This week House Bill 755, the so-called “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” is headed for one more procedural vote in the N.C. House and then to the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper.
Cooper, a Democrat, has signaled he will veto the bill. But some Democratic lawmakers say that would serve Republicans’ political purposes. The veto would let GOP candidates campaign on their opposition’s having killed a bill that would ban instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in Kindergarten through third grade.
However, the proposal goes well beyond instruction. It requires schools to notify parents if any student under 18 asks to be addressed by a gender pronoun different from the gender assigned at birth. It would also prohibit teachers or administrators from withholding “information about his or her mental, emotional, or physical health,” which would include LGBTQ students expressing frustration that they can’t come out to families who would not support them.
That could have the effect of outing LGBTQ students before they are ready to talk to their parents about their sexuality or gender, experts told Policy Watch this week.
“That’s so dangerous in so many ways,” said Shana Gordon, a licensed professional counselor and therapist with Tree of Life Counseling, which has North Carolina offices in Greensboro and Jacksonville.
Gordon works mostly with youth clients and their families. She said she has seen many LGBTQ people navigate the sensitive time in their lives at which point they accept themselves and come out to friends, family and their community.
“You don’t know why someone may still be in the closet,” Gordon said. “Maybe they know they’ll face abuse at home if they come out, that their parents will throw them out, that they’ll send them to a camp to try to ‘cure’ them. But also, sometimes coming out is a process, even with themselves. A lot of people do it in steps and that’s okay.”
Dysphoria and disinformation
Gordon said she is troubled by provisions in the bill that suggest students could get treatment for gender dysphoria at school and without their parents’ knowledge or permission. In her years of working with young transgender people she’s never seen that, she said, and parents have to be involved in any treatment she does.
There has been a growing social acceptance of different gender expressions over the years, Gordon said, but some people are still alarmed by things as innocuous as young women cutting their hair short or young men painting their fingernails. Those outward expressions might not indicate anything about a young person’s gender or sexuality, or it could signal that they are slowly aligning their presentation with their inner identity.
People tend to be more accepting of this behavior in younger children, Gordon said, but people who are already uncomfortable with LGBTQ youth became alarmed when they see it in older children and teenagers.
“With children they get this message – between 6 and 8 – we make this distinction,” Gordon said. “Developmentally, that’s where we start to understand gender. And kids get this message if they are doing something people think they shouldn’t be doing because of their gender. People struggle with that throughout their lives. I’ve seen people in their 30s and 40s who are just realizing that.”
For transgender youth who are trying to work through their own dysphoria, a vaguely worded bill that seems to give license to teachers, counselors and administrators to treat such behaviors as burgeoning mental illness is disastrous, Gordon said.
Gender dysphoria is not a mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association defines it as “a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify.”
More than 40 years’ of research into and treatment of transgender people experiencing dysphoria has led psychiatric and medical professionals to conclude the most effective course of treatment is support and acceptance. Gender transition — aligning one’s life socially and sometimes physically to better match their gender identity — is not something everyone experiencing dysphoria chooses, just as not all transgender people choose to medically transition. For those for whom it is judged necessary, medical experts agree that it can be life-saving.
Some of the bad information about gender dysphoria is genuine confusion about a concept many haven’t encountered until recently, Gordon said. Some of it is intentional disinformation designed to stoke a moral panic.
Some transgender youth find their schools more supportive than others. Should HB 755 become law, that could change.
The Durham Public Schools district has gender-support guidelines that say students should be addressed using their preferred pronouns.
“Students are not required to obtain parental consent or a court ordered name and/or gender change as a prerequisite to being addressed by the name and pronoun that corresponds to their gender identity,” the Durham policy states.
Under the guidelines, students’ legal names are used on official transcripts. But students can request that their diplomas be printed with names they’ve adopted for gender identity purposes, even if their names have not been legally changed.
DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth couldn’t say how the district would respond if the bill passes, or if there is a disagreement between students and their parents over what pronouns and names students should use.
On May 19, before Republican senators introduced their bill, the Durham school board unanimously approved a draft resolution recognizing Pride Month that included an invitation for all schools “to implement developmentally appropriate, inclusive, and representative lessons and special activities with all students on LGBTQ+ families, gender diversity, and LGBTQ+ history.”
At that meeting, parents and faculty urged board members to strengthen district guidelines by adopting them as board policies and providing staff training. Despite the guidelines, some teachers refuse to use students’ preferred names and pronouns, one teacher told the board.
“When kids are already struggling, something like that just reinforces the idea that there’s something wrong with them,” Gordon said. “Just with the discussion of these bills, I’m seeing some of the young people I see shutting down, like they are worried that they’re not prepared for what is coming. Kids are already struggling. They feel like they don’t have the courage or the confidence or the support to fight this off.”
For now, Gordon said, she just keeps assuring them that they do.