An empty classroom.

In February, Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-District 75) filed a bill in the Tennessee House of Representatives that would prohibit the use in public and charter schools of any educational materials that, in the language of the bill, “promote, normalize, support or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.”

On March 30, the bill was introduced before the Educational Instruction Subcommittee, which voted in favor of passing it onto the Education Instruction Committee, where it will be presented on April 7. In his presentation before the subcommittee, Rep. Griffey argued that education involving LGBTQ issues is inherently sexual and inappropriate for classroom instruction, and advocated for a more limited approach to sex education.

“What this bill seeks to do is to limit the education regarding sex and other controversial social issues in schools to abstinence, sexual disease prevention and teen pregnancy prevention when it comes to sexual matters or other controversial lifestyle choices,” Griffey said.

Griffey said that many parents in the state are concerned about what is being taught in public schools concerning sexuality and gender identity. Drawing a comparison to religion in the classroom, Griffey said that HB 800 would work towards creating fairness in the curriculum.

“I don’t want to state of Tennessee teaching my daughters about sex and lifestyle changes and I think that that view is probably shared by a number of parents throughout the state of Tennessee,” Griffey said. “The state of Tennessee is not allowed to teach my daughters Christian values that I think are important and they should learn, so I teach those at home. So if those are not part of the school curriculum, I don’t see how LGBTQ and other issues and social lifestyles should be part of the curriculum.”

Opponents of the bill fear that it will be used to erase not only LGBTQ issues from education, but also key historical figures who were members of the LGBTQ community.

Patrick Grzanka, associate professor of psychology and the chair of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program at UT, said that the list of important historical figures that could be removed from curriculum include scientists like Alan Turing, civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin and countless literary figures from Virginia Woolf to James Baldwin.

Grzanka said that this kind of bill hearkens back to the so-called “No Promo Homo” laws of the 1990s, which sought to further marginalize LGBTQ students by removing LGBTQ history and issues from the curriculum. According to Grzanka, these laws are “disingenuous” attempts to get support from anti-LGBTQ rights voters who do not want gay or transgender people to be humanized through education.

“This is the kind of stuff that, it’s just hateful, and it’s always couched in this language of protectionism, that we’re gonna protect children from being exposed to the promotion of these alternative lifestyles,” Grzanka said. “Like, nobody ever went into an elementary school classroom and learned about the existence of gay people and then became gay. They know this. This is about politics.”

Grzanka wrote an op-ed for the Tennessean in which he asked readers to consider how they would react if the bill prohibited mention of heterosexual history or issues from public and charter school curriculum. He said that HB 800 is a “dystopian” attempt to establish and promote a state sexuality.

“This is a group of legislators deciding to prohibit the adoption of things that mention groups of people that are objectionable to them,” Grzanka said. “So that means dictating the way that history, literature and the arts, computer science, truly any domain of knowledge would be subject to this kind of censorship. There’s nothing about it that speaks to any allegedly conservative principles about small government and freedom of expression. It’s just fascist.”

HB 800 is joined by HB 529, filed by Rep. Debra Moody (R-District 81), which would require that schools notify parents or guardians 30 days before teaching a “sexual orientation curriculum or gender identity curriculum” and stipulates that a student may be excused from participating in this curriculum if a parent or guardian files a request.

Though the two bills have yet to make it out of committees and onto the House floor, Grzanka believes that, unless there is significant political opposition, there is a good chance that they will pass through the Republican supermajority in both the House and the Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee.

Democrats including Vincent Dixie (D-District 54) and Sam McKenzie (D-District 15) have voiced clear opposition to both HB 800 and HB 529 in committee, while Republicans have mostly voted in favor of both. There was one Republican on the Education Instruction Committee, however, who requested to be recorded as voting no on HB 529 and plans to vote against HB 800 when it is presented on April 7.

In a statement to the Daily Beacon, Rep. Eddie Mannis (R-District 18) of Knox County said that banning LGBTQ issues and history from curriculum would contribute to an anti-LGBTQ bias in the state.

“We are teaching our kids a very bad lesson by outlawing topics relating to LGBT or even mentioning LGBT (issues) in our schools,” Mannis said. “We are teaching our kids that being LGBT is not normal, and this in turn will make those kids who are LGBT feel like they don’t have a place in society.”

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