With just over a week left in the general legislative session, a Republican lawmaker has filed a bill to prohibit discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in some Utah classrooms.
The proposal is similar to Florida's "Parental Rights in Education" bill that GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last year. Like Florida's law — dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by critics — HB550 would prohibit adult-led discussions "on sexuality, including sexual orientation or gender identity" in kindergarten through third grade classes, and requires that such discussions be "age or developmentally appropriate" for older students.
Bill sponsor Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist, R-Draper, rejected the characterization of his bill as a "don't say gay" bill.
"Not at all," he said. "What it really is, is about just saying, let's have age-appropriate discussions in the classroom. These discussions are sensitive, and really, parents need to be aware and understand what's being discussed around these topics with their children."
Stenquist said the idea for the bill came from a constituent who said her child's teacher "was introducing a few topics of discussion in the classroom that she felt were a little inappropriate."
"So I looked into it to see, 'What do we have as far as guidelines for teachers and schools that can put some parameters around that?' and really found that we don't have anything around classroom discussions and instruction," Stenquist said. "And so I was happy to open the bill and say, 'Let's have this conversation about what might be appropriate.'"
His bill, however, is absent details on what may or may not be appropriate for different age groups. Instead, it says that schools and districts "shall ensure that classroom instruction or classroom discussion that an educator or other adult leads" does not occur "in a manner that is not age or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards."
As far as what is age-appropriate, Stenquist said "that's up to the local schools and school districts." Creating and enforcing policies would be up to the local schools and districts.
Stenquist said he doesn't want to "micromanage" the schools and tell them exactly what can or can't be discussed.
Although the language of HB550 closely resembles that of Florida's law, Stenquist said he was simply trying to find something that was "common sense," and wasn't trying to model it after the "Don't Say Gay" law.
LGBTQ rights activists decried the bill, saying it's a disheartening move considering Utah repealed an earlier so-called "no promo homo" law 2017.
"Equality Utah is very dismayed to see a 'Don't Say Gay' bill introduced in Utah, especially when the Utah Legislature enacted legislation repealing similar language from Utah code in 2017," Equality Utah stated. "This bill is damaging and stigmatizing to LGBTQ children and their families, and we will oppose it vigorously."
"It seems kind of strange when we've already gone down this path," Equality Utah policy director Marina Lowe told KSL.com. "We had litigation around the topic, and then the Legislature of its own accord went ahead and repealed that language. So we were somewhat surprised to see Utah going down this path again."
Critics of Florida's law have said it could hurt students whose parents are in a same-sex relationship or are transgender. But Stenquist said his bill only applies to discussions led by educators or other adults, so children would presumably still be able to bring up subjects, as long as the teacher makes sure that it's "an age-appropriate discussion."
It's unclear if teachers who teach younger grades and are in a same-sex relationship or transgender would be prohibited from talking about their spouse or partner — or having personal items such as family photos in the classroom — in a way that acknowledges they are in a same-sex relationship.
When asked for clarification, Stenquist reiterated that he doesn't intend to "dictate to schools and districts what specific policies they would have in that scenario."
"I wouldn't expect this to be a common problem and I'm sure schools and teachers could agree on how to approach the topic to comply with the requirement if it passes," he told KSL.com via email.
LGBTQ issues have been a top priority for the Republican-controlled Legislature in recent years. In January, lawmakers passed a bill banning transgender-related surgeries and hormones for kids, after banning transgender girls from competing in high school sports in the waning hours of last year's session.
While Stenquist's bill was released ahead of the eleventh hour, lawmakers would still need to move quickly to get it through the legislative process before the session ends next Friday at midnight.
HB550 has yet to be assigned to a committee, and Monday is likely the last day it can receive a committee hearing and still make it through both chambers in time.