In Missouri, perils and politics of ‘don’t say gay’

May 3, 2012

Inside the First Amendment


By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center

If 20 Republican lawmakers in Missouri have their way, it will soon be illegal for administrators, teachers and even students to talk about homosexuality in the state’s public schools.

Derided as the “don’t say gay” bill by opponents, H.B. 2051 “prohibits the discussion of sexual orientation in public school instruction, material, or extracurricular activity except in scientific instruction on human reproduction.”

A similar, less draconian, bill passed the Tennessee State Senate last year — but died in the House a few days ago. Utah legislators passed their own version of “don’t say gay,” but it was vetoed by the governor in March.

Some social-conservative lawmakers in these states are worried about what they see as a “homosexual agenda” being promoted in public schools. When pressed to give examples, Rep. Steve Cookson, the Missouri bill’s lead supporter, pointed to the “80 school-sponsored gay-straight alliances” across the state.

Cookson apparently doesn’t understand that Gay-Straight Alliance clubs are student-initiated, not school-sponsored. In fact, under the federal Equal Access Act, secondary schools must permit students to form such clubs if the school allows other extracurricular clubs. Cookson’s bill would not only run afoul of the EAA, but it also would violate freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.

While Cookson may be confused about the status of student clubs, he and other like-minded legislators are clear about where they stand in the culture war over issues involving sexual orientation.  Even as public support grows for greater legal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people, some state legislators — many motivated by religious convictions — are determined to stop the pro-gay rights tide at the schoolhouse door.

Meanwhile, many educators and health professionals worry that silencing any mention of sexual orientation in schools will cripple efforts to create a safe learning environment for GLBT students — frequent targets of bullying and harassment, according to various studies.

If enacted, Missouri’s law would presumably bar teachers from saying anything to combat intolerance toward GLBT students or from teaching anything that mentions gay people in history, current events, art or literature.

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics denounced the Missouri bill as “harmful” to the best interests of children. “All children and teenagers need to feel safe in their schools,” said Dr. Stuart C. Sweet, president of the state’s chapter of the academy, “and HB 2051 takes that assurance away from them.”

At least one Republican legislator in Missouri, Rep. Zachary Wyatt, agreed with Dr. Sweet about the potential harmful impact of the bill. In a letter to his home-district newspaper, the Kirksville Express, last week, Wyatt (who is not running for re-election) wrote that he was compelled to speak out against his colleagues who support the bill.

Without assisting students, he argued, “how can we protect gay kids in rural schools where many are afraid to even mention the word gay, let alone address this type of issue?”

On May 2, a few days after writing the letter, Rep. Wyatt came out to his colleagues, becoming the only openly gay Republican state lawmaker in the country.  He called it a painful decision — but necessary if it helps galvanize opposition to the bill.

“I keep thinking of those kids getting bullied or worse yet, killing themselves," Wyatt said. "I felt I needed to sacrifice a little."

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20001. Web: E-mail: