Above: Educator Malari Williams and her sons, Harrison (left) and Jackson Williams, pose with their signs. The family came to oppose House Bill 1608. “We just really feel that it’s important that LGBTQ-plus kids are represented and made to feel loved in my classroom, in any school, and just to know that, they’re humans, just like everybody else, and shouldn’t be discriminated against because of their sexuality,” Malari said. Photo by Xain Ballenger, TheStatehouseFile.com.
In a protest-filled Indiana Statehouse Monday morning, the House Education Committee passed an amended bill that would ban schools from teaching anything that mentions human sexuality for children in kindergarten through third grade.
As the amended bill reads, “A school, an employee or staff member of a school, or a third party vendor used by a school to provide instruction may not provide any instruction to a student in kindergarten through grade 3 on human sexuality.”
Organizations such as the Indiana ACLU have stood against this bill, calling it a mirror to Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, which received national attention last year for barring schools from teaching things that are not “age appropriate” for students k-3.
As lawmakers discussed the bill, sounds of protestors chanting “we say gay” were heard from outside the House Chamber.
The controversial bill in question, House Bill 1608, was authored by Rep. Michelle Davis, R-Whiteland. Its original version mentioned being unable to teach things regarding gender identity, sexual orientation and gender roles, though the amended bill now only includes “human sexuality.”
In an additional adopted amendment by Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend, teachers would be required to inform the parent of a child if they request to be called a name or pronoun that differs from their gender at birth. To respect the child’s wishes, the teacher would have to receive permission from the parent. Teachers would also have to notify parents if their child expressed the desire to transition genders.
Democratic representatives took issue with this amendment, stating that being called the correct name is a person’s right. Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, said, “I’ve always believed that if I had one right on this planet, it was to decide what name I’m called.”
DeLaney also said he was concerned that with the bill’s current amended language, a parent could write a letter of permission for their child to be called another name only for it not to be respected by the teacher. Under the bill, even if children do receive permission to use other pronouns or names, teachers still have the right to not accept their requests as long as the name or pronoun the teacher uses is the same as the child’s “legal name.”
However, for Davis, it’s still about giving parents control.
“The goal of House Bill 1608 is to empower Hoosier parents by reinforcing that they’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to introducing sensitive topics to their children,” Davis said.
Members of the public who testified about the bill were limited to two minutes. Most came out in opposition to the bill, with few testifying in support. The Statehouse’s hallways were filled with people holding signs and wearing brightly colored rainbow clothes.
Teacher Carissa Dollar, also a parent of LGBTQ-identifying youth, said, “As a teacher, the physical, mental and emotional safety of my students is my first priority. House Bill 1608 would inhibit my ability to make my students feel safe and welcome at school. Please do not take away my right to respect my students’ identities.”
In support of the bill, Tony Kinnett, a former education policy advisor to former Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and a former teacher, said he isn’t sure that children in school are mature enough to make decisions about their identity.
“After talking to several parents, after talking to numerous students during my time as an educator, I am unconvinced of a minor’s ability to make decisions regarding serious mental instability without the decisions and help of a parent,’’ he said “To usurp a parent’s rights is a very terrible thing, especially when you were putting the school system in liable responsibility of a suicide that is very prevalent in the transgender community as is also prevalent in minor situations today in our schools and society.”
Also in opposition, Katie Blair, the ACLU’s director of advocacy and public policy, who testified during the meeting, shared a statement, saying, “This bill would censor discussion about LGBTQ people in schools and target students who choose not to conform to traditional norms about gender by forcing teachers and administrators to act as ‘gender police,’ outing transgender students without their consent, potentially putting them in danger at school and at home. This bill sends a dangerous message to already vulnerable youth, especially trans youth, that they and their stories are worth less than their peers.”
A few religious leaders also came to testify. Reverend Dakota Roberts of Carmel brought scripture to describe his opposition to the bill.
Friends Rose Murphy, Claire Kilbarger-Stumpft and Joshua Lepper pose pose with their signs outside of the House Chamber Monday. The group came in support of LGBTQ-plus groups and against House Bill 1608.
“While I can’t always convince other Christians to accept everyone as Jesus did, I hope my leadership as a person of faith can impress upon you the immorality of this bill. In Luke chapter 18, Jesus says ‘Let the children come to me and do not hinder them,” Roberts said. “This bill hinders both the curiosity of children and the freedom of the classroom of our educators.”
A senior at Pike High School, Jenna Newberg also spoke in opposition, detailing her experience as a queer teen. She said that she had no LGBTQ role models as a young girl and wishes her confusion could have been clarified by teachers.
“Kids deserve role models to look up to. They deserve to be in a space where they feel protected and affirmed. They deserve to have teachers who will stand up for them and educate them without fear of losing their jobs,” she said. “If they talk about having parents that are different from the majority, … they should be affirmed and made to feel like they have a real family. A big part of school success is feeling like you belong and your teachers accept you.”
Many others testified in opposition, sharing that they feel HB 1608 would hinder the relationship teachers have with their students.
Multiple viewers in the House gallery were removed from the Chamber by law enforcement after clapping or yelling at representatives as well as those testifying. One man yelled down at lawmakers when discussing the name and pronoun portion of the bill, screaming, “It’s just a name! You should be ashamed.”
The meeting ultimately lasted around four hours, the bill passing along party lines 9-4 and heading to the House floor where it could still come up for a vote later this week.
According to the ACLU, over 120 bills seeking to restrict trans youth or adults in various ways have been introduced in state houses across the nation. On a local level, state lawmakers saw similar protests over the summer in regard to a trans athlete bill that was vetoed by Gov. Eric Holcomb. The General Assembly overrode his veto, making it law that when children and youth participate in school sports, they must join teams aligning with their biological sex.
Ashlyn Myers is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Xain Ballenger contributed to this report.