General Articles

Tennessee Senate Passes “Don’t Say Gay” Bill

Legislation sponsored by Tennessee senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) and recently passed in the state Senate would ban discussion of sexual orientation in grades K–8. The final version of the Senate bill requires instruction to be “limited exclusively to natural human reproductive science.”[1] The Senate put off the vote five times throughout April and May, thus feeding into the controversy over the issue.[2] The bill’s 19–10 victory in the Senate was certainly not without debate. However, despite passage of the legislation in the Senate, the measure will not be considered in the House this year.
Senate Bill 49, now known nationally as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, came as no surprise from Senator Campfield, who had proposed comparable legislation while serving in the House. Additionally, Senator Campfield has a record of sponsoring similarly conservative efforts, including denying birth certificates to children born to illegal immigrant mothers, issuing death certificates for aborted fetuses, and legalizing gun possession on college campuses.[3] None of these previous efforts made it out of committee; in fact, a Campfield-sponsored bill has yet to become law.[4]
As originally written, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill would have prohibited public elementary and middle schools from providing instruction or materials that discuss “sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.”[5] When Senator Campfield first introduced a similar bill in the House in 2008, he defended his exclusion of homosexuality by stating, “Without heterosexuality, you wouldn’t be able to teach biology.”[6] He went on to say that he does not think that Tennessee schools “have reading, writing and arithmetic down enough to start teaching about transgenderism.”[7] The current bill, however, was amended by Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield) to state that instruction “shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproductive science.”[8] Campfield expressed his support by explaining that “homosexuals don’t naturally reproduce.”[9]
The bill quickly became nationally controversial. In its 2009 National School Climate Survey, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reported that over 42 percent of students in schools with inclusive curricula—curricula that incorporates diverse groups and promotes respect and equality for all—felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation, in contrast with the more than 63 percent of students in schools without inclusive curricula who felt unsafe.[10] Further, students who could identify six or more supportive staff members at school were less likely to feel unsafe and less likely to miss school.[11] GLSEN concluded that in order to foster safety and inclusiveness, it is imperative that schools “increase student access to appropriate and accurate information regarding LGBT people, history, and events through inclusive curriculum.”[12] Removing discussion of LGBT issues from public elementary and middle schools would likely not promote an inclusive environment.
Although the state Senate passed the bill in late May, it was not without objection from Tennessee residents. On multiple occasions, protestors gathered in Nashville at the state capitol to show their opposition to the legislation.[13] Brandon Holt, a recent high school graduate from the area, connected the effects of the possible law with students’ mental health. In his eyes, this bill could “prevent teachers from effectively being able to combat bullying, [because] they wouldn’t be able to provide support to students who are being bullied because of their sexual identification, or give students guidance when they are struggling with their sexual identity.”[14]
Representative Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), who sponsored the House version, is expected to push the bill next year. Regarding an earlier version of Senator Campfield’s bill, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee commented, “Teachers, school counselors and other school administrators—not the General Assembly—are the most qualified to decide what the best way is to responsibly teach about diversity and other current events affecting students today. Anti-gay bullying against both gay and straight students is one of the biggest problems in our public schools. Teachers and administrators should not be hamstrung in their efforts to addressall forms of discrimination and harassment.”[15]

[1] Jeff Woods, “Senate Adopts ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill with ‘Natural Human Reproductive Science’ Teaching Amendment,” City Paper (Nashville, TN), 20 May 2011, accessed 8 June 2011, <>.

[2] “Students Protest Tennessee ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill, While Senate Delays Vote—Again,” LGBTQNation, 12 May 2011, accessed 7 June 2011, <>.

[3] Tom Humphrey, “Campfield Proposals Should Court Controversy Again,” Knox News, 16 February 2009, accessed 7 June 2011, <>.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tennessee Legislature, 2011 Regular Session, Senate Bill 49, introduced 15 January 2011, accessed 6 June 2011, <>.

[6] Lindsay Melvin, “Campfield Proposes Ban: Bill Would Keep Homosexuality out of Schools' Curriculum,” Knox News, 14 February 2008, accessed 7 June 2011, <>.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Woods, “Senate Adopts ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill.”

[9] “‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill Passes Tenn. Senate,” MSNBC, 20 May 2011, accessed 8 June 2011, <>.

[10] The 2009 National School Climate Survey (New York: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 2010), xviii.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., xx.

[13] Woods, “Senate Adopts ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill.”

[14] “Students Protest ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill on Capitol Hill,” News Channel 5 (Nashville, TN), 11 May 2011, accessed 7 June 2011, <>.

[15] “January 25, 2010: Don’t Say Gay Bill is Back—Urge NO Vote on 1/27/10,” American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, 25 January 2010, accessed 13 June 2011, <>.