The day after Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy unveiled a controversial “parental rights” bill that would limit LGBTQ policies in Alaska schools, lawmakers began to hint at the battle that awaits.
Rep. Andrew Gray broke into tears on the House floor as he described how the bill could impact gay kids whose sexual orientation is rejected by their parents — as he had experienced growing up.
The bill “hurts children, specifically gender non-conforming children like I once was,” said Gray, D-Anchorage, who is gay. “To those kids, I want to say … you are no one’s shame, you are not your parents’ property — you are your own person.”
Dunleavy has insisted his bill would not single out gay or transgender children. Instead, he said it would empower parents to take charge of their kids’ education and limit their exposure to content they find objectionable. But LGBTQ advocates called that a thinly veiled attempt to allow discrimination against children. Meanwhile, conservative groups in Alaska celebrated the prospect of limiting kids’ exposure to lessons about the LGBTQ community.
Despite skepticism from the left, some centrist legislators promised to give the proposal good-faith consideration, setting the stage for a battle that touches on fundamental disagreements between conservatives and progressives nationwide: the tension between parents’ rights to control their children’s education, and schools’ role in protecting the rights of vulnerable LGBTQ kids who in some cases face abuse or rejection from their parents or guardians.
Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said he would ensure the measure, Senate Bill 96, is heard by his caucus, even as some of its members — who vowed to steer clear of divisive social issues — have questioned the bill’s validity.
“I think we owe the governor that respect,” said Stevens, who directed the bill to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee, a day after Senate Education Committee Chair Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, said she would refuse to give the bill a hearing in her committee.
Republican House majority members expressed interest in the bill, while House minority lawmakers opposing the measure said Wednesday that the measure was a “distraction” that could divert focus away from what both the House minority and the Senate majority caucuses have named as their top priority for the legislative session: increasing funding for Alaska’s public schools amid a looming budget crisis.
Dunleavy’s proposed budget this year included no increases for school funding even as educators from across the state have sounded the alarm about the increasing difficulty of keeping buildings heated and teachers paid amid rising costs and stagnant state funding. Dunleavy has said he is open to increasing state funding for schools, but his proposed legislation did not include any measures relating to the foundation formula used to calculate school funding. Instead, he proposed limited-time annual bonuses for teachers.
Dunleavy’s parental rights bill rolls together a conglomeration of measures favored by conservatives: It would ban sexual education for kids until fourth grade; require parents to actively opt into all sexual education content for their children once it’s available; force children to use bathrooms according to their “biological sex”; require parental approval for kids to change the name or pronouns they use in school; and order schools to notify parents about their rights to sue their kids’ schools if their rights are violated.
Parents’ rights vs. LGBTQ rights
Caitlin Shortell, an attorney and civil rights activist who has represented LGBTQ clients in litigation against the state, said that even though the bill is framed as a “parental rights” measure, “it’s really an attack on LGBTQ+ rights to privacy, equal protection and due process.”
“So it’s using what sounds like a pretty benign thing — parents’ rights — to advance an extreme discriminatory agenda,” said Shortell.
Shortell said the bill is the latest chapter in the state’s long history of discrimination against LGBTQ people: The state dropped a policy last year banning discrimination against LGBTQ individuals, Attorney General Treg Taylor last year joined a lawsuit challenging USDA’s prohibition of LGBTQ discrimination; the state fought to protect its ban on gay marriage a decade ago; and the state continued to deny Permanent Fund dividends to same-sex spouses despite a court order to the contrary.
Denying that the bill would target gender non-conforming youth “or any other group,” Dunleavy said on social media Wednesday that the bill “affirms the rights for parents to be part of the discussion.”
But Shortell said that parents’ rights have been used time and time again by conservative groups “as the vehicle for their extreme anti-LGBTQ agenda. So denying it is pretty useless.”
Jim Minnery, president of the conservative Christian group Alaska Family Council, which supports the bill and named its passage as one of the group’s top priorities, also said the legislation is meant to target what they see as public schools’ attempt to advocate for LGBTQ rights.
“It’s just been known for a long, long time that the LGBT activists are so intent on confusing little kids’ minds,” said Minnery. “It’s fired up so many people that say, just stop the insanity.”
At a recent bill hearing for a separate measure proposed by Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage, to add “medically and scientifically” accurate sexual education to required public school curriculum, dozens of conservative parents — encouraged by anti-abortion and conservative groups — expressed opposition to the measure, saying their rights would be violated by an effort to teach their children about different sexual orientations and gender identities. That bill hasn’t advanced.
“It’s a huge issue for us because public schools shouldn’t be bought and sold to LGBT activities groups and that’s pretty much what happened,” said Minnery. But when asked multiple times by email for specific examples of sexual education taught in Alaska public schools before fourth grade that the bill seeks to prevent, Dunleavy spokespeople did not reply.
The segment of the bill that requires schools to notify parents of their right to sue schools, Shortell said, is part of an effort to bring forward legal cases that can “counteract the legal gains we’ve made in the courts for LGBTQ rights.” Those cases, she said, can reach federal courts stacked with conservative judges who could then invalidate protections put in place by schools for vulnerable students.
Minnery gave a concrete example, saying he hopes for a lawsuit in Anchorage to overturn the school district’s policy protecting gender non-conforming students’ rights to change the pronouns they use in school without getting parental approval first.
“I’d like to think that’s what’s going to happen in Anchorage at some point, if not in other school districts, because they actually describe how the teachers are not to tell the parents,” said Minnery. “It’s a smoking gun kind of thing.”
Dunleavy denied Tuesday that his bill was modeled after legislation in Florida that banned sex education for grade school students and earned the name “don’t say gay” bill because it limits teachers’ ability to discuss LGBTQ issues. But Minnery said he saw similarities between that measure and Alaska’s proposal.
“Gov. Dunleavy along with (Florida) Gov. (Ron) DeSantis and many other states are advancing this kind of legislation,” said Minnery, adding that he spoke with Dunleavy about the measures in the bill before it was proposed and intends to push for its passage.
Rose O’Hara-Jolley, Alaska state director for Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, said the Alaska bill goes farther than Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” bill because in addition to banning discussion of sexual orientation before fourth grade, it also targets transgender kids’ ability to select the pronouns they want to use and their access to bathrooms by forcing them to use bathrooms that align with their sex assigned at birth.
“This is worse than Florida’s ‘don’t say gay’ bill. Dunleavy has introduced a don’t BE gay (or trans) bill,” the group wrote in a social media post.
‘A solution in search of a problem’
Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage, said his 16-member caucus is “not putting more time looking into it than just an initial assessment.”
That initial assessment has produced some strong views.
“The gender identity bill is a solution in search of a problem,” said Rep. Jennie Armstrong, D-Anchorage. “It is an attack on our most vulnerable kids.”
Armstrong and others have said the bill could make it harder to address Alaska’s sexual abuse and assault rates, which are the highest in the nation.
“This is further removing really important conversations and giving those kids who are the most vulnerable — taking away to learn about things and communicate about things that are happening to them,” Armstrong said.
Rep. Cliff Groh, an Anchorage Democrat and former Alaska prosecutor, said most child abuse cases in the state involve either parents or people with parental authority. That makes education for young children related to abuse awareness and identifying “bad touch” critical.
Dunleavy spokesperson Grant Robinson said in an email that the bill includes an exemption for sexual abuse and sexual assault awareness and prevention trainings that are already guaranteed in state law, meaning kids could still access those trainings before fourth grade, as long as their parents allow them to do so.
Despite opposition from House minority members, the bills are likely to gain traction among House conservatives, who have already signaled their support for the measure.
“I am a big advocate of parents’ rights. As a father of five, my children belong to me, they do not belong to the school,” Rep. Tom McKay said Tuesday. The Anchorage Republican serves on the House Education Committee, which is set to hear a presentation on the bill on Monday. “And when it comes to sex education, and changing sexes, naughty books in the library, and so on and so forth — I believe that parents have every right to know everything that’s going on in the schools that we pay for.”
In the Senate, Stevens acknowledged that despite his commitment to give the bill a hearing, it faces slim odds in the 20-member chamber.
“I don’t want to waste a lot of time on a bill that has no chance of passing the floor. Are there 11 members out there who support it? At this time, probably not,” he said.
Stevens said he decided to send the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee, rather than the Education Committee, because the latter is already burdened with other legislation, including its flagship bill to increase school funding.
Sen. Matt Claman, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the judiciary committee, said he wanted to examine whether the bill would clash with the Alaska Constitution’s privacy clause, which is one of the strongest in the nation. But he said it was a fair observation that the bill would face an uphill battle to advance from that committee with three Democrats making up a majority of members, including Tobin.
Even if the legislation doesn’t pass, the discussions about it could harm LGBTQ people’s ability to feel safe in Alaska, advocates said.
“For those of us who are LGBTQ, it’s not just a job. It’s not just politics. It’s our very right to exist that we’re talking about,” said Shortell.
Iris Samuels reported from Anchorage and Sean Maguire reported from Juneau.