A bill proposed by Republicans in the Missouri General Assembly that would prohibit the teaching of sexual orientation in public schools appears to be losing traction fast, but opponents aren’t content to allow the legislation to fade quietly from the public consciousness.
Legislators from both parties and gay rights advocates held a press conference at the state capitol in Jefferson City Wednesday to call for the bill, known officially as HB 2051, to be immediately withdrawn from the legislative calendar. After being introduced last month by state Rep. Steve Cookson (R) and 19 Republican co-sponsors, HB 2051 was referred to the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education, where it has languished with little sign of advancing. But some opponents are concerned that until the bill is cleared from the docket, it could still advance through some clever legislative maneuvering.
State Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told TPM that while Republican leaders — who control both houses of the legislature — have suggested that HB 2051 will not be the subject of a committee hearing, she still believes that it could become law in the final two weeks of the current session.
“It could change committees, they could attach it to a completely different bill, there are all kinds of ways to keep this alive,” Newman said. “We’ve learned to not trust Republicans even when they say something is going nowhere.”
HB 2051, widely known as the “don’t say gay” bill, is pithy in its wording and straightforward in its intentions:
Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, no instruction, material, or extracurricular activity sponsored by a public school that discusses sexual orientation other than in scientific instruction concerning human reproduction shall be provided in any public school.
Educators have decried the bill’s potential implications on curricula, arguing that sexual orientation is a topic that spans a variety of disciplines beyond biology and hard sciences. Legal experts believe it could be a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. Gay rights groups say that the bill would prohibit gay-straight alliances, student-run organizations intended to serve as support outlets for gay and lesbian youth, from participating in school-sanctioned activities.
A.J. Bockelman, executive director of the Missouri-based LGBT organization PROMO, told TPM that his group was particularly alarmed by the threat HB 2051 posed to gay-straight alliances.
“We need those programs to ensure that our young people feel accepted and become productive members of society,” Bockelman said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve come out so forcefully against this bill because the youth in schools need to know that there’s someone out there fighting on their behalf.”
Bockelman added that he wishes he would have had gay-straight alliances at his disposal when he came out 20 years ago. Cookson did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment, but he expressed suspicion toward gay-straight alliances in an interview with an alternative newspaper in Missouri earlier this week. In the interview, Cookson suggests that the alliances have an ulterior agenda that shouldn’t be propped up by taxpayer dollars:
Evidently, they say there are 80 school sponsored gay-straight alliances. There are 80 of those that are school sponsored—is the way I understand it—across the state. So those are some tax dollars. There are, I have heard, maybe a handful of schools that have curriculums that include sexual orientation such as things like, you know, it’s alright to have two moms. It’s alright for children to have two dads.
I’m not against people that want to have that lifestyle. I just don’t know if we want… the one thing that is for sure is that these people that live these other lifestyles, they are not reproducing. They are not reproducing. And I think that there are some people that believe—and I want to say some people… it has been brought to my attention that they believe that they are using this, since they can’t reproduce, to recruit people into that lifestyle.
A similar measure died in the Tennessee General Assmebly on Tuesday after being introduced for the second consecutive year, which leads Newman and Bockelman to believe that the HB 2051 could be revisited in the next legislative session. Wednesday’s press conference was intended to both quash the bill and pre-empt any effort to resuscitate it, but the event became something much more as the opposition received a jolt of momentum thanks to a bombshell announcement.
State Rep. Zach Wyatt (R) used the occasion to not only call for the bill to be withdrawn, but to also announce that he is a “proud gay man.” Wyatt is now the only openly gay Republican state legislator in the country according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and Newman said that his revelation should signal that the bill is an unwelcome proposal to all Missourians. Wyatt was unavailable for comment.
“This is not something that constituents or people in schools are asking for,” Newman said. “It’s bigoted and mean-spirited. There’s no other way to say it.”
Tom Kludt is a newswriter for TPM. A former research intern and polling fellow for TPM, he lives and works in New York City. Tom graduated summa cum laude from the University of South Dakota in May of 2010 with a B.A. in Political Science and History. He can be reached at Tom (at) talkingpointsmemo.com.