This photo shows the Alaska State Capitol, where lawmakers are mulling several bills related to discussion of sex and gender in public schools. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

This photo shows the Alaska State Capitol, where lawmakers are mulling several bills related to discussion of sex and gender in public schools. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Bills focused on sex and gender in education bring ‘the beginning of the culture wars’ to Alaska

Competing legislation brings national fracas to the Capitol.

When an early-grade transgender student in Juneau wanted to explain her situation to her class so it wouldn’t be cause for further concern, Aidan Key said it was a simple and entirely age-appropriate discussion.

Such interactions about matters related to sex and gender in public schools are suddenly at the center of Alaska’s political sphere as the state fully engages in the nationwide cultural wars that were largely avoided at the beginning of this year’s legislative session. At the Capitol are competing proposals related to “parent” verses “student” rights related to sex and gender communications, and the state board of education on Thursday unanimously approved a hastily scheduled resolution banning transgender girls from girls sports teams.

It’s questionable if any proposals become law in a politically divided Legislature and/or survive constitutional challenges — and how many actual instances of things such as transgender athletics and restroom access may be affected. But Key said his two decades of working with schools on such issues shows the debate is triggered by big misconceptions about what takes place in situations such as the classroom in Juneau.

“I think her exact words were ‘When I was little, people thought I was a boy, but I’m really a girl,’” he said.

That was followed by others in the classroom mentioning unseen traits, such as “one of the kids said ‘by looking at me nobody knows I’m a seven-year-old uncle.’ Even the teacher gave an example by saying ‘this isn’t my real ear — when I was little a dog bit my ear off and they had to build me a new one.’”

“They’re amazing conversations, they’re really sweet,” said Key, who moved back to Juneau three years ago and is continuing his nationwide transgender educator work for his organization Gender Diversity. “It’s just a way to have conversations about ways people are different. It’s not talk about who has what genitalia. It’s not talking about certain sexual practices. It’s not promoting a certain lifestyle.”

But fervent comments by other residents about what they call inappropriate discussions and activities — existing and hypothetical — are part of what’s fueling the current wave of proposals limiting such content.

”Will you put in a bill that says that transgender youth that are 17 years old or younger will have 15 years to be able to sue the medical provider for medical malpractice who gave them medical treatment to make them a transgender in the first place if they so choose to do so?” wrote John Suter, a Chugiak resident, in an email sent last Wednesday to state Rep. Jamie Allard, an Eagle River Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee, which he also sent to the Juneau Empire.

Allard, who earlier this month wrote a column objecting to a candy commercial featuring a transgender woman for International Women’s Day, was encouraging in her reply to Suter on Sunday.

“I have received many concerns in regards to this very issue,” she wrote. “We will be having public testimony coming up and would like to reach out to have you testify as well. I can have my staff send you the information. I will be working on many amendments and yes sir this should be one.”

Seen and unseen battlefield objectives in the culture wars

Gov. Mike Dunleavy introduced the most prominent of those about two weeks ago in a “parental rights” bill that echoes many of the so-called “don’t say gay” provisions that are either law or being considered in numerous other states. The bill has been pronounced all-but-dead in terms of getting passed by the state Senate, which has a majority of nine Democrats and eight Republicans, although Republican Sen. Gary Stevens of Kodiak said it will get a hearing.

Dunleavy administration officials also approached the state’s regulatory agency for high school interscholastic activities last month to advocate for a transgender sports ban matching the one subsequently introduced by the state education board, although the governor’s office declined to state if he instructed the state education department to adopt such a policy, the Anchorage Daily News reported Friday.

But Dunleavy’s interest in such policy may be more about political advancement and distracting from other education legislation such as increasing per-student funding, said Andrew Halcro, a former state Republican lawmaker and current political analyst.

“His role the next four years is to fight the culture wars because he’s looking to elevate his profile to the national level,” Halcro said, suggesting the governor may seek a Cabinet or other post if a Republican wins the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

Even if Dunleavy’s bill stalls in the Legislature it will have a huge impact because “it’s sucking the oxygen out of the Capitol,” Halcro said.

“He’s basically thrown the entire conversation about education funding off the rails,” he said, referring both to proposals to increase spending on schools as well as restore a more lucrative pension system for educators, which are among the top priority issues of the Senate majority and House minority this session.

Dunleavy, who has aggressively denied his proposal is replicating measures elsewhere such as Florida’s “don’t say gay” law enacted last year, went on the attack again Friday with a column in the Anchorage Daily News where he asserted “some critics and media sources are attempting to mislead the public.”

“Much of the criticism of this legislation hasn’t just been wrong; it’s been deliberately inflammatory to create responses based on emotions rather than facts and to prevent a fair hearing of the substance in the Legislature,” he wrote.

There has indeed been strong pushback on Dunleavy’s bills by legislators and others who say the general intent is the same as other states’ proposals: stigmatizing and limiting the rights of LGBTQ people, especially youths.

“I have friends who don’t come out to their parents because they don’t feel safe,” Maggie Cothron, an Anchorage high school sophomore who is the student adviser for the state board of education, told a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees last Wednesday. “It’s going to have a lot of negative consequences that you may not realize.”

Felix Myers, a Sitka High School junior selected as the board’s student advisor for the coming year, told the same group of legislators Dunleavy’s bill targets youths who face a high risk of parental abuse and other problems. According to a 2022 survey by the Trevor Project, A 2022 survey LGBTQ+ youth in Alaska found 45% seriously considered suicide during the past year and 64% of LGBTQ youths chose not to seek mental health care due primarily to a reluctance to ask parents for permission.

Among peers at school, however, “support for them has been immense,” Myers said.

“The ability to feel respected in their classrooms when their pronouns are used correctly is something that they’ve greatly appreciated,” he said.

Dunleavy, in his column, stated his bill retains protections for LGBTQ+ students, as well as others suffering from abuse.

“To be clear, this legislation does not repeal any portion of our laws regarding duty to report suspicions of physical or sexual abuse; nor does it repeal our statutes requiring age-appropriate sexual abuse prevention curriculum for students from kindergarten through graduation,” he wrote. “Not only does it preserve these protections for our most vulnerable, but it also provides for a school employee to withhold information from a parent if there is a reasonable belief that disclosure would result in abuse or neglect.

“These provisions of the bill recognize that not every parent lives up to their responsibilities, and each one of those instances is tragic. The solution, however, is not to deny parents their rights by arguing that every parent is a potential abuser who can’t be trusted with information about their child’s health and education.”

The counterargument is requiring parental notification of such content in most instances, or banning it in early grades because students are supposedly too young to truly know their gender or sexual orientation, infringes on the rights of the students, Key said.

“What we have learned in more recent times is that doesn’t work,” he said. “We teach the children to deny. We teach them to hide. We do that through behavior modification, and even more extreme cases or reparative therapy which is being more and more outlawed in states because of the harm it’s been shown to cause.”

New divisions

The education board’s resolution, which is non-binding and calls for the state’s education department to implement the policy, seeks to create separate sports divisions for students whose sex assigned at birth is female and another that is open to all students of all genders.

“Transgender student athletes should have opportunity to participate in sports, (and) the integrity of middle and high school girls’ sports should be preserved,” the resolution states. It also asserts biological males at birth “generally gain physiological advantages” during puberty and “medically prescribed hormone treatment for the purpose of gender transition is not a best practice recommendation for children under the age of 16.”

Dunleavy, in his column last week, argued “recognizing and affirming that all students in a state of undress have a right to privacy and safety should not be controversial.”

“Imposing policies that don’t recognize this reality will only fuel division rather than accommodating the needs of everyone,” he wrote.

The only existing ban on transgender athletes in Alaska was enacted last fall by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. Officials then and now have argued the restrictions may be illegal under the same privacy clause in Alaska’s Constitution that protects the right to an abortion. Also, Mara Kimmel, executive director of Alaska’s ACLU chapter, asserts sex discrimination is illegal in both the Alaska and U.S. constitutions.

Key said actual examples of transgender athletes exhibiting unfair competitive advantages are exceedingly rare, and policies ensuring modesty in locker rooms and restrooms are commonplace these days since it’s a common issue for all youths of such age.

“The fear of what could happen is nowhere near what happens year after year, decade after decade,” he said.

Pushing toward fewer restrictions

Some legislation in the Capitol is seeking to explicitly extend protections for LGBTQ+ residents and students.

House Bill 99 by Jennie Armstrong, an Anchorage Democrat, bans discrimination against such individuals, specifically referring to “public accommodations, housing and lending.” A similar bill (SB 108) has been introduced in the Senate.

”The first step to reversing outmigration and creating a business-friendly environment is making sure that everyone feels safe and welcome in Alaska,” Armstrong wrote in a sponsor statement for the bill.

A ban on conversation therapy is proposed in HB 43 by Rep. Sara Hannan, a Juneau Democrat, which received its first hearing last week.

Seeking “comprehensive, medically accurate sexual health education” is proposed in SB 43 by Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, an Anchorage Democrat.

A proposal (HB 14) by Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat, adds sexual orientation and gender identity to existing provisions such as race that qualify for enhanced sentencing of people convicted of crimes targeting victims of those groups. He said he hasn’t asked for a hearing on it yet since the Republican-led majority is unlikely to favor it, although introducing the bill in itself serves no purpose and its provisions might have a future in something such as a broader crime bill that makes it to a floor vote.

“I think there are people who benefit from progressive legislation, knowing an effort is being made,” he said.

During a noontime presentation Monday about hate crimes in Alaska, Josephson said he introduced his bill due to a woman targeted for being LGBTQ+ by an assailant who is still at large. According to officials with the Anti-Defamation League at the presentation, there were only 10 reported hate crimes in Alaska last year because the state has no official definition for them, with one of those related to sexual orientation and three related to gender/gender identity.

While it’s possible none of the sex/gender proposals will become law, Halcro said he expects such issues to continue to be pushed as part of the wider nationwide battles.

“I do think it’s just the beginning of the culture wars,” he said.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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