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Wyoming’s version of ‘Don’t Say Gay’ advances to Senate floor

Photo by Benson Kua via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

A bill working its way through the Wyoming Senate could forbid teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. Opponents say it stifles free speech and puts queer youth at risk.

Senate File 117 prohibits schools from teaching kindergarten through third grade students about sexual orientation and gender identity. But several education officials and LGBTQ rights activists say it might prohibit teachers from supporting queer youth or even prohibit students from talking about themselves or their own families.

The bill closely resembles the famed "Don't Say Gay" bill passed in Florida last year.

According to research, trans youth are at a much higher risk for depression and suicide than their cisgender peers. It's been found that risk is higher in communities where trans youth are not accepted.

Laramie County teenager Ash Silcott spoke about their own childhood and the early realization that they were gay.

"I have been queer my entire life," Silcott said. "I was playing house with the other kids and I would always want to be the dad because the pretty girl in my grade would give me a kiss on the cheek and that would make my day."

Silcott also described the way teachers provided support and confidentiality.

"But sometimes kids in our school district don't get that," Silcott said. "They don't get support at home that I was so lucky to receive. I've almost lost so many friends to suicide because they come to school and say, 'My parents don't love me. My parents won't love me if I come out to them. I can't say anything.' In kindergarten to third grade we learn who we are in some ways."

Tate Mullen of the Wyoming Education Association said the new bill stigmatizes queer identities specifically.

"We know in the state of Wyoming that we have an incredibly high suicide rate in our youth," he said. "We know that our LGBTQ plus students are disproportionately at risk for depression and suicide attempts because of the stigmatization that is out there. This bill addresses their identity and does exactly those things."

But opponents like Mullen failed to make headway with the bill's supporters, like Republican Senators Charles Scott (R-Casper) and Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester), who kept asking where in the bill it said schools will discriminate.

"You've lost me on the curve," Scott said, following a lengthy comment from Mullen.

The bill also allows parents to opt their children out of health screenings with a broad statement allowing parents to "withhold consent or decline any specific health care service" — a provision Mullen said will have unintended consequences.

"That may seem innocuous because a lot of those health screenings typically go over hearing, vision, dental," he said. "And while that's pretty limited in its scope, this is also the frontline for detecting abuse and neglect in households. Those types of parents who may be guilty of abuse or neglect would opt their children out of that health screening. This is a huge problem for our at-risk students."

The bill garnered support from various individuals, including a lobbyist for the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne and leaders from the local chapter of Moms for Liberty. Moms for Liberty is a national campaign that's been working to ban books about LGBT issues and race from school libraries across the country.

Laramie County Moms for Liberty Chair Kathy Scigliano and Vice-Chair Erin Waszkiewicz both spoke in favor of the bill but argued it didn't go far enough. Waszkiewicz said the bill should apply to all grades, not cut off at third grade, and that children should never be given a health screening, survey or questionnaire without the expressed permission of their parents. She also compared being transgender to living with an eating disorder.

"If a child is showing signs of bulimia, no one would ever encourage that child to continue to throw up their food and teach them how to hide it from their parents," Waszkiewicz said. "Yet, this is exactly what's happening with gender ideology. Therapists, counselors and doctors are using affirmative care instead of trying to find the root of the issue."

Waszkiewicz further argued not passing the bill would constitute discrimination against her own children and her family's worldview.

"A lot of times when gender ideology is spoken about, children with a certain ideology or worldview feel discriminated (against) because they feel they can't talk about what they believe in," she said.

Senator Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) pushed back on these arguments.

"It seems that the solution is not less speech, it's more more speech, and it's not less teaching, it's more teaching,” he said. "This legislation seems to be drafted such that … the desire is to make sure there are topics that are off-limits."

Rothfuss agreed with Waszkiewicz that students should be free to share their opinions. He said he wants his own children to be able to openly discuss these topics with teachers and that the bill in front of the committee would limit that, privileging the viewpoints of Scigliano and Waszkiewicz over his own.

Rothfuss pushed back on other supporters of the bill throughout the committee meetings Friday, Jan. 20.

The bill ultimately advanced on a 4-1 vote with Rothfuss casting the sole dissenting vote. It now heads to the Senate floor for further debate.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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