Arkansas lawmakers OK restrictions on trans student pronouns

Teachers would need parental approval to address trans students by the pronouns and names that they use.
(Arkansas Senate)

A bill that would require parental approval for Arkansas teachers to address transgender students by the pronouns and names that they use was approved by lawmakers Wednesday and is now headed to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ desk.

The bill was approved by the majority-Republican Senate on a 19-5 vote. It requires parental approval for teachers at public schools, including colleges and universities, to use a minor student’s pronoun that is “inconsistent” with the student’s biological sex or a name that’s not listed on the student’s birth certificate. It also would prohibit schools from requiring teachers to use the pronouns or name a student uses.

The bill is among a wave of bills being considered in statehouses that would formally allow or require schools to deadname transgender students or out them to their parents without consent. Transgender students, who already are at high risk of bullying and depression, have said the measures would make schools feel even more unsafe.

Supporters of the legislation portrayed it as an effort to protect teachers from losing their jobs if they don’t want to use a name or pronoun a student uses.

“What it really comes down to is a teacher protection act,” Republican Sen. Mark Johnson, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said before the vote.

Opponents of the measure, however, said it puts even more of a burden on teachers. Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield, a retired teacher, said the restriction removes the “spontaneity” of teaching by making teachers worried about the consequences if they don’t use the name on a student’s birth certificate.

“Birth certificates are not passed around to teachers,” Chesterfield said. “Why would they be? It’s none of my business.”

North Dakota lawmakers failed to override Republican Gov. Doug Burgum’s veto of a similar proposal Monday. Burgum said teaching was a hard enough profession without government “forcing teachers to take on the role of pronoun police.”

Several hundred bills restricting transgender people’s rights have been filed at statehouses this year, and Arkansas has enacted other measures. They include a law signed by Sanders intended to reinstate Arkansas’ blocked banon gender-affirming care for children by making it easier to sue providers of such care for malpractice.

Sanders has also signed legislation prohibiting transgender people at public schools from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

Lizz Garbett, of Little Rock, said her 16-year-old son’s teachers have been using the pronouns and name he has used since he came out as transgender in eighth grade. Garbett said teachers using the names and pronouns a student goes by help create a welcoming environment and send a strong message to students.

“It sends a message of ‘You are safe here at school, we love you, now let’s call you whatever you want to be called and get about the business of learning, which is why we’re here,’” Garbett said.