Legislation would control how private schools in Georgia address gender

State Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, wants to require private schools to obtain parental approval before discussing gender identity with students. His bill got a hearing at the Capitol on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. He was reading legislation in the Senate on March 21 as the legislative session neared its end. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

State Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, wants to require private schools to obtain parental approval before discussing gender identity with students. His bill got a hearing at the Capitol on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. He was reading legislation in the Senate on March 21 as the legislative session neared its end. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

A Republican lawmaker wants to extend Georgia’s educational culture war to private schools.

Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, went before a committee at the state Capitol Wednesday to discuss an updated version of legislation he introduced earlier this year. It would require private schools to obtain parental permission before “addressing issues of gender identity, queer theory, gender ideology, or gender transition” with students 15 and younger.

For different reasons, proponents of gay or transgender students and Christian conservatives have lined up against Senate Bill 88.

Summers said he wants to ensure parents have a say when their kids are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I don’t want anyone talking to my grandchild about his gender, and trying to persuade him to change his gender, not change his gender — all of the above,” Summers said. “I want that to be left up to the parents or the guardian, at least until they’re 16 years old, which is the age of consent in Georgia.”

That mandate would not apply to public school districts, which already operate under legislation from 2022 that emphasizes parental rights. But public schools would have to publish their policies on addressing gender identity, the bill says.

Summers’ bill would target private schools by sanctioning violators with loss of state subsidies, such as access to students with a special needs voucher or to state-funded athletic associations.

An advocate Summers brought to the hearing described how several Atlanta-area private schools were “damaging children” by discussing gender identity. Kate Hudson, founder of the group Education Veritas, criticized several metro Atlanta private schools, including some with religious affiliations.

Lobbyists from conservative Christian groups, such as Frontline Policy Action and the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said encroaching on private school independence was unacceptable.

Taylor Hawkins, with Frontline Policy, also said the legislation would be a strategic error. It would enshrine in law that discussing “queer theory is acceptable as long as there is parental notification and an available opt-out,” he said. “Addressing taxpayer-funded radicalism in schools is an important issue. This bill unfortunately does not go about addressing that.”

A couple of dozen other people also spoke against Summers’ proposal.

Some represented civil rights and other advocacy groups. Some were parents like Chris Skaer, whose voice wavered as he spoke of his own transgender child, now a young adult.

“Transgender youth are already very vulnerable and different, and schools and society make them feel that way already,” Skaer said. “Instead of stigmatizing these children and these kids, we should be lifting them up and supporting them so they can succeed in life.”

Feroza Syed, who is transgender, had spoken just before him about the heightened risk of suicide for these kids.

“Not because it’s a mental condition or something is wrong with them, but more because they’re afraid of coming out,” Syed said. “They’re afraid of being in an unsupportive environment, and I know because I was one of them. I was born a biological boy, and I attempted suicide four times before I was 14.”

Syed and others described how a supportive teacher had played a crucial role in their lives, and how this legislation would isolate children.

One transgender person spoke in favor of the bill.

Gender transition is a difficult process, Sara Higdon said, and children need the help of a psychological professional to deal with it.

“And it’s parents’ responsibility to make sure their child gets that care. Not a school teacher’s, not a school’s,” Higdon said. “And the fact is teachers are not trained therapists.”

Summers said he’ll try to amend the bill to satisfy some of the critics and said he aims to carry it when lawmakers meet again in January.

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