In February, the Indiana House Education Committee passed the bill HB 1608, which compares to the infamous HB 1557 that was signed into law in 2022 by Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida. HB 1608, authored by Republican representative of Indiana’s 58th district Michelle Davis, has been nicknamed as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill for a good reason.
If HB 1608 passes in the Statehouse, it will be illegal for students in kindergarten to third grade to receive any instruction regarding “human sexuality.” However, the bill explicitly states that “a school employee or a school staff member is not prohibited from responding to a question from a student regarding certain topics.”
This first section of the bill is vague and confusing. What are the “certain topics” Davis is referencing? The language of the bill also leads me to the question of what Davis considers to be instruction on “human sexuality.” Would a teacher discussing the fact that they are married or in a relationship fall under instruction on “human sexuality?”
The vague language of the bill is likely intentional as it would allow enforcers of the law to pick and choose how it is applied. Many fear that the bill would operate to eliminate discussions of LGBTQ+ identities and individuals in Indiana from kindergarten to third-grade classrooms. What supporters of the bill may fail to realize is that attempting to deny the existence of LGBTQ+ identities will not make LGBTQ+ people. Suppressing these identities will further stigmatize LGBTQ+ individuals.
Davis has positioned this bill as an issue of parental rights, explaining that parents should have the right to decide when and how their children learn about what she calls “sensitive topics.” This justification of her bill does a poor job of hiding her homophobic ideologies.
Furthermore, supporters of the bill may argue that children should not receive instruction on various sexual orientations and gender identities because it will “confuse” or “indoctrinate” them. However, through centuries of discrimination and literal attempts at indoctrination into heterosexuality and cisgenderism, LGBTQ+ people have always existed, which means allowing a heterosexual child to read a story about a character with two mommies will not suddenly change the child’s sexual orientation.
The latter sections of the bill take a blatantly transphobic stance. The bill states that if a student wishes to be called a name other than their legal name or referred to using a pronoun that is “inconsistent with the student’s sex,” a request must be submitted in writing at the beginning of the school year by a legal guardian.
Additionally, the bill compels schools to notify the guardians of students who request to be referred to with a different name or title, or if the student requests to be referred to with pronouns that are “inconsistent with the student’s sex.” The bill also protects school employees from being reprimanded or disciplined for using a name or pronoun that is “consistent with the student’s legal name.”
The bill effectively forces a school or, more likely, an individual teacher to ‘out’ a student as trans to their parents. This will inevitably result in strained teacher-student relationships. Considering the egregious discrimination transgender people in America face, this bill could have dangerous consequences for transgender children. Making the choice to ‘come out’ to one’s family is an incredibly personal one.
HB 1608 wants to rob trans children of their autonomy by making the choice for them. For most children, the vast majority of their time is spent either at school or at home. If a transgender child does not feel safe enough to come out to their parents as trans, schools could serve as the only place where the child is able to exist as their authentic self. If a student feels as though they cannot talk about their gender identity with their parents, confiding in a teacher can be the next best option. HB 1608 wants to eliminate that option for trans youth.
Further, this bill quite literally encourages and empowers educators and school employees to ‘dead name’ trans students who have not been able to legally change their name. According to a study by Stephen Russell and his colleagues, referring to trans youth using their chosen names results in lower rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior. It is a well-known fact that trans youth are vulnerable to negative mental health outcomes. Studies, like Russell’s, seem to suggest that a part of the solution to this problem lies in embracing and empowering the identities of transgender people.
Michelle Davis’ HB 1608 is a clear attempt to cause severe psychological harm to transgender youth. If this bill passes, Michelle Davis will have the blood of children on her hands.