Az GOP anti-trans school measures are back, and this time they may avoid Hobbs’ veto pen

Faced with the certainty of Gov.
Katie Hobbs’ veto, GOP lawmakers are hoping to circumvent her entirely
by sending a proposal to voters in November that would restrict how
teachers respect the identities of their trans students, and bar those
same students from using school facilities that best fit who they are. 

“This bypasses the governor and goes
right to the ballot, where — if all the polling I’ve seen is correct — 
it’ll probably pass with 60, 65 percent of voters who don’t really
believe that this type of stuff should be going on in our schools,” said
Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, the proposal’s sponsor, during a
hearing in the Senate Education Committee. 

Senate Concurrent Resolution 1013 combines two bills rejected by Hobbs last year that targeted preferred pronoun use and inclusive policies
in schools. The proposal would ask voters to require that teachers
obtain written parental permission before using a student’s preferred
pronouns or name and mandate that schools separate their restrooms,
locker rooms and sleeping accommodations by biological sex and provide a
single-occupancy alternative for trans students. 

Schools that allow trans students to
use facilities consistent with their gender identity would open
themselves up to lawsuits from cisgender students,
who could win monetary damages for their “psychological, emotional and
physical harm.” And school employees with a “religious or moral
conviction” against using preferred pronouns or names would be protected
from being forced to comply with a student’s request — even if that
student’s parents gave their express written permission. 

Samual Kahrs, a trans teen, implored
lawmakers on the panel to kill the measure, saying that schools are
often the only supportive places for young people navigating their
identities. Kahrs himself first came out at school at 11, and the
acceptance of his teachers helped persuade his mother. 

Making it more difficult for teachers
to create an affirming environment in school is a mistake, he warned,
and jeopardizes the mental health of trans youth across the state. 

“I remember the first day my teachers
called me Samual, and it was the best day of my life,” Kahrs said. “I’m
begging you to vote no on this. I’m begging you to just leave trans
kids alone.”

The committee, which is made up of
four Republicans and three Democrats, voted 4-3 along party lines to
approve the measure and send it to the full Senate for consideration.

Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix,
denounced the GOP’s push to move its legislative hostility directly to
voters. She said she fears what the effects will be on trans youth if
they’re forced to contend with an anti-trans ballot campaign. 

While Arizona Republicans have increasingly focused on anti-trans laws and rhetoric in recent years, succeeding in passing a trans athletic ban and a prohibition on gender-affirming surgeries for minors
under former Republican governor Doug Ducey, LGBTQ advocates hoped the
election of Hobbs, a Democrat, would help prevent any more
discriminatory laws. And that has largely been the case, with Hobbs
vetoing a bevy of anti-LGBTQ proposals last year, including several that
sought to criminalize drag performers and another that would have allowed domestic violence shelters to discriminate against trans women. 

But, if GOP lawmakers send Kavanagh’s
proposal to the November ballot, it’s likely that a wide-reaching
messaging effort from anti-LGBTQ groups to convince voters to support it
would emerge. 

“This will become a debate on a
statewide level, harming god knows how many kids, forcing them into
further isolation and harassment,” Marsh said. “I think that the effect
of that will be incalculable.” 

Also considered and approved by the
Republican-majority Senate Education Committee on Wednesday were two
revised iterations of Kavanagh’s pronoun and bathroom ban from last
year. Kavanagh reworked the bills on the off-chance that, in their pared
down forms, Democrats and Hobbs might be more amenable to supporting
them. 

Senate Bill 1166
requires a public school to notify a parent within five days of the
first time their child requests the use of preferred pronouns or a name
that doesn’t match the biological sex or given name the child was
enrolled under. The caveat shielding school employees who refuse to
honor the student’s request was still included in the new version. 

Kavanagh said he hopes the revisions
will result in less opposition from Hobbs, noting that this year’s
iteration simply requires a parental notification and doesn’t prevent
teachers from using a student’s preferred pronouns or name until
parental permission is obtained, like last year’s version. 

Parents need to be kept in the loop,
he added, pointing to gender dysphoria as the reasoning for the
notification requirement. Gender dysphoria is a medical condition in
which a person feels extreme discomfort when their biological sex isn’t
aligned with their gender identity.

“Students that identify with a
different gender than their biological sex at birth have a recognized
psychiatric disorder called gender dysphoria, which sometimes manifests
itself with depression and even suicidal thoughts,” Kavanagh said. “So,
if the school knows that a student has this, I think it’s really
incumbent (on them) and their responsibility to at least let the parents
know what’s going on.” 

But LGBTQ Arizonans, who crowded the
hearing room to speak out against the proposals approved on Wednesday,
disputed that justification. Erica Keppler, a trans woman, said that
suicidality among trans youth isn’t caused by gender dysphoria, but
rather by the lack of social acceptance and sometimes outright hostility
they deal with.

“No one commits suicide because they
are gender dysphoric. They do it because family and society won’t accept
them or allow them to live as their true selves,” she said. “The
biggest threat to the lives and futures of gender dysphoric youth are
unaccepting parents.”

Removing the ability of schools to be welcoming, Keppler added, would only exacerbate the distress trans youth feel. A 2022 national survey from the Trevor Project
found that only 32% of transgender respondents thought of their homes
as supportive, compared to 51% who found their schools to be affirming.

And while suicidality among transgender youth is disproportionately high, research shows that simply respecting their preferred pronouns and names can decrease that risk by as much as 65%. 

The testimony from several speakers
echoed the criticism made against last year’s bills. Both measures were
denounced for threatening to expose the identities of questioning
students to their parents without their consent, and both were accused
of greenlighting the disrespect of LGBTQ students by protecting school
employees who disagree with preferred pronoun use. 

Skylar Morrison, a trans teenager,
urged lawmakers not to make high school more difficult for her and her
gender nonconforming classmates. She warned that the bill forces trans
youth to come out to their parents, and not all families are welcoming. 

“Requiring a parent or guardian to be
notified puts vulnerable students at risk — particularly those with
unsupportive families — jeopardizing their mental health and,
unfortunately, in a lot of cases their physical well-being,” she said. 

Kavanagh disputed that claim,
however, arguing that the vast majority of parents are supportive. And
he defended the provision that protects dissenting school employees by
saying that many laws include religious carve-outs to acknowledge the
rights of Arizonans with different beliefs. 

The bill received lukewarm approval
from Chairman Ken Bennett, who said he objected to the religious and
moral shield because it was too broad. The Republican from Prescott
similarly criticized last year’s version, but repeatedly voted for it
regardless. 

With his voice shaking from emotion,
Bennett told lawmakers on the committee that he found it difficult to
consider the bill, despite being an advocate for parental rights, both
because of his Mormon faith and because he has close relatives who would
have been affected by the bill if it had become law when they were
still attending school. 

“The author of the faith that I
believe said, at least in my opinion, about the worst thing you can do
in this thing we call life, is offend a child,” he said. “So, I find
myself nearing that point where it’s very difficult to advance this
legislation in the way that it’s written.”

Ultimately, Bennett joined the other
Republicans on the panel to move the measure out of the committee on a
4-3 vote, with the addendum that significant changes would need to be
made to earn his support on the Senate floor. 

Another bill that was approved, Senate Bill 1182,
focuses on mandating that schools separate shower facilities by
biological sex, and prohibit transgender students from accessing shower
areas consistent with their gender identity. Schools would be required
to provide a separate showering space for transgender students who
refuse to use the areas designated for them on the basis of their
biological sex, or else face lawsuits from uncomfortable cisgender
students.

Kavanagh noted that he would have
preferred that the proposal retain its original form, which required the
same rules for bathrooms, locker rooms and sleeping areas, whether on
school grounds or during school trips, but said he felt it was necessary
to focus on the most “egregious” issue. 

“This bill simply says a 15-year-old
biological female should not have to stand next to, terrified or
certainly very uncomfortable, a 20-year-old biological male who
identifies as a different gender,” he said. 

Kavanagh has frequently invoked
alarming imagery to defend his school facilities bills — of which this
is the third iteration — but has been unable to provide any examples of
the hypothetical situation occurring in an Arizona public school. When
pressed for evidence by Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday, he was still
unable to offer any.

Lisa Bivens, an attorney who has
represented teachers in court, warned lawmakers that the bill is too
vague and would burden schools with lawsuits until the legal parameters
can be clarified by the courts. 

The proposal prohibits transgender
students from using showers consistent with their gender identity if
people of the opposite biological sex “are or could be” present. That
language, Bivens said, depends on a theoretical possibility that would
be hard for judges to determine. And a provision stating that the bill
doesn’t seek to prevent schools from accommodating young children in
need of physical assistance during showers only adds further questions,
she said. 

“How are my clients supposed to know
when the child is young enough or the need is great enough?” she asked.
“I am worried our educators will be put into positions where they
hesitate to help students because they are unsure what is permitted.” 

Dawn Shim, a Chandler High School
student who is nonbinary and founded a student-led organization to call
for protections for LGBTQ Arizonans and speak out against hostile
legislation, pushed back on Kavanagh’s claims. There is no problem for
the proposal to resolve, she said, because shower facilities in schools
already have single-occupancy, separated stalls.  

“Every single year, we hear bills
that needlessly target trans youth and demonstrate ignorance towards the
basic functions of public schools,” they said. “This anti-trans shower
bill is a needless measure that only serves one purpose: to exclude
transgender youth.”

Gaelle Esposito, a trans woman and a
lobbyist for the Arizona branch of the American Civil Liberties Union,
said the bill likely violates federal nondiscrimination protections. Title IX prohibits schools that receive federal funds from engaging in sex-based discrimination,
including on the basis of gender identity. Ultimately, Esposito said,
the proposal would only serve to hurt trans youth still navigating their
identities and the reactions of those around them. 

“It is stigmatizing and it is
discriminatory to expel trans young people from common spaces. No one
should be told that they are so shameful that they shouldn’t be allowed
in the proximity of their peers,” she said. 

The committee voted to approve the
bill 4-3, with only Democrats in opposition. Bennett once more warned
that his vote on the Senate Floor is not guaranteed.