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HB 81: Or Another Solution Seeking a Problem

Updated: May 14, 2023

A Louisiana legislator is proposing a new law that would require public school teachers to refer to their students only by the names and pronouns indicated on the students’ birth certificates unless given specific written permission to do so by the students’ parent.

Louisiana House Representative Raymond Crews (R) of Bossier City introduced House Bill 81, which he calls the “Given Name Act,” which, in addition to requiring school personnel to use only a student’s legal name and gender at birth, also stipulates that, even given parental permission, school staff can refuse to use the student’s preferred name and pronouns if doing so conflicts with the staff member’s religious beliefs. It is difficult to know where to begin in unpacking the many problematic aspects of this bill, which does not even make an effort to conceal its obvious basis in transphobia. For starters, the lazy language of the poorly-written document leaves several crucial questions unanswered. As written, the bill seems to suggest that teachers will not be able to refer to students by nicknames or abbreviated names as those will differ from the students’ birth certificates. In essence, every John must be called Johnathan and every Mandy, Amanda, unless their very busy parents write a letter stipulating their permission. The Beths and Bens and Maggies and Matts would all need notes as well. Presumably, Rep. Crews would never dream of imposing such an inconvenience on sweet cis children, but the law, as they say, would be the law. Much more problematic is how this legislation would affect its intended victims: vulnerable trans and nonbinary students. The indignity of not being called by one’s name cannot be overstated. Most civilized adults in the professional world would never dream of quibbling over what a colleague’s birth certificate says. We know that if someone introduces themselves to us with the name Ella, we call them Ella. We do not demand proof or documentation, not only because doing so would be illegal in many workplaces, but also because it’s simply not kind. The fact that we would subject children to an indignity to which we would almost never submit an adult is telling. Beyond its basic ugliness, this bill could also pose serious safety concerns for trans and nonbinary students. Many such students may have unstable or unsafe home situations, and thus may not be out to their parents with good reason. The Trevor Project reports that thirty-eight to thirty-nine percent of trans people experience homelessness or housing instability, with a significant percentage of those saying they either ran away from home or were kicked out of their homes during their childhoods because of their families’ reactions to their gender identity. Forcing teachers to out vulnerable students to parents or guardians would cause enormous repercussions in the safety of trans youth. And if a student cannot or does not feel safe getting the required permission from a parent? Then the law will force school staff to deadname the student, a practice which has quantifiable, lasting consequences for the mental health of trans and nonbinary people, who are already at a higher risk for suicide and self harm. The National Institute of Health found in 2020 that “82% of transgender individuals have considered killing themselves and 40% have attempted suicide, with suicidality highest among transgender youth.” Then there are the myriad legal questions the bill poses but does not resolve. What happens if a parent finds out a teacher used a nickname or preferred name without their permission? The bill states no clear recourse; should the teacher be arrested? Sued? Fired? What happens when a supportive parent wants their child called by a nickname or preferred name and a teacher refuses based on their purported religious convictions? And if teachers can only call students by their legal names, is the reverse true as well? What would happen to teachers who, themselves, go by nicknames or preferred names or use pronouns different from those on their birth certificates? The bill is mum on these questions as well. But finally, the bill’s ultimate sin is its inherent uselessness. Like all of the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation introduced in Louisiana and nationwide over the past few years, the bill attempts to provide a solution when there has yet to be a stated problem. This is no different than anti-trans bathroom bills which have been proposed and sometimes passed despite the fact that there has, heretofore, been no widespread (or even isolated) issue with trans people assaulting others in bathrooms. Similarly, anti-drag laws seek to limit spaces in which drag can be performed even though no notable crimes have taken place during existing performances. HB81, too, is a bigoted, angry hammer in search of a vulnerable nail. The only “solution” this bill truly aims to provide is an insurance policy that promises bigots will be protected by the law. In this imaginary world where trans people prowl for prey in bathrooms and drag queens steal the innocence of children and simply admitting that queer people exist inside the walls of a classroom could cause queerness to spread like a disease, maybe it makes sense that people like Representative Crews believe that calling someone by the name they prefer could somehow be dangerous. But back in the real world, no crimes are being prevented by this bill. No one’s safety is being improved. Indeed, this bill would only serve to further endanger already vulnerable population. Crews will no doubt defend his position with a “protect the children” smokescreen; meanwhile, with firearms and drug addiction being two of the three leading causes of death amongst American youth (the third is car accidents, not being trans, if you were wondering), actual children who could use the protection of their legislators appear to be out of luck. What can we do about any of this? First, take it as a credible threat. This is not the first time Representative Crews has introduced openly bigoted legislation. When Representative Dodie Horton’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill died in the House Education Committee, Crews tried unsuccessfully to revive the bill by side-stepping the Education Committee and having the bill voted on by the House at large. The Education Committee has been known to refuse to bring many anti-LGBTQ+ bills to the floor for a vote at all, and we can certainly hope that will be the case again when the legislative session begins this April. Until then, here are ways you can help:

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