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Lawmakers back away from ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

Tennessee lawmakers backed away from controversial legislation that would have further restricted discussions about homosexuality before high school, presumably ending the two-year battle over how much schoolchildren should be told.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

14th March 2012 07:15

Alessia Valenza | ILGA North America

The sponsors of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill agreed Tuesday to put off debating the measure until the end of the legislative session — a procedural move that usually signals they do not intend to pursue it. Backers said they would instead shift their focus to an abstinence education measure that is favored by social conservatives.

Sponsors had been under pressure to amend the original bill, which would have banned any teaching about homosexuality apart from “natural human reproduction” before eighth grade. The measure was meant to keep schools and teachers from initiating discussions about gays and lesbians, but even its backers conceded Tuesday that it might have brought unintended consequences.

“We found out there really is not sex education curriculum in K-8 right now,” said state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, the bill’s original sponsor.

The decision came after Gov. Bill Haslam again criticized the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, House Bill 229, this week as an unnecessary distraction that could create more problems than it solves.

“It’s not something that I think is particularly helpful or needed right now,” Haslam said Monday. “I think the state already has rules in place about what can be taught.”

Attention will now shift to the other measure, House Bill 3621, which the Family Action Council of Tennessee, a prominent socially conservative group, has promoted in recent days. That measure is billed as a broad update of the state’s abstinence-based sex education curriculum.

“HB 229 deals with very limited issues in a limited number of grades,” said David Fowler, FACT’s president. “To my way of thinking, it is better to address the whole subject of sex education and say what you’re for than to address a narrow part of sex education and what you’re against.”

The bill calls for focusing on “risk avoidance” and discouraging “gateway sexual activity” as part of sex education. It makes no mention of sexual orientation.

HB 3621 is scheduled to come up for its first hearing Wednesday in the House Education Subcommittee.

Series of delays
Tuesday was the first time the House Education Committee had taken up the “Don’t Say Gay” bill since House leaders insisted on a two-week delay in late February.

The 100-word bill, which passed the Senate last year, had come under fire from school counselors, who said it would hinder their ability to answer students’ questions related to sexual orientation or to develop anti-bullying policies that cover gay slurs or anti-gay behavior.

The bill also would have loosened restrictions on talking about heterosexuality. By bringing up natural reproduction, the measure implied teachers could openly talk about procreation with elementary and middle school students — a topic that is currently off limits in Tennessee until high school.

In brief remarks, Dunn said the public is confused about the state’s sex education laws because they have been developed in a piecemeal manner. HB 3621, which is sponsored by Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Hermitage, will bring more clarity to the issue, he said.

Opponents of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill interpreted the delay as a sign its backers were listening to them, as well as to the governor.

“This is a chance to cool down and really think and not fight,” said Chris Sanders, an activist with Tennessee Equality Project, a gay, lesbian and transgendered rights group. “We’re going to continue to watch these bills, but we’re always glad to hear they’re taking their time with them.”

Sanders said the TEP would have preferred lawmakers to withdraw the bill outright, noting that it remains alive until they do so. The move on Tuesday technically delays the bill only to the last meeting of the House Education Committee this session, which could happen as soon as two weeks from now.

But the bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, implied he would pursue the matter only if Gotto’s measure fails.

“There are issues that should be addressed, and we want to make sure those issues are addressed in the other legislation or in this one, if we need to,” he said.

Dunn sidestepped a question about whether the legislature had bowed to pressure from Haslam, but he subtly referred to the governor’s efforts.

Republican leaders have given Dunn responsibility for shepherding Haslam’s civil service bill, the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability and Management Act, through the legislature.

With that on his plate, Dunn has taken steps to distance himself from the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, even transferring sponsorship to Hensley. But he has remained a point person on the issue, complicating his efforts to advance Haslam’s agenda.

After Tuesday’s committee meeting, Dunn facetiously thanked reporters for asking him about the TEAM bill.

“It’s the governor’s number one—” he began before breaking off. “I carry that bill and nobody talks to me.”