Arizona law would require parent's permission before school employees could refer to a student by preferred pronouns
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- State lawmakers are once again wading into the area of the rights of transgender minors.
A new proposal by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, would bar school employees from knowingly referring to a student by a pronoun "that differs from the pronoun that aligns with the student's biological sex'' regardless of the student's preferences. Only if the adult first gets parental permission would that be permissible.
And Kavanagh already is planning to expand what has been introduced as SB 1001 to close what he sees as a possible loophole where teachers could avoid pronouns and instead address a student by the first name he or she prefers.
He wants state law to read that only a student's given name or some variant could be used. So someone named Edward could be addressed as Eddie or Ed.
But calling that student Emma or Evelyn would be breaking the law.
Kavanagh bills his measure as ensuring that parents know if their children are identifying themselves by a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. That, he said, ensures the children can get the psychological treatment they may need to deal with depression and possible suicide.
But what it's not designed to do, he told Capitol Media Services, is make it easier for a parent, informed of a child's "gender dysphoria,'' to get him or her the medical treatment needed to match the biological sex and gender identity.
"You're talking to somebody who was a parent who wouldn't let their minor child get a tattoo, much less change their gender,'' Kavanagh said. "Those decisions need to be deferred to when an individual's an adult and can make a mature decision.''
His legislation comes less than a year after state lawmakers approved -- and Gov. Doug Ducey signed -- a measure to prohibit any form of "irreversible gender reassignment surgery'' on an individual younger than 18, even with the consent of parents.
But to get the votes, proponents had to remove a provision that would have prohibited doctors from providing puberty-blocking hormones or any other hormone therapy to minors.
Ducey also signed another measure passed by the Republican-controlled legislature spelling out that anyone who is born a male cannot participate in intramural or interscholastic sports for females, regardless of whether she has fully transitioned.
Kavanagh, in discussing his new bill, acknowledged he has heard of no issues in Arizona schools with teachers using the "wrong'' pronouns with students -- yet.
"It's something that is spreading,'' he told Capitol Media Services. "We want to nip it in the bud.''
But Jeanne Woodbury, the interim executive director of Equality Arizona, said it's a bad idea.
"Reactionary legislators are now trying to forcibly enlist teachers into their efforts to make schools inhospitable to trans and binary students,'' she said. And Woodbury called it "an embarrassment to good governance'' for this to be the first measure introduced in the Senate for the 2023 session.
Bridget Sharpe, state director of the Human Rights Campaign, said Kavanagh is trying to make an issue out of something that's not problem.
"All that happens at the end of the day is that the kids feel ostracized,'' she said. Sharpe said it also undermines the ability of trans students to believe they have "a trusted person at school'' with whom they can speak.
"It's really an attempt, we've seen it nationwide, to just kind of demonize these kids and saying that their pronouns don't matter,'' she said.
Kavanagh pointed out that his legislation would not preclude a teacher or other school employee from referring to a student using his or her preferred pronoun or even a name that doesn't match the person's "biological sex.''
"It says they can't do that unless the parent has given permission,'' he said.
Kavanagh said there's also a potential benefit in requiring teachers to check in with parents when a student makes such a request.
That goes to the issue of gender dysphoria, generally described as a sense by individuals that there is a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity. More to the point, it refers to the distress that can result which can lead to depression and even suicide.
Kavanagh said alerting the parent could get the child necessary treatment.
"In fact, if the parents know about it and the child is receiving treatment, then calling a child a name or a pronoun that doesn't align with their gender may, in fact, be contrary to their treatment,'' Kavanagh said.
"These children are often depressed and suicidal,'' he continued. "So the last thing that I want to do is keep parents, who are in a position to help the child, in the dark.''
But he acknowledged, that "treatment'' would be for the depression, essentially getting the child to be comfortable with his or her assigned gender, rather than any intervention, medical or otherwise, to help confirm the child's perceived gender.
The legislation also is raising concerns in the education community.
Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, said it comes even as the the state is losing thousands of teachers each year. And she said measures like this make it harder to convince more people to enter the profession, citing a conversation she had with some would-be teachers.
"It was their No. 1 priority: How do we stay in a state where we are constantly being politicized?'' she said, with state government adding to the bureaucracy. "It's just frustrating and angering.''
Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, actually offered a similar idea last session.
But his proposal only would have precluded school officials from requiring teachers and other staff from using a gender pronoun that differs from what is on a student's birth certificate. It would not, however, have precluded someone from voluntarily honoring a student's request, something that Kavanagh's SB 1001 would outlaw.
Fillmore's measure, however, did not even get a hearing in the House Education Committee to which it was assigned.