PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota lawmakers will consider banning public school teaching on gender identity in elementary and middle schools, a push that critics say targets transgender students in the same way some states limit the positive portrayal of homosexuality in the classroom.
The state would be the first in the nation to block instruction on gender identity or gender expression, said Nathan Smith, public policy director at GLSEN, a national group focused on safe schools for LGBTQ students. But the organization recently counted seven states with restrictions on positively portraying homosexuality in health classes, sometimes called “no-promo-homo” laws. The states are Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.
“It’s maybe a little different in the way that it’s crafted and maybe a little different in the way, sort of the population that it targets, but the underlying concerns are the same for us as they would be in … a traditional ‘no-promo-homo’ law,” Smith said. “We think that it’s bad broadly for LGBTQ students in South Dakota.”
LGBTQ students in states with such laws are more likely to face assault and harassment at school, and get less support from teachers and administrators, according to a GLSEN research brief.
South Dakota’s bill would cover public school students from kindergarten through seventh grade. Education Department spokeswoman Mary Stadick Smith said in an email that the she’s not aware of gender identity being taught in schools.
Republican Sen. Phil Jensen, the sponsor, said he has constituents concerned it might become an issue in schools. Jensen said he’s worried about teaching children topics that aren’t age-appropriate and that students are failing to master the basics.
“I think we need to be focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic,” Jensen said.
GLSEN isn’t aware of any other states considering a bill like South Dakota’s, Smith said. States including California, Massachusetts and Washington have moved in the opposite direction.
Washington included gender identity as an optional topic for districts to teach in recently revised health learning standards. For example, it suggests kindergarten students understand there are many ways to express gender and third graders recognize the importance of treating others with respect regarding gender identity, which is defined as someone’s inner sense of their gender.
Officials had heard from teachers, parents and national health experts interested in students understanding and being aware of gender identity, said Nathan Olson, spokesman for Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The Washington state office doesn’t track how many districts are teaching the new “self-identity” topic, which took effect for the current school year. In California, a 2011 law mandates including disabled and LGTBQ people in history and social science lessons.
Massachusetts lawmakers in 2011 barred discrimination against public school students based on gender identity. Jeff Perrotti, director of the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, said some schools in the state are teaching gender identity and expression in the classroom.
Massachusetts’ program, which is part of the state’s education department, conducts training for school personnel about how to talk about gender identity with students, faculty and community members. Perrotti said the state’s health curriculum framework will likely be updated to include the concept of gender identity.
Mimi Lemay said the Massachusetts district where her 7-year-old transgender son, Jacob, goes to school is improving at including others as parents have pushed the issue. Lemay said a mother last year organized parents to get a basket of books about diversity in local elementary school classrooms, including “I Am Jazz,” a picture book about a transgender child co-written by Jazz Jennings, a transgender YouTube personality who has a TLC show.
Teaching about gender identity is critical for transgender children, and it’s important for their classmates, who will grow up accepting their peers, said Lemay, who speaks to schools and companies about making them safer spaces for LGBT people.
“Being transgender is innate. It is who you are, and learning about it in school will only make your child more compassionate and empathetic and tolerant,” she said. “It’s not going to make them transgender, and I think every parent wants a child who is capable of compassion and open-mindedness.”
The South Dakota bill could face an obstacle in Gov. Dennis Daugaard. The Republican recently said that he doesn’t “know that our standards of education are properly the subject of legislative enactments.”
Daugaard in 2016 rejected a bill that would have required transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding with their sex at birth. Supporters scuttled a similar proposal last year after he threatened to do it again.
Terri Bruce, a transgender man who fought against the past bills, said the new proposal would have unintended consequences and send a message to transgender children that “they are somehow not human.”