A Tennessee State Senator is finding himself in the middle of a yet another controversy, introducing a bill that would force school counselors and educators to "out" gay students.
State Senator Stacey Campfield, a Republican from Knoxville, introduced SB 49, known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, to the Tennessee State Legislature in 2012. The bill stated:
"No public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality."
The bill garnered very little support and was never brought up for a vote during the 2012 legislative session. Despite last year's failure, Campfield has introduced the bill once again and added an additional caveat. In addition to forbidding teachers from mentioning any sexual orientation other than heterosexuality, his revised bill states that "Any school counselor, nurse, principal or assistant principal" who counsels a student regarding human sexuality that poses "immediate and urgent safety issues" shall notify the "parents or legal guardians of such students as soon as practicable."
In its current format, the bill does not define what is considered "urgent safety issues", however Campfield has said that "acts of homosexuality" are to be considered as dangerous to a child's health and safety. Opponents of the bill believe that it will discourage gay students from talking to school counselors, which will possibly put their safety and well being at risk. Chris Sanders, chairman of the Tennessee Equality Projects says:
"[It] seems to force counselors to become tattletales, [and will] erode the trust between students and counselors and leave students without any confidential resource in a place where they might be enduring bullying or other issues related to their sexuality, gender, or other factors."
Digital Journal spoke with students, parents and educators about the proposed bill, speaking to people individually, as well as posting two questions on various websites. The questions asked were :
1. Do you think the Don't Say Gay bill will protect and benefit students, or harm students?
2. Why do you feel the way you do (please be as specific as possible)?
Jerilyn Swindle, a parent of a student within the Tennessee school system said:
"I'm fine if homosexuality isn't covered in lower grades of sex ed. The class never taught me anything useful and I'm straight. But if a student wants to talk to a teacher or counselor about it, it should be confidential and allowed. Especially if the child is afraid their parents may become angry or violent at the knowledge of their child being gay. And this whole outing of children to their parents is a crock. The families that will handle it well don't need a school to tell them. And a family that won't handle it well should not be informed of anything until the child is ready to tell them even if its never."
Nathan, who is also a parent believes the bill will endanger students and will prevent not only gay, but heterosexual students from seeking advise from school nurses and counselors. He told Digital Journal that his daughter is 12-years-old and that he and his wife have already had "the sex talk" with her. He does not believe that his daughter would be engaging in sexual activity at 12-years-old, but he knows of children as young as 11 that are sexually active. He is adamant about teaching abstinence first and foremost, but says he is "realistic in the knowledge that some teens and pre-teens are going to become sexually active. " He fears that if the bill passes, it would prevent children from seeking information of safe sex practices, potentially leading to increased numbers of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy.
Andrew Nolan, a teacher, calls the bill a "solution in search of a problem." He also points out possible unintended ramifications of the bill when he says:
"As a history instructor, I would suggest that the bill even makes problems for seemingly innocuous conversations. I teach about the rise of Fundamentalism, a fairly key theme in U.S. history. One of the fundamentals was the virgin birth of Christ--something that could be easily seen as "inconsistent with natural human reproduction," as spelled out in SB234. Would I be guilty of breaking the law?"
Sherri Lingerfelt, who is also a teacher, feels the bill would be harmful to students, saying:
"Many parents do not handle the news that their child is gay appropriately. That reaction can cause damage to a child emotionally and mentally and can take years to repair. A student's sexuality and the relationship they have with their parents is a family matter. It is not something that the school system should become involved in."
Digital Journal also spoke with four students from a local Gay Straight Alliance group. Three identified as gay and one as straight. The young lady who identified as straight also said if the bill passed, it would harm both gay and straight students, saying:
"There were two girls in my middle school that got pregnant. They were afraid to talk to their parents and they did not want to ask the school nurse if they could get condoms because they were afraid she would tell their parents. If this becomes law, I can't help but wonder how many other girls in my school would get pregnant, knowing for certain that the nurse would tell parents."
Criticism of the bill and Campfield continues to mount, not only from Democrats, but Republicans as well. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has distanced himself from the bill, telling the Times Free Press:
"I know it's kind of a revised form of a bill that came up last year. At the time I didn't feel the bill last year was needed, and I don't really think this one is needed either."
Jim, a Republican, told Campfield via email:
"YOU are what is Wrong with the Republican party.......do us a favor and Go Away!....At the least... Shut up......we can't expect to ever beat democrats with the likes of you representing us!"
Campfield continues to stand by the bill, saying:
"it's ridiculous to say we should shield parents from that information about homosexual activity. I think it's important that, if they're doing something that's potentially dangerous or life-threatening, that you should get parents involved."
Thus far, Campfield has been unable to find a co-sponsor for the bill and some believe that this bill will die in committee even faster than the 2012 bill. Only time will tell what the fate of the 2013 "Don't Say Gay" bill will be. What is certain is that it has drawn a very vocal reaction from those on both sides of the political spectrum, most of which is not in favor of Campfield.