Don't Say "Gay" 

A proposed state law would ban any discussion of homosexuality in elementary and middle schools.

Playwright Tennessee Williams was gay. Poet Lord Byron had several homosexual affairs in his day. And artist Leonardo da Vinci was charged with sodomy at the age of 24.

But public school students in Tennessee won't learn that information if a bill passes barring teachers from discussing homosexuality.

Representative Stacey Campfield of Knoxville filed a bill last week that would prevent public elementary and middle schools from allowing "any instruction or materials discussing sexual orientation other than heterosexuality."

"This is the kind of bill that you would have seen introduced back in the 1990s as a reaction to SpongeBob SquarePants or Heather Has Two Mommies," says Tommie Simmons with the Shelby County Committee of the Tennessee Equality Project. The group advocates equal rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.

Campfield says the bill was a response to a National Education Association resolution that suggests schools provide information on diversity of sexual orientation and gender identification in sex-education classes.

"I think the schools should stick to the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. And maybe some civics," says Campfield. "But teaching transgenderism to middle school students ... I don't think that's the road we should go down. I think that's what parents should be doing."

Currently, individual school boards decide whether or not sexual orientation and gender identity will be discussed within the sex-ed curriculum. Memphis City School officials are currently considering a new curriculum that would address sexual orientation and gender identity. Shelby County School officials did not return phone calls by press time.

"Why does [Campfield] feel the need to take control of what's taught in a school system away from local boards of education and away from local communities?" asks Earl Wiman, president of the Tennessee Education Association. Campfield's bill allows discussion of heterosexuality because he wants students to learn biology and the science of reproduction.

"If I were to say 'Jack and Jill went up the hill' or 'George Washington and Martha Washington were husband and wife,' there are groups out there that would say we were pushing a heterosexual agenda. To keep those lawsuits from coming, I thought we should still be able to talk about that side of it," Campfield says.

Over the years, Campfield has proposed other controversial legislation, such as replacing the state's food tax with a tax on pornography and requiring the state to issue death certificates for aborted fetuses. In 2005, Campfield compared the state's Black Caucus to the Ku Klux Klan when they refused to let him join because he is white.

Though Campfield's bill is intended to deal with instruction, opponents worry that it would have a chilling effect on students' free speech.

"Let's say you have an eighth-grade writing class with an open-ended essay assignment. What if a student chooses to write about a current issue on sexuality?" says Chris Sanders, president of the Tennessee Equality Project. "This bill could be misinterpreted. It's overly vague and far-reaching."

Wiman worries the bill could lead to further alienation of gay students or students of gay parents.

"We have such a high adolescent suicide rate, and a large number of those killing themselves are struggling with sexual orientation," Wiman says. "It's a real concern for us that we be able to help boys and girls without some kind of arbitrary restrictions."

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