Two “Don’t Say Gay” bills pass Pa. Senate education committee

Republican State Senators Scott Martin and Ryan Aument are the lead sponsors of the two "Don't Say Gay" bills. (Photo compilation via QBurgh)

On June 21, the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee passed two wide-ranging anti-LGBTQ+ bills that LGBTQ advocates are calling worse than Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. The first bill, SB 1277, sponsored by Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster), would require parents to be notified and have the option of opting out of their child having access to books in libraries and classroom materials that contain same-gender relationships and references to homosexuality. The second bill, SB 1278, sponsored by Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) and called the “Empowering Families in Education Act,” would ban classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade; require that teachers comply with state standards for age-appropriate teaching of gender and sexual orientation in grades 6-12; essentially require teachers to disclose students’ gender or sexual orientation to parents or guardians; and many more provisions. 

All seven Republicans on the Education Committee voted in favor of the bills and all four Democrats voted against. However, even if the bills pass in the full Pa. Senate and House, they would then be headed for a veto by Gov. Wolf, whose administration has publicly condemned them. 

In Philadelphia, parents of LGBTQ children and community leaders who work with youth criticized the bills. 

“This attempt at censoring Pennsylvania educators ignores the fact that children are constantly taught about gender identity and sexual orientation in the form of heteronormative media, books, and teachings, whether these occur in school or at home,” said Jasper Liem, interim executive director of The Attic Youth Center. Liem pointed out that in Pa., parents and guardians already have an option to opt out of having their child receive classroom education that goes against their beliefs. “What these bills really intend is to exclude families who are not cisgender and heterosexual. If passed, children of LGBTQ families will not see themselves reflected in school materials or discussions, and we already know that exclusion impacts the mental health of children regardless of how their gender or sexuality develops over time.”

The “Empowering Families in Education Act” also: seeks to prohibit teachers from depicting sexual and gender diversity in a postive or negative light, regardless of grade level, to avoid “endorsing” the LGBTQ community; requires parental permission for school staffers to provide support services to students seeking services related to their sexual orientation or gender; requires parents to receive annual healthcare opt-in forms that give the option to allow or forbid their child from accessing support services related to their sexuality or gender identity; grants parents access to a student’s health record and alert them if a student receives new services, including those related to their LGBTQ identity; requires parents or guardians to receive an opt-out form ahead of student questionnaires, including ones that ask for pronouns or info about sexual orienation or gender; and institutes a private right of action that enables a student by way of their parent to sue a teacher, school board member or school district for infringing on any provision of the bill.  

Erin Ellis, a member of the Philadelphia chapter of Parents, Families and and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), has two elementary-age children, one of whom identifies as trans and the other as nonbinary.  

“Using children as political tools, children’s lives, is really shameful,” Ellis said. “To argue about the humanity and existence of children who exist and have always existed for whatever political gains is really violent and upsetting. These bills are going after children in pre-K, little children — looking at any child who doesn’t meet those gender roles or doesn’t have that gender expression. It’s framing the child as something is wrong with that child or we don’t accept them as who they are, and that sends a message to the child.”

Michael Galvan, who specializes in education and advocacy as a board member of Philadelphia Family Pride, also has an elementary-age child who “is very open and exploring their own identity” with their friends, he said. 

“When you look at this legislation that is proposed, we’re not teaching first-graders [about sexuality], we’re teaching the basic understanding that sometimes kids have two dads, sometimes kids paint their nails, sometimes kids dress a little differently than maybe their assigned gender at birth,” Galvan said. “I personally worry about, if and when this bill is going to be vetoed, I don’t feel like this will be the last time [lawmakers] will attempt something like this, especially if we have Mastriano as governor.”

Senator Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia), a longtime LGBTQ ally, expressed dismay at the vote.

“It is outrageous that in the middle of Pride Month, my Republican colleagues would advance a bill purposefully designed to hurt LGBTQ kids and teachers,” Street told PGN. “If enacted, this bill would force LGBTQ teachers to go back into the closet, and would strip away resources for LGBTQ kids in school.”

Pa. Rep. Mary Isaacson (D-Philadelphia), who serves on the House Education Committee, told PGN that “as much as the Republican Party tries, they cannot deny the existence of LGBTQ+ people across Pennsylvania. They are supportive and proud parents, educators, faculty members, students, children, loved ones, neighbors and friends – and each of their lives should be celebrated and shared. Not only does this harmful legislation attack basic human rights and censor our teachers, but it also endangers the safety of our LGBTQ students, adolescents and families. Our children should be taught inclusion and acceptance, and not be subject to fearmongering and hate in the name of Republican campaigning. Every child should be able to proudly talk about their moms and dads and families and family structures — and there is no age that that is inappropriate.”

Preston Heldibridle, executive director of Pennsylvania Youth Congress, blasted both bills and said that they serve purely to harm LGBT people.

“These pieces of legislation are not about sexually explicitly material,” Heldibridle said in a press release. “If it were, these bills would be narrowly tailored to achieve that goal. This is a stealth attack to try and make sure young Pennsylvanians receive no positive representation of LGBT people. The idea behind the curtain is that if young people don’t know about LGBT people then they won’t become out LGBT people. Yet, we have always been here and are not going anywhere. Whether they ban references to our existence in the classroom or not, we are still here.”

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Michele Zipkin is a staff writer for Philadelphia Gay News, where she reports on issues including LGBTQ youth issues, housing insecurity, healthcare, city government and advocacy organizations, and events. Her work has been recognized by the Keystone Media Awards, Society of Professional Journalists, National Newspaper Association, and more. She received her BA from Goucher College and her MA in journalism from Temple University. She has been on staff with PGN since January 2020 and previously worked as a freelancer.