More than 100 Alaskans spoke out against a “parental rights” bill proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in a wave of opposition to the legislation many said would harm already vulnerable transgender youths.
Of the 119 Alaskans who spoke during the nearly five-hour hearing held Thursday evening by the House Education Committee, 103 opposed the bill and only 16 were in favor of it.
Apayauq Reitan, the first openly transgender woman to run the Iditarod, was one of many gender nonconforming individuals who said the bill would make life more difficult for children unfamiliar with different gender expressions — like she once had been.
“I never saw girls like me. By the time I was realizing I’m trans by researching online, I had already gone through a testosterone puberty. I wish I would have learned about trans people before that happened,” Reitan said before waving the transgender pride flag she had carried at the Iditarod finish line last year.
The measure at the center of Thursday’s hearing, House Bill 105, mirrors legislation proposed in several other states that opponents say would harm vulnerable LGBTQ+ kids under the guise of “parental rights.”
Alaska’s version would ban gender nonconforming students from using bathrooms according to their gender identity; require parental permission for students to use a different name or pronouns in school; require schools to share children’s medical records with parents and guardians; allow parents to sue schools when that requirement is violated; ban all sexual education before fourth grade; and require students to obtain parental permission in order to participate in any sexual or gender education from fourth grade onward.
Dunleavy, a Republican, and supporters of his bill have said it would protect the rights of parents to control their children’s education. But state law already spells out the rights of parents to review their child’s school curriculum and pull them out of any class or activity.
The Alaska Senate, governed by a bipartisan majority coalition, has already indicated they are unlikely to pass the bill. But some opponents of the measure said its mere introduction has already made some transgender children in the state feel less safe and has served as a distraction from the more important conversation about funding for public education and the state’s fiscal challenges.
The Alaska measure joins a growing number of bills introduced by Republican governors and lawmakers across the country, operating under the title of “parental rights” to limit the ability of transgender students to access single-sex facilities and to limit instruction on gender and sexual identities in public schools. That includes a Florida bill that opponents have dubbed the “don’t say gay” law.
In a marathon testimony session that began shortly after 5 p.m. and lasted past 10 p.m., opponents of Dunleavy’s proposal said that by “outing” children who come from unaccepting homes, schools could expose children to violence and rejection. Opponents also said that transgender youths — already more susceptible to suicide and homelessness — would be less safe if the bill were to become law. And some survivors of sexual assault said that in a state with exceedingly high rates of sexual violence, the bill would make it harder to prevent abuse.
“After reviewing and parsing this bill, I don’t think that it’s actually about parents’ rights. At least it won’t give them any rights that they don’t already have,” said James Selvog, a transgender man and teaching aide from Kodiak who addressed the committee by phone in the third hour of the hearing.
“I’ve met countless people who have had to leave or have been dumped out on the street or have been physically, sexually, emotionally abused by unaccepting family,” Selvog said.
Kendra Arciniega, who is queer and grew up in Alaska, said that as a student, she was outed by a teacher before she was ready.
“My younger self deserved better,” she said.
Dunleavy has said the bill is not intended as an attack on trangender or queer students, but countless opponents said it would do just that. And the few supporters of the bill cited anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment as part of the reason for their approval of the measure.
Jessica Vaudreuil of Buckland said “gay clubs” in public schools “actively recruit students” and said she wanted parents to be able to find out if their child was participating in such a club. Pamela Samash of Nenana said her Christian family was “personally persecuted by the LGBTQ in our school” after her daughter refused to call a classmate by their chosen name when that classmate began identifying as transgender.
Jay McDonald compared schools’ practices in allowing students to identify as LGBTQ+ — even if their guardians don’t approve of such identities — to the forced indoctrination of Native American children who were sent to boarding schools.
Rachelle Griffiths called in to say she supported the bill because her daughter in ninth grade had been assigned “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an award-winning dystopian novel about a patriarchal theocracy.
Melody McCullough of Wasilla asked lawmakers to “stop the DIE indoctrination” and Bert Houghtaling of Big Lake said the bill would take the focus away from the “DIE agenda that has been put into play.” They were referring to diversity, equity and inclusion programs that have been turned into a target by Republicans nationally.
“I’m genuinely sorry if a book has upset someone or a parent was upset at the consequences of their child bullying another, but you already have rights that are expressed elsewhere in state laws,” said Raven Amos, a Wasilla resident and opponent of the measure, in response to the concerns raised by supporters.
Several of those supporters said the bill wasn’t strong enough; they wanted it to be amended to include requirements that parents receive notification of all content taught to their children ahead of time — not just gender and sexual education classes — despite the fact that parents already have the right, enshrined in state law, to request that information.
State law protects parents’ authority “to object to and withdraw the child from an activity, class, or program” and requires that parents are provided “an opportunity to review the content of an activity, class, performance standard, or program.”
Those statutes were adopted by the Legislature in 2016, after then-Sen. Dunleavy championed the measures. Some parents — including House Education Committee co-chair Justin Ruffridge — have indicated that they are satisfied with the notifications they receive under current law.
Dunleavy, a former educator, has said the opt-in requirement is preferred over the opt-out requirement. But teachers and parents testified Thursday that the change would create additional paperwork and make it harder for kids to participate in sexual education classes in order to accommodate a small minority of parents who object to those classes.
“Alaska is a live-and-let-live state and that’s not the spirit of this bill,” said Juneau resident Pat Race.
‘All parents are vital’
The public testimony came after the House Education Committee heard Wednesday from Deena Bishop, who was the superintendent of the Anchorage School District until her retirement last year and now works for Dunleavy as an education adviser.
Bishop previously served as superintendent for Mat-Su schools — the only district in the state that has adopted a formal policy limiting transgender students’ use of single-sex facilities according to the gender with which they identify.
“All parents are vital, even the ones with which we disagree on political, culture or religious grounds,” said Bishop, adding that the bill “invests in building trust among our students, their families and our teachers” and it would not detract from school boards’ local control.
However, the bill would go against a policy adopted by the Anchorage School District allowing students to change the pronouns they use at school without seeking parental permission. That policy was drafted by the district while Bishop was still its top executive.
Ruffridge, the Soldotna Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee, called Thursday’s testimony “powerful” and “important.” His fellow co-chair, Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, who presided over the public testimony hearing and has called the governor’s bill “outstanding,” did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
The two Republicans overseeing the House Education Committee hold different views and have not voted in unison in the past. Allard said at the conclusion of Thursday’s hearing that she would allow for additional public testimony in the future. The bill is not scheduled for any additional hearings in the coming week, but could be taken up after that, Ruffridge said.
Ruffridge said Friday that he still has questions about the bill’s potential impacts on the ability to have what many see as necessary curriculum for young children about “good touch” and “bad touch” in schools to help identify and prevent abuse.
“I’m having a hard time reading this and not thinking that it would prohibit those conversations,” Ruffridge said during a committee hearing on Wednesday.
Members of the governor’s office have insisted that the bill would not affect curriculum meant to address dating violence and sexual abuse — called Bree’s Law and Erin’s Law. But the parents of Bree Moore — who fought for Bree’s Law after their daughter was killed in 2014 as a result of dating violence — testified Thursday that they were opposed to the bill because they believed it would limit the required curriculum on healthy relationships.
“I can’t imagine why anybody would not want their children to learn about healthy relationships,” said Cindy Moore. “And I feel like I would be a hypocrite to only be concerned about Bree and Erin’s Law. I believe in parental rights, but I also believe in the rights of our youth. And I feel like we can’t give parents 100% of the rights and give our youth 0%.”
The governor’s office declined to answer questions Friday, including on whether the testimony opposing the bill had swayed the governor’s position. Spokespeople for the governor instead deferred to the state education department.
Acting education commissioner Heidi Teshner said by email Friday that under the governor’s bill, Erin’s Law and Bree’s Law would not require parental opt-in in order for students to participate. Parents would still be allowed to opt out of the curriculum, as they always have.
Ruffridge said Friday he was still uncertain about whether the bill would affect curriculum contained in Erin’s Law and Bree’s Law, even after discussing the question directly with Attorney General Treg Taylor and requesting an analysis on the topic by legislative counsel.
‘Really tough spot’
Rep. Mike Prax of North Pole, one of four Republicans on the education committee, said Friday that he would vote against the bill.
The measure would put teachers in the “really tough spot” of having to choose between exposing the identity of transgender students to parents who could then abuse them, or reporting those parents to the Office of Children’s Services, Prax said.
Another Republican committee member, Rep. Tom McKay of Anchorage, said Friday he had intended to vote for the bill because he thought there was a need “to make a statement” on the importance of parental rights. But given the testimony, he said the bill may need to be amended first. He did not say what amendments he would consider.
“I would say the folks that are in that part of our community are really, really concerned, passionate. I think they feel threatened and endangered,” said McKay, referring to the LGBTQ+ community members who had testified. “They’re obviously very concerned about their own ability to be equal members of our society.”
A Senate version of the bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee, where chair Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, said conversations are still ongoing about whether to schedule it for a hearing. Claman said Friday that there are “a lot of concerns with the bill” but given that it came from the governor, it is more likely to receive at least one hearing.
Senate Education Committee chair Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, said that the public testimony heard in the House committee was “beyond good.”
“It was extraordinary. I think that hearing clearly shows why this bill should be set aside and the Legislature should direct its focus on tangible things that will benefit all the peoples of Alaska,” Tobin said in a written statement.
Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said earlier this week that regardless of whether it receives a preliminary hearing in the Senate, it is unlikely to advance in his chamber.
The bipartisan Senate majority — made up of nine Democrats and eight Republicans — vowed earlier in the session to steer clear of “things that are far left or far right.”
“It’s pretty easy for me to determine, at least in my mind, to understand what is far left and far right,” said Stevens.
Daily News reporter Sean Maguire contributed from Juneau.