“Don’t Say Gay” Legislation Worse than Florida Advances in PA
HARRISBURG, Pa. — This afternoon, the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee moved SB 1277 and SB 1278 which are grave attacks against LGBT Pennsylvanians that are destined for Governor vetoes. The first bill sponsored by Senator Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) is essentially a book and education ban on gay and lesbian relationships, and the second, sponsored by Senator Scott Martin (R-Lancaster), is an expansive gag order for school personnel on LGBT issues, forces the outing of vulnerable students to parents or guardians, and creates a private right of action if those terms are violated, among other cruel provisions.
In response to the vote, Preston Heldibridle, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, said, “The people pushing these bills are purposefully conflating graphic pornography with children’s books that reference LGBT families in hopes that Pennsylvanians won’t notice. They are trying to sneak in this horrific, subversive attack on LGBT inclusion under the guise of reasonable limits on sexually explicit content. Those limits already exist. They cherry pick outlandish scenarios to advance categorical bans to appear like defenders of children when in reality, proponents of these bills are the ones exploiting children to further their own goals and causing irreparable harm.”
Heldibridle further asked, “For Senator Martin and Senator Aument: How many hurt, abandoned, or dead LGBT children are enough for you to end this crusade? How much more shame and isolation will you try to inflict upon these kids? There are other issues you can choose during an election season to flex your political power over picking on LGBT children. These bills are mean-spirited and will not rest well with history.”
In response to the points the senators raised during the voting meeting today, Heldibridle added, “These pieces of legislation are not about sexually explicitly material. If it were, these bills would be narrowly tailored to achieve that goal. This is a stealth attack to try and make sure young Pennsylvanians receive no positive representation of LGBT people. The idea behind the curtain is that if young people don’t know about LGBT people then they won’t become out LGBT people. Yet, we have always been here and are not going anywhere. Whether they ban references to our existence in the classroom or not, we are still here. Education transparency and curriculum setting are vital access points for parents and guardians, which is why we have local school board elections. We don’t need the state government coming down — somehow in the name of championing parental control — to override parents in the shaping of the content and environment of their own school districts.”
SB 1277 would require parental notification and an opt-out provision to both instructional materials in classrooms and books in libraries that include references to homosexuality. This bill at best creates significant barriers to an inclusive education and worst bans books and lessons that deal with gay or lesbian people. Parents would have to be notified that “Heather Has Two Mommies” is being read in class or is in the school library. It would then have to be placed in a locked area and only accessible to those whose parents have not opted out their children. Senator Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) summarized this by saying “What will happen in reality is schools will just pull the books from the shelves to avoid having to try to police their library. This bill is framed like we are trying to keep pornography and Hustler magazines out of the school library. Neither of which are in our school buildings or will ever be.”
Senator Michele Brooks (R-Mercer) expressed frustration that the bill was cast as steeped in anti-LGBT bigotry by those who opposed the bill. However, she then went to say “It’s unfortunate that so often in these conversations there is only one piece of information extracted. And that’s what the conversation becomes about. And that is not what this legislation is about. So let me read you more of the definitions. Define sexual conduct as means acts of masturbation, homosexuality, sexual intercourse…” She continued to say that “It’s unfortunate that all of these conversations are contorted and twisted into a soundbite that seems to resonate with some populist viewpoints.”
Senator Martin, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, also attempted to redirect the description of the bill being targeted against gay and lesbian Pennsylvanians by stating, “We’re not talking about just statues of David. This isn’t like walking your children listening to them giggle as they walk into a Buca di Beppo when all the statues might be in there. We are talking about images of young children performing oral sex on each other.”
No examples of library books available to elementary school students in Pennsylvania were offered that depict children engaging in oral sex on each other, for the record.
Several senators continued to conflate sexual education with inclusion of age-appropriate materials that align with state standards which are currently read in some schools, like “And Tango Makes Three” or “King & King.” Other books by LGBT authors in school libraries include “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Goodnight Moon,” and “Strega Nona.” Full history lessons would be banned on people like Violet Oakley who painted the Pennsylvania State Capitol as she was a lesbian, or Keith Haring, who was a world-renowned gay artist from Berks County.
The bill additionally covers any sexual conduct as defined under Pennsylvania’s criminal code at 18 Pa.C.S. § 5903(e)(3). Thousands of books in school libraries include topics related to sexual reproduction. Senator Brooks stated that “When we were in school, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. The books that were in our libraries were Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Diary of Anne Frank. Those were the books that were in our school.” This bill would effectively ban the Diary of Anne Frank. Anne discusses numerous times in her diary menstruation and her thoughts on sex. SB 1277 prohibits access to books that deal with sexual conduct.
The following passage is from the Diary of Anne Frank:
I’ve told you more about myself and my feelings than I’ve ever told a living soul, so why shouldn’t that include sex? Parents, and people in general, are very peculiar when it comes to sex. Instead of telling their sons and daughters everything at the age of twelve, they send the children out of the room the moment the subject arises and leave them to find out everything on their own. Later on, when parents notice that their children have, somehow, come by their information, they assume they know more (or less) than they actually do. So why don’t they try to make amends by asking them what’s what?
The Bible mentions sexual intercourse (ex: Leviticus 18:19), so this book would also require parental notification and an opt-out. This effectively bans the Bible from public schools.
During today’s meeting, Senator Brooks urged her colleagues to “Have a very comprehensive conversation of what these definitions are instead of just cherry-picking what we want to talk about.”
So, does Senator Brooks actually want to effectively ban the Diary of Anne Frank and the Bible, or really to just provide a catch-all that is broad enough that it doesn’t seem cruel to only target “Heather has Two Mommies”?
Later in the deliberation, Senator Brooks produced a file folder with examples of materials in lesson plans or school libraries in Pennsylvania. They included memoirs “Gender Queer” and “Fun Home.” The Fun Home excerpt was titled on her handout: “Assigned in PA high school.” High school, not kindergarten.
The Pennsylvania Youth Congress is saddened at the audacity of lawmakers who cherry pick examples from advanced high school English classes to promote an agenda that they are one and the same as a children’s picture book which might feature two dads or two moms, which then are read in only some elementary school classrooms — by decision of a local school board and not the state.
Senator Carolyn Comitta (D-Chester) quoted Jennisen Lucas, President of the American Association of School Librarians, who said “Parents always have that choice to parent their children. But when that parent decides they do not think it’s appropriate for their child, therefore it’s not appropriate for any children, is when it becomes a censorship issue as opposed to just parent discernment.”
In concluding the committee’s discussion on SB 1277, Senator Aument comments on how he “Respect[s] differences of opinion on an issue such as this. We have a responsibility that when we criticize, that we do so accurately.”
Eventually during the meeting, the true colors shined through on the anti-LGBT motives behind the bill. Senator John DiSanto (R-Dauphin) expressed how “It’s incumbent upon parents not the educational industrial complex force-feeding ideas that are abhorrent to the vast majority of parents in this state.” Senator Doug Mastriano (R-Adams) stated how “In the end the parents must have the last word. The schools should be educating not indoctrinating, and it should not be used as a place to groom kids, potentially. This is a form of child abuse that needs to end.” The senators supporting this bill began to say the initially-silent part clearly out loud: they believe LGBT children have zero place here in Pennsylvania.
The second bill, SB 1278, has numerous anti-LGBT provisions which include:
- Bans all classroom instruction involving sexual orientation or gender identity from pre-K through fifth grade
- Requires schools to out children and youth to their parents
- Bans teachers from portraying diversity in sexual orientation or gender identity in a positive or negative way at all grade levels, in support of “neutrality” to prevent government beliefs that “endorse” the existence of LGBT people
- Prohibits classroom instruction involving sexual orientation or gender identity from sixth through twelfth grades that is not in accordance with state standards
- Provides that schools can provide support services to “A student who has initiated communication with school personnel related to sexual orientation or gender identity if the school personnel has received permission from the parent or legal guardian of the student”
- Requires annual healthcare opt-in forms to be sent to parents and guardians that would include the option to grant or deny their child access to supportive services based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity
- Requires continuous and unfettered access by parents and guardians of a student’s health record and to be notified if they are receiving any new services (which may include talking with a guidance counselor about being LGBT)
- Requires an opt-out form to be sent to parents or guardians before any general survey or questionnaire is given to students (with examples given in the prime sponsor’s website that parents should be able to opt-out their children from taking surveys that ask for pronouns or SOGIE data)
- Establishes a private right of action so that a student through their parent or guardian may sue a teacher, school board member, or school district for any violation of the bill’s provisions for an injunction, damages, and attorney fees and costs within two years
In the guise of trying to appear reasonable, and to paint this bill as “not” Pennsylvania’s version of the Florida Don’t Say Gay bill, this legislation provides for an exception that would “Permit school personnel to withhold this information from a parent or legal guardian if a reasonably prudent person would believe, based on the documented testimony of the student or a history of documented incidents, that disclosure would result in child abuse or the child being abandoned.” However, the bill fails to explain what “documented testimony” or “documented incidents” are. If a child fears for their life because their parent told them they would beat someone who was gay to death, but the student has not seen their parent previously beat up a gay person, would that be enough to protect them?
It has been portrayed that if a student brings up their LGBT parents, they themselves are LGBT, or present a project that addresses LGBT topics, that a teacher can respond in kind — that the bill just puts a stop to teachers affirmatively including LGBT issues in their lessons or materials. However, the bill language does not say that. The bill itself allows for services to be offered with parental approval, if a student brings up a request to receive counseling to support them in coming out, for example. But not for education. In totality, this bill puts a gag order on all school teachers and staff from saying anything supportive about a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity because that would be violating its “neutrality” clause.
Towards the end of the meeting, Senator Mastriano expressed outrage at how “the notion that discussions of sexual preference, sexual proclivities, and inclinations are appropriate for those ten an under is just madness. Nor is having a teacher using their powerful and respected platform to advance gender confusion…it’s time we got back to education not indoctrination.”
The Pennsylvania Youth Congress would like to draw attention to the fact that stories like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or Mulan are proudly read to children all the time and yet they include material about sexual orientation, which is heterosexuality, and gender identity which is cisgender. Senator Williams pointed out during the meeting that the bill does not define gender identity, which leaves the extent to which it may be understood open to interpretation. Will teachers have to notify parents if their girl in kindergarten starts playing with Tonka trucks? Or if their boy in first grade plays with a Barbie? Does the requirement to be neutral mean the teachers are supposed to say something about students not conforming to gender norms? The danger this might put certain students in is deeply concerning.
Finally, SB 1278 provides for a sweeping cause of action that parents can sue teachers, school board members, and school districts through their children to enforce these provisions. Senator Williams explained that “This isn’t Florida’s don’t say gay bill. This is worse. This bill is not preventing government endorsement of beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. It’s saying that being gay, having trans parents, having a lesbian friend, is wrong. Is less than. Is something to be ashamed of. That is wrong. This bill is imposing a belief that being straight and cisgender is quote “right,” quote “normal.” When you combine no definition of what can and cannot be said, with the ability of a parent to sue anyone, at any moment, that will result in adults who are supposed to keep our kids safe to stay quiet.”
Both bills were moved along party line votes, with seven Republicans voting for them and four Democrats voting against. The bills as written would go into effect for the coming 2022-2023 school year, but face swift vetoes by Governor Wolf if they advance through the General Assembly.