Bill would excuse Tennessee teachers from having to use students' preferred pronouns

Legislative workers practice parliamentary procedure in the Senate chamber, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Legislative workers practice parliamentary procedure in the Senate chamber, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

A bill moving through the General Assembly would make it so teachers and other employees of Tennessee public schools would not be required to refer to students using the student's preferred pronoun if the pronoun does not match the student's biological sex.

Sponsored by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Mark Cochran, R-Englewood, Senate Bill 2777/House Bill 2633 would also shield teachers or other employees of public schools from civil liability or discipline for referring to a student using the pronoun matching the student's biological sex instead of the student's preferred pronoun.

Hamilton County Schools does not have a policy in place requiring teachers and staff to address students by their chosen name or pronouns, but students can request to be called by a preferred name and ask that their preferred pronouns are used, communications officer Steve Doremus said in an email.

All legal documentation, such as report cards, diplomas and other official school documents, reflect the birth certificate name, he said.

Jeff Mullins, a teacher at East Hamilton School, said he thinks the legislation is cruel and goes against what he feels should be the first tenet of public school teachers: love and respect all kids.

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"As an educator, my first job is to provide a warm and caring learning environment," Mullins said in a phone interview. "We have a duty and obligation, at least in a public school setting, to make sure every single child is welcome to walk through the door, and I feel that honoring a child's name and honoring their pronoun is such a simple act of kindness and respect that can make them feel welcome.

"So for those bills to provide cover for an adult to go against that is, it's just insulting. We have to protect children, not potentially subject them to ridicule and embarrassment."

When the House Education Administration Committee discussed the bill on March 16, Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, argued that the bill is not actively authorizing a person to do anything but preventing adverse action against someone who exercises free speech.

"I believe the Supreme Court has ruled that forced speech is a violation of free speech," Ragan said. "If you visit adverse effects on someone for not saying something the way that you want them to, that is forced speech. Protecting teachers who do not want to do this is not anything I see as wrong; in fact, it's affirming First Amendment rights and Article 1, Section 19 of the Tennessee Constitution."

Article 1, Section 19 states: "The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man, and every citizen may freely speak, write and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty."

The co-sponsor, Cochran, spoke at the committee the same day.

"Obviously teachers in schools can and should be required to act with professionalism and treat all of their students with dignity and respect," Cochran said. "Nothing in this bill changes that obligation. Teachers and public school employees, however, cannot be forced to contradict their core beliefs or to say things they don't believe."

Students and teachers both have the same freedom to express their views, he said.

"Freedom of speech and religious exercise includes the freedom not to speak messages against our core beliefs," Cochran said. "We are not promoting bullying, but we are protecting against coerced speech, and that is protected under the constitution."

Ash Edwards, a 14-year-old student at Signal Mountain Middle/High School who is nonbinary, said in a phone interview they feel hurt when someone intentionally chooses not to call them by their preferred pronoun. And when it's a teacher, students tend to follow the teacher's lead, they said.

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"Being a nonbinary or trans person, when someone uses the wrong name or wrong pronouns purposely, it really does hurt," they said. "It can be kind of offensive depending on the person. And so I feel like if this law was passed, it would hurt a lot of younger minds."

Ash likened a teacher who purposefully chooses not to call a student by their preferred name or pronoun to a teacher who knows that a student whose mother has just died is sensitive about the topic, but the teacher chooses to intentionally focus on the topic anyway.

During an Education Administration Committee meeting, Henry Seaton, transgender justice advocate for the ACLU of Tennessee, spoke about his experience of being disrespected by a teacher as a transgender youth and the negative effects it had on his grades and life.

"I want to respect what you're saying, but I also want to protect someone who acts right with respect but may not prefer to use the pronoun," replied Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, chair of the committee.

Ashley Langford, librarian at Tyner Academy in Chattanooga, said in a phone interview that she fears the legislation will strip the school's transgender and nonbinary students of their ability to feel safe.

"I work really hard to make sure that they have a safe space, at least with me, and they're already struggling with that," Langford said. "This bill is really unfortunate for those students, especially considering they're already four times more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide than their cisgender peers."

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On March 8, the House K-12 Subcommittee recommended passage of the House bill, with Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, and Harold Love, D-Nashville, voting no. The House Education Administration Committee on March 16 recommended passage, with Clemmons, Love and Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, voting no.

The House bill is set to go to the Ways and Means Subcommittee on March 30.

The Senate bill passed on first and second consideration is scheduled to go before the Senate Education Committee the same day.

According to a Tennessee General Assembly Fiscal Review Committee memorandum, the legislation could be in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. If passed, the legislation could jeopardize federal funding to the state Department of Education for the 2022-23 school year and beyond. In 2021-22, federal awards totaled more than $5 billion, the memorandum states.

Contact Emily Crisman at or 423-757-6508.

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