Critics of Texas’ push for a “Don’t Say Gay” bill say acknowledging LGBTQ people isn’t the same as teaching kids about sex

Austin school district employees cheer on models as they walk past during a fashion show at the AISD "Pride Out!" Party in the Park event at Eastside Early College High School last month. (Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune, Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s plan to pass a Texas bill limiting classroom discussions about LGBTQ people is being pitched by Republicans as a way to protect kids from hearing about adults’ “sex lives” at young ages.

But education officials say Texas schools don’t have lessons about sex in kindergarten through third grade. And LGBTQ advocacy groups accuse Republicans pushing the potential legislation of an ulterior motive — silencing any acknowledgment, however informal, that LGBTQ people exist.

Patrick said Monday that he will make it a “top priority” during next year’s legislative session to pass a bill that mimics a Florida law critics dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” The Florida bill, named the Parental Rights in Education Bill, attempts to prohibit “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” before fourth grade. Patrick’s push for a similar law comes at a time when classrooms in the state are already dealing with a significant teacher shortage and laws limiting race-related discussions in classrooms, which conservatives have labeled “critical race theory.”

In interviews with The Texas Tribune, teachers and school districts said there is limited formal instruction on LGBTQ issues and identities in elementary school classrooms. Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said there is “certainly nothing at the state level” specifically about LGBTQ education in elementary schools.

“What I think they're referring to is not the curriculum, it's not the formal education pieces,” Capo said. “There are elementary schools that are a safe and affirming school, which is a school that says, ‘LGBT families and students are actually welcome here and are going to be treated fairly and with dignity and respect.’”

Advocacy organizations and Democratic lawmakers say the bill will affect teachers’ and schools’ ability to acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ identities in school. Capo worries Texas teachers may even be targeted for having a picture of their spouse on their desk.

Such fears echo concerns Texas teachers have had since last year about a Texas’ “critical race theory” law, which limits how current events and America’s history of racism can be taught. Educators of color have said the law stifles classroom discussion and silences the views of students of color.

Florida’s law about LGBTQ lessons at school specifically bans classroom discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”

“Part of the strategy is to be so ambiguous that nobody really understands the legislation. The effect is silencing teachers from discussion,” said Paul Castillo, who is senior counsel and students’ rights strategist for Lambda Legal, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ individuals’ civil rights.

Castillo said a similar Texas bill would create a “chilling effect” in classrooms, where teachers might avoid responding to questions about identity for fear of legal punishment.

“Fear is a point; it is not what the legislation actually does,” Castillo said.

Patrick's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Other Republican lawmakers and officials have already indicated their intent to support a version of the Florida legislation in Texas. Republican Party of Texas Chair Matt Rinaldi and state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said they would support expanding the scope of a potential Texas bill to apply up to the 8th grade.

“If things are going well in schools in Texas, that [legislation] should not change anything because teachers should not be talking to kindergarteners through third graders about their sex lives,” Rinaldi said in an interview with the Tribune.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener, a founding member of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus, said the “underlying purpose” of a measure similar to Florida’s is “to remove choices from LGBTQ youth and make them too afraid to come out of the closet.” She said the same is true of Gov. Greg Abbott’s attempts to have parents of transgender children investigated for child abuse if they provide access to gender-affirming care.

“There is this fallacy that teaching that LGBTQ people exist is teaching sex, and that's just a lie,” Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said. “Nobody claims that teaching that straight people exist is teaching about sex. There being husbands and wives in books and in movies is just accepted as the baseline. LGBTQ people existing is not sex. And our identities get inappropriately sexualized all the time.”

But Rinaldi likened a teacher discussing their family structure to talking about their “sex lives” and questioned why Democrats would oppose legislation limiting discussions about LGBTQ people.

“How was this so hard for Democrats? I really am not understanding this,” he said. “I’m just … it boggles my mind.”

Rinaldi also takes issue with school events that aim to teach kids about diversity and inclusiveness, including the Austin Independent School District’s recent Pride Week, saying the bill would stop such celebrations and “change things for the better.”

“Kids should be taught about math, science, English. They shouldn't be subjected to Pride Week parades in their public schools,” he said.

Cristina Nguyen, a spokesperson for Austin ISD, said the recent celebration of LGBTQ Pride Week, which defied a letter from Attorney General Ken Paxton, wasn’t at all about human sexuality.

“It was more so talking about families and what does your family look like?” Nguyen said. “It was about kindness. It was not necessarily even about identity and a lot of the things that they're referencing.”

Nguyen added that Pride Week for students in the district focused more on activities rather than instruction. For instance, students participated in community circles “where they could talk about what their families look like,” or, for some campuses, view a slideshow in school cafeterias of different students’ families.

“Maybe someone had two dads, two moms, a mom and a dad,” Nguyen said. “It’s just awareness of differences, rather than telling them exactly about identity and gender and all of that.”

School districts in other parts of Texas also told the Tribune that elementary students don’t receive classroom instruction about LGBTQ issues or identities.

“I'm not aware that we have any education related to those subject areas. We don’t do anything like that,” said Meghan Cone, a spokesperson for the Frisco Independent School District in North Texas. “We do not anticipate a bill like this would impact our curriculum or classroom instruction.”

Equality Texas CEO Ricardo Martinez said the LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit would do everything in its power to stop a Texas version of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

“Politicians meddling in education, banning books, targeting students based on their race or gender or religion really has a direct impact on the bullying, harassment and violence that we see in our communities every single day,” Martinez said. “Last year … from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, 2021, there were more than 10,800 [contacts] from Texas students to the Trevor Project, because they were in crisis. And part of the reason why they [were] in crisis was because their humanity was being debated at the Capitol.”

Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said in a statement to the Tribune that Patrick’s announcement is just “election-year political theater” to boost his favorability ahead of the November elections.

“Such legislation would be largely meaningless in Texas, where we already have well-established, effective processes through the State Board of Education for adopting school curriculum standards with the input of educators, content experts, and members of the community, including parents,” Holmes said. “Texas also has a comprehensive, transparent set of parental rights already written into our state laws that ensure parents have knowledge of and participation in their children’s education. We are not Florida, and we do not need Florida’s legislation.”

But Rinaldi said the bill would prevent teachers from discussing their “personal lives.”

“I don’t know anybody from my generation who knew anything about their first grade teacher’s family structure,” he said. “Teachers taught school — they didn’t talk about their personal lives to children who are 5 years old.”

Emily Hernandez contributed to this story.

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators and Equality Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Correction, April 8, 2022: A previous version of this story misquoted part of Zeph Capo's response to potential Texas legislation limiting classroom discussion of LGBTQ people. Capo said families and students should be treated with "dignity and respect," not "discipline and respect."