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Arizona bill would deny students use of preferred pronouns

Getting the words right is about respect and accuracy, says Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Kaz Fantone for NPR
Getting the words right is about respect and accuracy, says Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Arizona lawmakers took the first steps Wednesday to denying students the right to be referred to by a pronoun that matches how they identify themselves.

SB 1001, approved by the Senate Education Committee on a 4-3 party line vote, also would put into law that teachers and other school employees may refer to a student by only his or her given name or a nickname "commonly associated with the student's name of record.'' Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who crafted the measure, said it would be OK to refer to someone named John as Jack.

"You just can't call 'John' 'Jane,' '' he said.

The legislation does contain an exception in cases where parents first give written permission, whether for a different pronoun or even a name to address the child. Kavanagh said that should take care of cases where parents are aware of and approve of a child's preference.

Kavanagh said this isn't about discriminating against transgender children. Instead, he said, it ensures that parents know when a child may have "gender dysphoria'' where the gender selected differs from the gender assigned at birth.

"The parents have a right to know about serious problems their children may be having,'' Kavanagh argued, problems that could lead to suicide.

Paul Bixler, a member of Liberty Elementary School District governing board, said that's fine for children who have a loving relationship with their parents. But he said this legislation fails to understand reality.

"There continues to come before this legislature efforts to either force a child to disclose their deepest, darkest secret to a person, maybe even a parent, whose reaction a child cannot predict, trust -- or even fears,'' Bixler said

Erica Keppler, an activist in the LGBTQ community, testified that SB 1001 is based on another flaw.

"No one commits suicide because they are gender dysphoric,'' she said. "They do it because family and society won't accept them or allow them to live as their true selves,'' Keppler continued. "Making schools even more hostile environments for trans youth only promotes the problem the senator claims it will help.''

Kavanagh brushed aside concerns that notifying a parent of that preference actually could put the student in danger of abuse or being thrown out of the house.

"That's a very cynical view of the American family,'' Kavanagh said.

Still, he said, if there is such a danger, then a parent could be contacted by a school counselor or even the Department of Child Safety. And if a child simply doesn't want a parent notified, Kavanagh said, the answer is simple: He or she has to live with the pronoun and the name they were given at birth.

David Trujillo, a 15-year-old transgender student born and raised in Tucson, told sometimes it is the support of teachers and friends that helps.

"I know personally that, for me, my teachers and classmates supporting me in the classroom has positively impacted my performance in school,'' he said.

But Heather Rooks, a member of the Peoria Unified School District board, said measures like this are important.

"Why are we so focused on the sexualization of these kids?'' she asked. "We need to focus on the academics right now.''

Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, said something is lost in the discussion of the rights of transgender students to be addressed the way they want.

"You're not talking about the other students who don't, and the other students who actually are being forced in the classroom to use pronouns that they don't understand, that they don't feel comfortable using,'' she said. "And then they're getting punished for not using them.''

One provision in Kavanagh's bill could create problems even for supporters.

It says teachers and school employees with religious objections can't be forced to use a student's preferred pronoun, even in situations where the parents have given permission.

Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, who voted for the legislation, said he believes that the wishes of the parents should always win out. And he said he may not vote for the measure when it next goes to the full Senate unless that is removed.

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