Stacey Campfield’s Tennessee Gag Order on Gays

Tennessee's proposed ban on discussing homosexuality is, of course, more about the “homo” than the “sexuality.”

Last week, Tennessee’s State Senate passed out of committee SB49, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Stacey Campfield, proposed this bill without luck for six years when he was a member of the House. Presumably too idiotic for state legislators in the past, the bill is now on the floor!

While the bill would technically outlaw discussion of homosexuality in the classroom before the ninth grade, its practical effects are unclear, for many reasons. First, Tennesee’s current guidelines on sexuality education, referred to (tellingly) as the “family life curriculum,” are vague and poorly-enforced. Family life education is overseen by Local Education Agencies, which often receive insufficient guidance from the state. As a result, sexuality education in Tennessee (such as it exists) is shrouded in darkness: it’s unclear what children and teenagers are learning, what and who their sources of knowledge are, and how effective this “curriculum” is.

One clear element of the state’s policy on sex ed is the mandatory promotion of abstinence. Every course on sexual health must “include presentations encouraging abstinence from sexual intercourse during the teen and pre-teen years,” according to the SIECUS report cited above. So Stacey Campfield’s insistence on banning gay talk seems redundant. This is the point that Sen. Jim Tracy made to the Senate Education Committee; he proposed an amendment to the bill which would require the Board of Ed to first look into what teachers in the state are saying about homosexuality, and then decide what to do about it. But another Senator, Brian Kelsey, amended Tracy’s amendment to require the Board of Ed to adopt Campfield’s ban after the study is completed (regardless of the study’s findings). So if this bill is passed, Stacey Campfield, not the Board of Education, will decide what Tennessee’s children are learning.

According to the Huffington Post, the bill’s defenders say it will ensure “age-appropriate” curriculum. If that’s the case, what about hetero sex? Is it age-appropriate to discuss pornography or fellatio with first-graders? If not, then why doesn’t the bill also prohibit discussion of these topics?

This ban on homosexuality talk is, of course, more about the “homo” than the “sexuality.” The bill’s most notable vagueness—what exactly constitutes “discussion of homosexuality”—points to its real motivation: the shaming, marginalization, and erasure of gay PEOPLE, not gay sex. In a state in which it’s a misdemeanor to fail to encourage abstinence, it’s unlikely that any teacher is going to risk talking to middle-schoolers about hetero sex, let alone homosexual sex. So Campfield’s target is undoubtedly the more visible, public manifestations of homosexuality: gay partnership, gay marriage (outside of Tennessee, of course), gay rights. He wants to silence any acknowledgement that men and women—yes, even in Tennessee—are living openly as gays.

If Stacey Campfield is interested in monitoring sexuality education, he should work with the Board of Education on the state curriculum, which clearly needs reform. Of course, his intention is not really to protect Tennessee’s children from untimely knowledge, but rather to ensure that gay students and teachers are taught to be ashamed of themselves, that children of gays are taught to be ashamed of their parents, and that everyone—gay, straight, teacher, student—is forced to be silent. This damaging policy of repression may be Stacey Campfield’s personal philosophy, but it has no place in public schools.