Wisconsin’s Republican legislators are currently pushing a bill that would allow parents to opt students out of lessons on gender and sexual orientation.
The bill mandates that school districts tell parents about upcoming instruction related to sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or gender expression. It also allows parents to pull their students out of that instruction.
The legislation was fast-tracked into the Assembly’s Education Committee for a public hearing today after its introduction yesterday. It has no Democratic co-sponsors.
Donna Rozar, a Republican from Marshfield and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, told the committee that the legislation was designed to protect “family values.”
“I believe that there are very subtle things that occur in public and charter schools that tend to normalize behaviors that are in conflict with some students’ families’ belief systems. Students are exposed to things – maybe at a very young age – in an attempt to undermine a family value belief system,” Rozar said.
But Democrats and civil rights groups have a number of concerns with the bill.
Rep. Sondy Pope, a Democrat from Mount Horeb, says the bill could be used to erase LGBT history — as a school district could construe those historical lessons as education on gender identity or sexual orientation.
Pope used Harvey Milk – one of America’s first openly gay elected officials – as an example.
Which prompted a question from Rozar.
“Is that a real person? Are you just throwing that out?” Rozar asked.
“He’s a very real person,” Pope responded.
There is an exception allowing a teacher to refer to someone’s sexual orientation. According to the committee’s legislative council, anything beyond a reference would likely require parental notice.
That exception also requires that the reference must provide “necessary context” for whatever topic is being discussed. The exact definition of “necessary context” is not clarified in the bill.
Representative Gary Hebl, a Democrat from Sun Prairie, says that ambiguity could potentially lead to lawsuits.
“What is the necessary context? The enforcement of this then becomes subjective, then we deal with litigation and the last thing we should do as a legislature is encourage litigation,” Hebl said.
Heather Chun is a Prevention and Education Specialist with Dane County’s Rape Crisis Center. She told committee members that, since the bill’s introduction yesterday, she’s heard from several concerned Madison students.
“I’ve had five LGBT+ students message and email me since 24 hours ago, when this was announced, scared that this will mean teachers will not give them full information if their parents decide it’s not appropriate” Chun said. She added that the programming the bill seeks to limit is essential for students grappling with their identities.
“They learn they are not alone. They learn that they deserve to be alive. They get affirming and empowering language that feels right to them and their identities. Bluntly, this is suicide prevention. Giving all students age-appropriate access to this information is imperative.”
According to a 2019 study by the Trevor Project – an LGBT advocacy organization – LGBT kids are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight, cis-gender counterparts. Per that report, that disparity is likely caused by social stigma and discrimination.
Although she didn’t explicitly name the bill at hand, State Superintendent Jill Underly accused legislative Republicans of playing political games with students.
“Make no mistake, they know exactly what they are doing: using our children as pawns in a culture war,” Underly wrote in a press release. “They will not win in the long-term, but they will hurt our students, our educators, and our democratic principles in the process.”
The bill is formally opposed by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Wisconsin School Social Workers Association. The Wisconsin Catholic Conference and Wisconsin Family Action testified in support of the bill during today’s hearing.
The bill faces a near-certain veto from Governor Tony Evers, who has opposed similar pieces of Republican-authored legislation that have been floated this session.
PHOTO: Chali Pittman