This state legislative session has been bruising for advocates in North Carolina and South Carolina. As of this writing, NC’s legislature is still in session, and SC’s legislature adjourned after passing a ban on transgender athletic participation and a medical exemption from non-discrimination laws. Both legislatures also entertained curriculum restriction bills similar to those that passed in Florida and other states. These legislative proposals are called “Don’t Say Gay” in shorthand, but in reality, they are considerably broader and more insidious.
Florida’s bill may have been the first and the most infamous in this session, but these laws are not new. Anti-LGBTQ curriculum restrictions go all the way back to the 1970s when conservatives like Anita Bryant began public campaigns against educators based on the idea that talking about LGBTQ people is “homosexual recruitment” or even implying that LGBTQ people are pedophiles. California had a public campaign in 1978 called Proposition 6 (also known as the Briggs Initiative) to prevent LGBTQ teachers from employment in schools.
Censorship laws had generally been thought to be unconstitutional both because they restrict freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment, as well as because they treat LGBTQ people differently from heterosexual and cisgender people in violation of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Some states repealed their curriculum restrictions in the wake of the Lawrence and Obergefell decisions by the Supreme Court, which acknowledged the rights to same-sex intimacy and marriage.
Other states replaced overtly anti-LGBTQ restrictions with heterocentric language that requires teaching that heterosexual marriage is the best way to avoid HIV (like the NC Healthy Youth Act). Still other states were sued, and their laws were repealed by consent decree, as in SC in 2020.
These biased policy ideas have been dusted off and given a new framing as “parental rights” to inspect curriculum materials and to object or withdraw their child from those classes that contain “divisive” content. Some anti-LGBTQ curriculum bills also contain provisions that require schools to out LGBTQ students to their parents, meaning educators must disclose that a child has identified as LGBTQ in some way at the school.
The bill that was passed by the NC Senate during this session, HB755, contains a provision that educators must give prior notice to the parent of any student seeking to change the name or pronouns that they use at school. This forced outing can put youth in a very dangerous situation if their family is not supportive of LGBTQ identities.
Anti-LGBTQ curriculum bills are now being coupled with legislative proposals that forbid teaching about structural racism and sexism on the grounds that these concepts make others uncomfortable. SC HB4799 would have forbidden any school policy “to affirm a belief in anything characterized as the systemic nature of racism…or in anything characterized as the multiplicity or fluidity of gender identities.”
Many of these same legislatures also entertained bills to restrict access to abortion and to voting. SC HB4830 would have criminalized abortion, and SC HB3444 would have prohibited drop boxes for absentee ballots. That is not a casual coincidence. These bills are all cut from the same far-right conservative cloth. Because Trump appointed so many conservatives to all levels of the federal courts in the United States, winning conservative court rulings is more feasible than it used to be. While the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the constitutionality of curriculum laws, the LGBTQ community should be alarmed at the recent Dobbs decision taking away constitutional protections for abortion. Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion made clear that he believes it is time to take away the fundamental liberties to same-sex intimacy and marriage that underpin much of the modernization of our country’s curriculum laws.
What can you do? Everyone should get to know the legislators who represent them—let them know that you value education without discrimination for students in your state and in your school district. Consider running for your local school board and have a direct say in what students are taught. There are also organizations like the Banned Books Book Club that are fighting censorship. But without a doubt, one of the most important things that anyone can do is to show support, love, and affirmation for LGBTQ people. Research shows that if a young person knows even one adult who is supportive of their identity, it significantly decreases mental health risks. LGBTQ young people are resilient and grow up to be brilliant organizers, lawyers, doctors, educators, artists, and lawmakers when they are supported.
Ames Simmons (he/him) is a queer white transgender man who holds a senior fellowship at Duke University School of Law. His work is grounded in community-based anti-racism, anti-violence, and anti-poverty efforts to achieve justice for transgender people and collective liberation. His previous roles include policy director at National Center for Transgender Equality, policy director at Equality North Carolina, and assistant general counsel at a healthcare company assisting uninsured patients with Medicaid. Ames attended Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Spanish, and Emory University Law School, where he earned a Juris Doctor degree.