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Missouri senators debate bill barring discussion of gender identity, sexual orientation in schools

Sens. Ben Brown, R-Washington, and Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, address the Education and Workforce Development Committee regarding their bills to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sens. Ben Brown, R-Washington, and Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, address the Education and Workforce Development Committee regarding their bills to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.

A bill barring the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in Missouri schools drew criticism during public testimony Tuesday.

Under the legislation, teachers, counselors, school nurses, principals or other employees at public or charter schools would be prohibited from talking about sexual orientation and gender identity with students. It does allow such discussions if the employee is a licensed mental health provider and prior parental permission is given.

The legislation has drawn comparisons to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Katy Erker-Lynch, executive director of PROMO, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said this legislation is broader than Florida’s.

“Should this legislation pass, thousands of families like mine across the state will seriously consider leaving the state, and I think that's exactly what this bill intends,” Erker-Lynch said.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, said his legislation isn’t a “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

“That's not what this is about. This is protecting vulnerable children and attempting to protect them from conversations that need to be had with the approval of the parent, and potentially at home,” Moon said.

Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, who is the only openly LGBTQ member of the Senate, called the legislation the most disrespectful bill he’s seen during his time in the legislature.

“For the sake of the reputation of the state of Missouri, and for the kids in the state, I hope that it goes no further than this hearing,” Razer said.

Democratic senators brought up other critiques of the bill, including its broad scope.

Advocates for the legislation included those who said conversations around sexual orientation and gender identity should not take place at school.

“I agree with the intent of what you're trying to do, I do believe that the parents should be notified,” said Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg. “And the parents should have required permission for schoolteachers or staff or admin to talk about these things.”

Ultimately, more people on Tuesday spoke in opposition to the bill than in support of it. Andrew Schuerman, who spoke for the Missouri School Counselor Association, said it would prohibit counselors from doing their job.

“Censoring what students can share with school professionals will only endanger their lives and increase the risk they will harm themselves,” Schuerman said.

Changing birth certificates

In another committee, members heard public testimony on a bill that prohibits the changing of a birth certificate for those born in Missouri “when the sex of an individual has been changed by non-surgical means.”

That means transgender people who undergo hormone, voice and speech or behavioral therapy would be unable to change their birth certificate.

“A birth certificate is an historic document that states facts on the day you were born: the date, the place, the sex are facts, nothing more. Once noted, they should remain,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit.

Sen. Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, said the bill could cause people to inadvertently out themselves.

“How they present at work might be different than the documentation. So it could put folks in the state of Missouri in a really awkward spot where the person they are isn't reflected in those documents,” McCreery said.

Again, more people spoke in opposition than in favor of the legislation. Among those who spoke against the bill was Casey Pick, director of law and policy at the Trevor Project, which provides crisis support services to LGBTQ youth.

Pick said that last year the group served over 4,300 people in Missouri and that this bill would make the job harder.

“No matter what a young person does, no matter how long they wait, no matter what medical procedures they undergo, this law would mean that a document that follows them their entire life that is issued by their home would never actually reflect who they are,” Pick said.

Caitlin Ung with the ACLU of Missouri said the legislation is a violation of privacy.

“This bill could risk costly litigation and the state losing federal funding through violating constitutional rights,” Ung said.

The Senate Education Committee and the Emerging Issues Committee did not take further action on either bill.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Kellogg is a first year graduate student at the University of Missouri studying public affairs reporting. She spent her undergraduate days as a radio/television major and reported for KBIA. In addition to reporting shifts, Sarah also hosted KBIA’s weekly education show Exam, was an afternoon newscaster and worked on the True/False podcast. Growing up, Sarah listened to episodes of Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! with her parents during long car rides. It’s safe to say she was destined to end up in public radio.