PITTSBORO — For Northwood senior Aiden Vigus, last week was exhausting. Finals are around the corner, but that’s not top of mind for them.
First, there was the horrific news Tuesday of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which pushed Vigus to organize a walkout, where more than 100 students protested against gun violence. Then, later that day, there was the introduction from North Carolina Republican lawmakers of House Bill 755, known as the “Parent’s Bill of Rights.”
“I was pretty disgusted when I heard about it,” Vigus said. “It’s exhausting because it feels like there’s something new every time.”
HB 755 would ban teaching about gender or sexuality in kindergarten through 3rd grade and could force school employees to “out” LGBTQ+ students to their parents. The bill would also require that if students in any grade tell teachers or counselors about issues related to their gender or sexuality — or about anything else related to their “mental, emotional or physical health or well-being” — then school employees would be prohibited from keeping that a secret if the parents asked.
“When I was younger, I had an unsupportive parent,” Vigus, who identifies as non-binary, said. “The fact this bill allows for the disclosure of counseling notes of students with regards to orientation is scary to me.”
Vigus said living in the Bible Belt means for them and many of their peers, home is not a safe place to express queer identities.
Queer advocacy organizations like Equality NC have also opposed the bill and compared it to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
“This bill specifically attacks LGBTQ+ students and families, bans accurate curriculum and puts a target on our already overburdened and under-resourced teachers,” Equality NC said in a statement Tuesday. “North Carolina GOP leaders are choosing to target the most vulnerable students in our classrooms rather than protect our children.”
Representative for N.C. House Dist. 54 Robert Reives II also expressed concern over the bill. He said it creates unnecessary controversy.
“I am concerned that we are villainizing educators and creating another culture war — as we did with HB2 — around our classrooms, where there is none,” Reives said in a statement to the New + Record. “Anyone who has watched the news over the past few weeks can see that there are far more pressing issues for public schools, the safety of our children in classrooms being the first.”
Reives is the primary sponsor on a different “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” House Bill 1129, which he said he believes addressed “real issues.” Reives’ bill gives parents more access to knowledge about school safety and threats to schools.
Some LGBTQ+ advocacy groups said this bill has the potential to increase suicide and homelessness among queer students, which already see exceptionally high figures in both categories. According to a national survey by the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ student advocacy group and crisis hotline, 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered suicide in 2021, and 14% attempted suicide. The survey also found that 60% of LGBTQ youth wanted mental health care but didn’t get it in the past year. Among that group, 48% said they didn’t get care because they feared discussing mental health concerns, while 45% cited concerns with obtaining parent or caregiver permission.
“The consequences of outing students to parents without consent is just plain wrong,” Vigus said. “It’s just unsafe for a lot of kids around here if their parents were to get hold of information about their orientation.”
As it stands, HB 755 has passed through the House and the Senate Healthcare Committee. It now awaits the Senate Rules Committee before coming to a floor vote by the full Senate. The bill currently has 12 sponsors, all Republicans.
Senate Republicans have defended the changes as being pro-parent, and not anti-gay. “It has no place in the K-3 curriculum,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard of Watauga County, the bill’s lead sponsor.
“(Parents) are worried about things that they have seen and things that are happening in the public schools, and this is an effort by legislators to address those issues. Nothing more. Nothing less,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said Tuesday. “Parents have a right to know those things. You’re talking about minor children and their parents.”
If the bill does pass the Senate, it faces its most important opponent — Gov. Roy Cooper — who’s said he’d veto the bill if it ever got to his desk.
“The last thing our state needs is another Republican political ploy like the bathroom bill, which hurt our people and cost us jobs,” Cooper said in a statement last Wednesday. “Let’s keep the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ culture wars out of North Carolina classrooms.”
Republicans do not have the necessary votes to override Cooper’s veto.
Regardless of the outcome, to students like Vigus, that the bill has been proposed is alarming. They said they believe it’s an attempt to dehumanize and ostracize queer students.
“This shouldn’t even be a discourse,” Vigus said. “These politicians should not be given a platform to push this kind of stuff. Their arguments shouldn’t be given much merit at all.”
Vigus said school is an important safe space for them and many of their peers. It’s a place where they fostered a queer community and became comfortable in their own identity. Vigus is a member of Northwood’s Pride Club, which advocates and educates students about LGBTQ+ issues.
Oliver Ewy, the club’s co-president and a junior at Northwood, echoed Vigus’ sentiments.
“I wish I could have a little bit more faith in our state government’s ability to protect LGBTQ students and people,” Ewy said. “This has the potential to cause harm because not teaching young impressionable kids that it’s OK to be queer has a real impact on how they’ll view others as they get older.”
Ewy said as a gay student, he believes education is a huge part of normalizing and respecting the queer experience.
Sophomore Ray Brock is also a member of the club. Brock identifies as transgender and said the bill is worrisome because school is often one of the only places queer students feel safe to come out.
“Nobody should be outed against their will,” Brock said. “It’s important to teach kids about queer issues so they learn how to respect others of all identities, regardless of age.”
When Brock first came out as transgender, he said his parents frequently called him slurs and unnecessarily punished him. He said they often prevented him from going out with friends because they believed he would engage in “ungodly activities.” He also said on more than one occasion he’s had things thrown at him in public for being out with a significant other. But the place where he did feel safe was at school because he had a community that respected him for who he was.
“I was really afraid to come out until I realized that the people here were really accepting,” Brock said. “Having a community helps most people. Just a couple of people can help somebody show their actual self.”
Brock and Ewy both said teachers were some of the first people they came out to.
“Having teachers I could turn to helped me affirm my identity,” Ewy said. “It made me feel safe in the school because I knew this teacher would help me figure out how to navigate difficult situations.”
“I’ve always thought of teachers as protectors,” Brock said. “I know my teachers will protect me, then I can feel safe being out and vulnerable.”
Equality NC said stories like Brock’s and Ewy’s are proof this bill would harm students and teachers because it would damage the personal relationships they are able to build with one another. If HB 755 became law, teachers could face lawsuits if they violate provisions requiring them to report students to parents.
“This whole bill gets people arguing about something that shouldn’t be controversial in the first place,” Brock said. “My right to exist and go to school as a queer person is not controversial, nor should it ever be.”
Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @b_rappaport.
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