By Sushila Rao
Sponsors of a Bill seeking to ban the teaching of gay issues to elementary and middle school students have delayed the measure in the Tennessee House of Representatives, ostensibly to allow consideration of a more comprehensive bill that would place restrictions on “family life education” curricula.
The amended version of the controversial “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” House Bill 229, would limit all sexually related instruction to “natural human reproduction science” in kindergarten through eighth grade. The precise meaning of these terms has been left undefined. The original Bill would have simply prohibited public elementary and middle schools from providing “any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.” Supporters of the Bill see it as a vindication of the rights of parents to teach their children about sexuality as they see fit, in accordance with their beliefs.
The Bill was passed by the Tennessee Senate last year, and had been roundly criticized by school counselors who would have to provide evasive or untruthful answers to students’ queries about sexual orientation. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the measure would in fact curb talk about homosexuality among school children but will simply send and reinforce the signal that it should be stigmatized. Yet another set of critics fear that House Bill 229 would inadvertently liberalize sex education in the state’s middle and elementary schools, by making it easier to speak more loosely about heterosexuality and procreation.
Opponents of the Bill believe that the procedural move of delaying debate until the end of the current legislative session is an indication that the Bill’s proponents are actually backing away from it altogether. The focus has now shifted to House Bill 3621, which is backed by social conservatives, and is being promoted as a holistic, abstinence education measure devised in response to the state’s high incidence of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. The Bill would allow the teaching of safe sex, but the curriculum would have to be “abstinence-centered,” emphasizing that abstinence is withholding from “any kind of sexual contact.”