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Education committee approves Arizona Senate bill banning unapproved use of pronouns in classrooms

The proposed bill targeted at transgender youth would require written parental permission for public school employees and contractors to refer to students under 18 by pronouns not aligned with their biological sex and to refer to students by names other than their given names or derivative nicknames of it.

PHOENIX (CN) — The Arizona Senate’s education committee voted Wednesday to move along a bill that state Senator Christine Marsh called a “license to discriminate.”

Senate Bill 1001, proposed by Republican state Senator John Kavanagh of Fountain Hills, would prohibit employees and contractors of public schools from referring to students younger than 18 by pronouns not aligned with their biological sex and calling students names that aren’t their given name or a derivative nickname without written permission from the student’s parents.

The committee, joined by dozens of Arizonans in the audience, centered its conversation Wednesday afternoon on transgender youth.

“The number one issue facing our kids is mental health,” said Marsh, a Democrat from Phoenix who opposed the bill. “Legalizing the discrimination against kids will not help.”

Kavanagh said the bill isn’t about discrimination but “parental rights and student safety.”

“It deals with a situation where a student who is having an identity crisis of their gender and want to be called by a different pronoun not aligned with their biological gender,” he said.

A collective groan made its way across the audience as Kavanagh said “identity crisis.”

He argued that transgender children have “serious psychological conditions,” often manifesting in depression and that parents have the right to be informed when their student shows symptoms of such conditions.

He pointed to research indicating that transgender youth are more likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender counterparts.

Erica Keppler, an Arizona resident who requested to speak to the committee, objected, saying that simply being transgender isn’t the issue.  

“No one commits suicide because they are gender dysphoric,” she said angrily. “They do it because family and society won’t accept them or allow them to live as their true selves.”

Applause erupted from the crowd after her statements, forcing state Senator Ken Bennett, the committee chair and a Republican from Phoenix, to ask the room to hold further applause.

Another speaker, a transgender man named Austin Davidson, shared that he once attempted suicide. He argued that suicide rates in transgender youth drop “dramatically” when those kids receive support and approval from their parents.

Those against the bill argued that requiring parents’ permission to use alternative pronouns and names would force children to come out to their parents before they’re ready to do so.

“I came out to people close to me — my friends — before coming out to my parents,” Gaelle Esposito, a transgender woman, told the committee. “That’s a challenging conversation to have. I needed that space to talk with others and approach that conversation (with my parents) in a really intentional way.

“And I’m in my 30s. If that conversation was a challenge for me, we can only imagine how hard that might be (for children).“

Republican Senator Justine Wadsack of Tucson, who voted in favor of the bill, said it’s as simple as keeping politics out of the classroom.

Heather Rooks, a guest speaker in support of the bill, said the insertion of politics into classrooms “disrupts the learning environment.”

“This is an issue that we can’t ignore anymore,” she said outside the Arizona Senate building after the meeting. “It is affecting the kids right now.

“Left, right, whatever, I feel like it all just needs to be put aside. Get out of the classroom, focus on education.”

She said during the meeting that the discussion of gender pronouns in classrooms leads to the “sexualization” of students.

“Asking someone to provide their personal pronouns is to reveal their sexual attractions,” she said.

About half a dozen audience members applauded as she spoke.

Keppler disagreed.

“We’re not sexualizing,” she shot back just outside the hearing room doors. “She’s the one trying to sexualize our lives.”

“Our gender identity and presentation is the biggest thing we show the world. It’s the most public part of our lives.”

Some of those who gathered in support of the bill said it’s frustrating that the Senate would even discuss this topic.

“I find it appalling that we have to address these things in our Senate,” said bill supporter Steve McEwen.

Others who opposed the bill used the same logic, saying the committee should focus on bigger issues, like education funding and student social services, rather than pronouns.

Fifteen of the 19 people signed up to speak did so in opposition to the bill. That ratio seemed to extend to the rest of the audience based on its responses to the speakers. Many of the speakers were transgender or parents of transgender students.

The bill says, in addition to needing parental permission to refer to students by pronouns or names that don’t correspond to their biological sex, that schools can’t force employees to refer to those students by those pronouns and names if it goes against their own religious beliefs, even if the parents approve.

Marsh called the bill hypocritical, pointing to the apparent conflict between parental rights and religious rights of school employees.

Arizona Republican state Senator John Kavanagh said his bill restricting the use of gender-affirming pronouns is about "parental rights and student safety." (Joe Duhownik/Courthouse News)

Senators also took issue with the amendment to the bill that includes nicknames “not derivative” of the students’ real names.

“Who decides if a nickname is derivative?” Bennett asked.

Marsh said that language again presented a conflict because some names, like her own name Christine, can be shortened to the gender-neutral name Chris, which could still be used as a gender-affirming name by a transgender student.

“I may have left a loophole in the law,” Kavanagh replied. “I’m not gonna lose sleep over that.”

The bill advanced by a 4-3 vote. Committee members voted along party lines, with the Republicans in favor and the Democrats in opposition.

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