HB 1608 restricts teaching on human sexuality, passes into Senate committee

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The Indiana State House Education Committee met on Feb. 20 to hear constituent testimony and make amendments to House Bill 1608: Human Sexuality Instruction. The bill states that a school, an employee or staff member of a school or a third-party vendor cannot teach students from kindergarten through third grade about human sexuality, according to the bill’s text. HB 1608 defines a school as a public or charter school, a laboratory school, the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Indiana School for the Deaf.

The amendments to the bill on Feb. 20 allow teachers to respond to student questions about topics related to human sexuality. The bill also states that teachers may only refer to students using a name, title, pronoun or other identifiers inconsistent with the student’s sex if the student’s parents make a request for it in writing at the beginning of the school year. Students that are adults or emancipated minors may also make this request for themselves. Additionally, this bill would require schools to notify parents if students request to be referred to in ways that are inconsistent with their sex, and specifies that schools may not discipline teachers or staff if they refer to a student using an identifier that is consistent with their legal name, according to the bill’s text. 

In response to this bill, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana called for Hoosiers to “Pack the Statehouse” and gather outside of the committee chamber beginning at 7:20 a.m. on Feb. 20 while the committee was in session, according to the ACLU Indiana website. As hundreds of people stood outside the chamber holding up signs provided by the ACLU Indiana to show their support for the LGBTQ community—which would be predominantly affected by the bill, the crowd’s yells echoed up and down the halls of the Indiana Statehouse. The chamber gallery was full as well and the gathering could be heard from inside the chamber. The crowd cycled through several rally chants, including: “We say gay,” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, transphobia has got to go.”

Natalie Morehouse is an Indianapolis resident, former teacher and part of the LGBTQ community. She stood amongst fellow protesters because she said that when she was teaching, she saw how important it was for students to have affirming teachers, spaces and schools. Morehouse said this bill breaks her heart because it is actively putting LGBTQ youth in harm’s way.

“Kids know who they are, they know how they feel, they know what’s going on in their lives,” Morehouse said. “And so when we allow them to have spaces and affirming literature and affirming discussion areas, they’re much safer. They’re much less likely to commit suicide. They’re much more likely to do well in school, feel successful, and have high self-esteem…. I would say, to be completely blunt and honest, that they are signing the death certificates of many queer and trans youth in Indiana.”

The bill passed through the House of Representatives and into the Senate with a 65-29 vote after its third reading on Feb. 23, according to the Indiana General Assembly’s website. The first reading by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee was held on March 6, and there was no result as of Reflector press time. Democrat Sen. J.D. Ford is the ranking minority member on the committee, according to the official list of committee members. Ford is also the first and only current openly LGBTQ member of the Indiana General Assembly, according to his website, and was outside of the Statehouse shaking hands and greeting protesters waiting to enter the Statehouse the morning of Feb. 20. Despite the amendments, Ford said his opinion is that it is a terrible bill, especially as someone that has struggled with his own sexual identity. 

“​​Now, proponents of the bill are saying we shouldn’t even be having these conversations from Kindergarten to third grade, and in what we heard from testimonials and from the professionals is that this really isn’t happening,” Ford said. “This really, to me, is a solution in search of a problem.”

And if these concepts are not being taught to children in kindergarten through third grade, Ford said there is a possibility some children may mention in class that they have two mothers or two fathers, which could result in classroom discussions regarding same-sex parents. He said he thinks the main issue with the bill is that it perpetuates certain ideas of what people think a family should be. Ultimately, Ford said he does not think this bill rises to the level of importance in Indiana and that there are more important topics to discuss.

“We know that our students are not doing well, just with their mental health,” Ford said. “We know that. That’s pre-pandemic; the pandemic exacerbated that…. I serve on the Child Fatality Review Committee, and the number one leading cause of death in our state for kids 10 to 14 is student suicide. Fifteen to 17, the number one leading cause of death in our state is motor vehicle accidents, followed then by student suicide. Just those numbers alone indicate to us that there is a severe problem in our state. And you might be thinking, ‘Well, those are older kids, this isn’t K-3. What I would say is that that particular issue rises to the level of our attention, not this.”

Jay Webb, an Indianapolis resident that was part of the crowd assembled outside of the committee chamber on Feb. 20, said they oppose this bill because they believe it is important for the LGBTQ community to be talked about in schools. They said representation is everything because they did not have that growing up in a sheltered environment and know first-hand how harmful that can be.

“You can’t imagine how hurtful it is to be a young, queer person and not feel represented, or to not have books that show you, and not have teachers that support you outright,” Webb said. “That kind of wound goes deep and it lasts for a long time. You’re hurting kids in ways that you can’t even fathom. Don’t do that.”

Regardless of his own stances on the bill, Ford said that he has had constituents reach out to him both in favor of and against the bill. He said he reads all of the emails he receives, listens to phone calls and meets with lobbyists to weigh the pros and cons and really understand what he is voting on and how it will impact the people in his district.

“We have multiple people that have reached out even before it’s reached the Senate side, which doesn’t happen all the time,” Ford said. “So this really has my district abuzz. And I actually had some students reach out and say, ‘I can’t vote yet. But I want you to know as a student where I stand on this bill,’ and I love that. I guess if there’s one positive thing about 1608, the one thing I can say is that students are reaching out and saying, ‘I can’t vote yet, but I am paying attention. And I ask that you vote against this bill.’”

Ford said the number one consequence if HB 1608 passes is that people will flee the profession of teaching. There are currently 1,400 open teaching positions in Indiana, according to Ford, and that should be one of the legislature’s priorities.

“The long-term consequences of this are teachers who are faced with a situation… thinking to themselves, ‘How am I going to handle this? Am I gonna get in trouble? Am I gonna violate state law?’” Ford said. “Some people are like, ‘I don’t want that pressure. I don’t need that pressure,’ and may just exit the teaching profession altogether, which would then further exacerbate the 1,400 open positions in our state. So I think that alone is enough for us to put the brakes on this.”

Imani Jones is another Indianapolis resident who attended the rally in the Statehouse on Feb. 20. Jones identifies as queer and nonbinary and has been working with kids in schools since they graduated college. They said that their impact working in a school, particularly a predominantly Black school, is important because it shows children that are potentially LGBTQ that it is possible to be an LGBTQ adult and be themselves in these spaces. However, Jones said bills like this one makes them not want to live in Indiana.

“I’ve lived in Indiana since I was a very young child,” Jones said. “This is my home state, so to come here and be in the most progressive city in Indiana and still be experiencing the [stuff] that I was experiencing somewhere else is really disheartening. I just hope that things progress so I can stay here because I love Indiana. I love the state. My family is here. I just want to be able to stay here and be comfortable and be myself.”

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