If you’re following the ongoing Republican battle against trans people having even a shred of dignity and protection in the United States, you’ve noticed the phrase “parental rights” being tossed around lately. We’ve covered conservative efforts to bar trans girls from participating in school sports, as well as attempts to stop trans folks of all ages from being able to update their birth certificates. We’ve covered discriminatory efforts to prevent trans people from using the correct bathrooms and locker rooms both in and outside of schools. Now, a growing number of Republicans are trying a slightly different angle, arguing that schools are overstepping parental “rights” if they affirm trans kids.
A recent example comes out of Arkansas, where Republican Sen. Tom Cotton proposed an anti-trans bill that would ban public schools from affirming a trans student’s gender identity without permission from the student’s parents or guardians, as reported by Arkansas Online. This would include, for example, using a student’s pronouns, allowing them to use the bathroom or locker room of their choice, or using their chosen name. And if a school was to found to affirm the student without parental permission? The school would be at risk of losing federal funding.
Let’s dig into this problematic bill. The bill, like many others from Republican lawmakers, is misleadingly titled. The “Empower Parents to Protect Their Kids Act of 2021” would affect students in grades K-12 who are not yet 18 years old. The bill uses decidedly sweeping language to refer to school support of gender transition “in any form,” including school dress codes.
The bill would also ban educators from making referrals to any third-party organizations that could affirm transition. It would also prohibit schools from suggesting that students withhold transition-related information from parents. The bill would also allow people to file lawsuits if the school affirmed a trans student’s gender without parental permission. You might remember that two sets of parents in Madison, Wisconsin, recently sued the school district over an affirming policy.
The bill deep-dives into transphobia and hysteria, suggesting that gender affirmation is an “experimental intervention” and that “powerful” teachers’ unions and advocacy groups are “pressuring” schools to create more trans-inclusive policies. The bill suggests that even social affirmation—say, using a different name or pronouns—is essentially irreversible, which is patently untrue.
The bill defines gender as based on “reproductive potential” in terms of sex chromosomes and internal and external genitalia as present at birth. It does not address people who are intersex. The bill refers to both the school districts and school boards.
As research (and countless personal accounts) have shown us, affirmation is hugely important for trans and queer youth. We know trans youth are particularly vulnerable when it comes to harassment and bullying at school. We also know trans youth report high levels of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. Support can literally be life-saving for young people who are already marginalized by society.
And outing trans youth (or anyone) against their will can be seriously dangerous—for example, it could lead to abuse at home or youth homelessness. Republicans are spewing talk about parental rights, while apparently more than happy to take away a young person’s right to a safe school and home experience.
In a press release, Cotton refers to gender-affirming school policies as a means of imposing “radical, harmful ideologies” on youth, adding that schools must not become “indoctrination camps.” But we all know the only radical indoctrination comes from phobic Republicans, especially in Arkansas, which is quickly becoming a hotbed for anti-trans hate.