Tenn. GOP Lawmaker Promotes ’Don’t Say Gay’ Bill

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday April 23, 2011

Could young school children who hear factual references to gays and lesbians in the classroom be turned gay by it--even though homophobic slurs hurled on the playground don't seem to have such an effect on their emerging sexuality? A new law being mulled by Tennessee lawmakers seems to assume as much.

The "don't say gay" bill would, if it were to become law, bar any reference to sexual minorities in public schools until students reach the ninth grade. Students hear anti-gay epithets and erroneous information concerning gays long before then, and advocates for gay youth worry about the effect on the emotional health of young GLBTs in an environment where homophobic messages are prevented by law from being countered.

The law is the brainchild of GOP state lawmaker Stacey Campfield, who proposed the measure for six years running during his tenure as a state representative. Now that he has been elected as a state senator, Campfield's anti-gay measure has gained traction, receiving the approval of a subcommittee on April 20, reported knoxnews.com on April 21.

The bill allows teachers to discuss heterosexuality in the classroom with younger students, however. The state senator claims that schoolteachers are talking about gays with elementary school students, but education officials say that this is not true to their knowledge, the article said.

The only votes against the measure came from Democratic lawmakers, the article noted, before going on to report that questions have been raised about the legality of a proposed debate in Texas with "Sordid Lives" writer Del Shores that would bring Campfield a $1,000 honorarium. Critics charge that the payment would constitute a violation of state law, but others say that since the law only pertains to payments connected with lawmakers' exercise of legislative duties the honorarium would not qualify as a breach of the law.

The debate with Shores, which would take place in Texas, would "probably not part of his legislative duties," said Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance head Drew Rawlins.

"I'm not going to pay air fare to Texas and a hotel, then have the guy stiff me," said Campbell.

"Such a bill could derail any potential lessons on anti-gay bullying," noted GLBT blog JoeMyGod in an April 21 posting on the bill.

"As introduced, the bill requires that 'no public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality,' " noted a posting at change.org.

"This bill would tie the hands of school counselors, school psychologists, teachers, principals and other school employees in protecting our children," the posting continued. "If a child is experiencing issues relating to their sexual orientation or identity, they would be unable to discuss those issues with the adults who are supervising and teaching them. Early detection of the signs of depression can help prevent suicides among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth."

"Bullying is escalating both on and off school grounds, locally and nationally," the text added. "Many of these incidents involve real and perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Don't Say Gay would jeopardize the safety and well-being of students."

The site called for readers to sign a petition against advancing the measure any farther.

"Consider what effects this bill could have if it becomes law: teachers could be prohibited from even mentioning the fact that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people exist," the text went on. "It is quite possible that school libraries would fail to comply with the law if their shelves contained books with lesbian, gay, or bisexual characters."

The leader of the Tennessee Equality Project expressed similar concerns, reported the Huffington Post on April 22.

"It means [teachers] can't talk about gay issues or sexuality even with students who may be gay or have [a] gay family," said spokesperson Ben Byers.

Fellow GOP lawmaker Jim Tracy noted that the law is unnecessary, because existing state law makes it an offense for school personnel to depart from an approved "family life curriculum." Even so, Tracy supported the measure insofar as he proposed amending the bill to require that a study be launched to determine whether Campfield's claim that gays were a subject of classroom discussion was true.

The bill was further amended at the behest of Republican State Sen. Brian Kelsey, who suggested language specifying that no reference to homosexuality would be allowed under the family life curriculum. Both amendments were approved.

The Huffington Post noted that Campfield, 42, is a bachelor. The article also recalled that Campfield has, in the past, proposed that abortions include death certificates for the fetuses and that colleges allow guns on campus.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.