Tennessee has passed a bill that prohibits discussing any aspect of homosexuality in public school classrooms grades kindergarten through eighth. Former Star Trek star George Takei, concerned about how this might affect alienated gay youth, has launched a campaign against the bill, which is slated go to the House as soon as lawmakers return from adjournment next year.
On Friday, May 20, the Tennessee Senate passed SB0049, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, which prohibits educators from discussing homosexuality in kindergarten through junior high school classrooms. Senator Stacey Campfield, who sponsored the bill, told the press the bill was necessary because homosexuality is, essentially, a lifestyle choice that children should learn about from their parents, who are also in their right to inculcate whether it is an “abomination” or not.
While those supporting the bill say it provides guidance for teachers on appropriate topics for the public school curriculum, opponents think the bill will increase bullying and isolation of gay and lesbian youths.
Aware of the repercussions of having no role models or education about homosexuality and taking the offensive to counter bullying and youth suicide, the California Senate passed a bill in April making gay history mandatory in public schools and, beginning in 2013, prohibiting textbooks and other materials that reflect adversely on gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
Worried that the Tennessee bill will achieve the opposite, David Pakman, host of the nationally-syndicated radio show The David Pakman Show, brought up his concerns to “Don’t Say Gay” Bill sponsor and Tennessee senator Stacey Campfield.
“Gay and lesbian children are many times more likely to consider suicide than straight children,” Pakman told Campfield (at 9:30 in the video above). “A huge factor in that is how accepting they consider their environment to be. For most kids, their environment is in great part the school they’re in. They’re spending a lot of time with those teachers and staff. Aren’t you concerned this bill will absolutely make gay and lesbian kids believe they’re in a less welcoming environment and could actually affect the child suicide rate?”
“I think it’s just the opposite, actually,” the senator responded. “If a teacher is advocating against the lifestyle — like saying that it’s dirty, it’s filthy, it’s wrong, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s an abomination, which could happen, yes. I think my bill could stop that.”
“So you’re actually saying that not allowing children to engage with school counselors, teachers and staff about how they’re feeling about homosexuality and lesbianism, that that could actually prevent suicide,” said Pakman, clarifying. “ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what you’re saying?”
“I think it could, depending on the point of view of the teacher and the faculty member, yes,” Campfield responded.
The bill will probably not make it to the House before they adjourn for spring, but its sponsor there has said it will become priority when the General Assembly returns in 2012. In the meantime, actor George Takei, best known for his recurring role as Hikaru Sulu on the Star Trek series, has begun to rally gay activists, supporters and fans alike, with the “It’s OK To Be Takei” campaign.
The campaign exploits an apparent loophole in the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill: “Any time you need to say the word, ‘gay,’ you can simply say, ‘Takei,'” the actor tells his viewers on YouTube. “You could safely proclaim you support Takei marriage. If you’re in a more festive mood, you can march in a Takei Pride Parade. Even homophobic slurs don’t seem as hurtful if you say, ‘That’s sooo Takei.'”
Because the bill isn’t actually outlawing the word Ã¢â‚¬Å“gay,Ã¢â‚¬Â but penalizing any teacher-student discussion or materials that relate to homosexuality, whether in code or otherwise, the campaign should not be taken to be a literal solution. What it does achieve, however, is in providing gay youth with a role model willing to stand up for their rights, and a display of support from community members who embrace the movement. That’s definitely something to celebrate.