Critics of Texas’ push for a “Don’t Say Gay” bill say acknowledging LGBT people is not the same as teaching children about sex.

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Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s plan to pass a Texas law restricting class discussion about LGBTQ people was put forward by Republicans as a way to protect children from hearing about the “sex life” of adults at a young age.

But education officials say Texas schools don’t have sex lessons in kindergarten until third grade. And LGBTQ advocacy groups accuse Republicans of pushing potential legislation with an ulterior motive — silencing any acknowledgment, however informal, that LGBTQ people exist.

Patrick said Monday that he would make it his “top priority” during next year’s legislative session to pass a bill that mimics criticism of a Florida law dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” The Florida bill, called the Parental Rights in Education Bill, tries to ban “class discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” before fourth grade. Patrick’s push for a similar law comes at a time when classrooms in the state are already facing a significant shortage of teachers and laws restricting discussion of race-related in classrooms, what conservatives call “critical race theory.”

In an interview with The Texas Tribune, teachers and the school district said there was limited formal instruction on LGBTQ issues and identity in elementary school classrooms. Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said there was “certainly nothing at the state level” specifically about LGBTQ education in elementary schools.

“I don’t think they meant the curriculum, it wasn’t part of formal education,” said Capo. “There are elementary schools that are safe and uplifting schools, namely schools that say, ‘LGBT families and students are totally welcome here and will be treated fairly and with discipline and respect.’”

Advocacy organizations and Democratic lawmakers say the bill will affect the ability of teachers and schools to recognize the presence of an LGBTQ identity in schools. Capo fears the Texas teacher might even be targeted for having a photo of their partner on their desk.

Such fears echo concerns Texas teachers have had since last year about Texas’s “critical race theory” laws, which limit how current events and the history of American racism can be taught. Educators of color say the law hinders class discussion and silences the views of students of color.

Florida’s law on LGBTQ lessons in schools specifically prohibits classroom discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity “in an age-inappropriate or developmentally appropriate manner for students.”

“Part of the strategy is to be so ambiguous that no one really understands the law. The effect is silencing teachers from discussion,” said Paul Castillo, senior advisor and student rights strategist for Lambda Legal, an organization that advocates for the civil rights of LGBTQ individuals.

Castillo said a similar Texas law would create a “terrible effect” in classrooms, where teachers might avoid answering questions about identity for fear of legal penalties.

“Fear is one thing; that’s not what the law actually does,” Castillo said.

Patrick’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Lawmakers and other Republican officials have indicated their intention to support the Florida version of the law in Texas. Texas Republican Chairman Matt Rinaldi and State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said they would support expanding the scope of the potential Texas bill to apply to grade 8.

“If all goes well in Texas schools, the [law] shouldn’t change anything because teachers shouldn’t talk to kindergarteners until third grade about their sex lives,” Rinaldi said in an interview with the Tribune.

State Representative Erin Zwiener, founding member of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus, said the “fundamental purpose” of the Florida-like action was “to remove choice from LGBTQ youth and make them too afraid to come out of the closet.” He said the same was true of Governor Greg Abbott’s efforts to have parents of transgender children investigated for child abuse if they provided access to gender-affirming care.

“There is a fallacy that teaching that LGBTQ exists is teaching sex, and that is a lie,” says Zwiener, D-Driftwood. “No one is claiming that teaching heterosexual people exists is teaching about sex. There are husbands and wives in books and movies are only accepted as a basis. The LGBTQ people that exist are not sex. And our identities become inappropriately sexual all the time.”

But Rinaldi likened a teacher discussing their family structure to talking about their “sex life” and questioned why Democrats would oppose a law restricting discussion of LGBTQ people.

“How is this so difficult for the Democrats? I really don’t understand this,” he said. “I just… it’s bothering me.”

Rinaldi also took issue with school events aimed at teaching children about diversity and inclusivity, including the recent Austin Independent School District Pride Week, saying the bill would stop such celebrations and “change things for the better.”

“Kids should be taught about math, science, English. They are not allowed to take part in the Pride Week parade in their public schools,” he said.

Cristina Nguyen, a spokeswoman for Austin ISD, said the recent celebration of LGBTQ Pride Week, which defied a letter from Attorney General Ken Paxton, was not about human sexuality at all.

“It talks more about family and what is your family like?” said Nguyen. “It’s about kindness. It’s not necessarily about identity and the many things they refer to.”

Nguyen added that Pride Week for students in the district focused more on activities than teaching. For example, students participate in community circles “where they can talk about what their family is like,” or, for some campuses, view slideshows in the school cafeteria of different student families.

“Maybe a person has two fathers, two mothers, a mother and a father,” Nguyen said. “It’s just awareness of differences, rather than telling them exactly about identity and gender and all that.”

School districts in other parts of Texas also told the Tribune that elementary school students were not receiving classroom instruction about LGBTQ issues or identity.

“I didn’t know that we had education related to that field of study. We don’t do anything like that,” said Meghan Cone, spokeswoman for the Frisco Independent School District in North Texas. “We didn’t anticipate a bill like this would impact our curriculum or classroom instruction.”

Equality Texas CEO Ricardo Martinez said the LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit would do everything in its power to stop the Texas version of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

“Politicians meddling in education, banning books, targeting students based on their race or gender or religion really have a direct impact on the bullying, harassment and violence we see in our communities every day,” Martinez said. “Last year … from January 1 to August 31, 2021, there were more than 10,800 [contacts] of Texas students to Project Trevor, because they were in crisis. And part of the reason why they [are] in crisis is because their humanity is being debated in the Capitol.”

Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Texas Association of Professional Educators, said in a statement to the Tribune that Patrick’s announcement was simply “election year political theater” to increase his liking ahead of the November election.

“Such legislation would be largely meaningless in Texas, where we already have a well-established and effective process through the State Board of Education for adopting school curriculum standards with input from educators, content experts, and members of the public, including parents, said Holmes. “Texas also has a comprehensive and transparent set of parental rights written into our state laws that ensure parents have knowledge of and participation in their children’s education. We’re not Florida, and we don’t need Florida laws.”

But Rinaldi said the bill would prevent teachers from discussing their “private lives”.

“I don’t know anyone from my generation who knows anything about the family structure of their first-grade teacher,” he said. “Teachers teach in schools — they don’t talk about their private lives with 5-year-olds.”

Emily Hernandez contributed to this story.

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