bill passed nearly unanimously, with Majority Leader Steve Gooch of Dahlonega the only one opposed.
Jen Slipakoff, an LGBTQ advocate and mom of a transgender child, was among a large crowd celebrating in the hallway after the vote.
“I’m absolutely thrilled that it was tabled,” she said. “It looks like we’ve kind of held it at bay for at least another legislative session. I think that this bill does not have the best interest of kids in mind, and so I’m happy that we were able to avoid passing a bill that would really harm LGBTQ+ kiddos.”
Georgia Equality executive director Jeff Graham was also smiling after the meeting, but he said this win does not represent a total victory.
“While I’m pleased that this particular bill has been tabled, I remain concerned that this kind of talk is generating so much attention here in the Legislature this year, and the very debate is causing harm to kids,” he said.
LGBTQ Georgians have raised the alarm about other bills winding their way through the Legislative process, including SB 140 and 141, which seek to limit gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors, and SB 180, a religious freedom bill.
Monday is Crossover Day, the deadline for a bill to pass the House or Senate without extra legislative maneuvers – last year, on the final day of the session, lawmakers revived a bill that led to transgender girls being banned from girls’ school sports teams.
This story comes to Rough Draft through a partnership with Georgia Recorder.