By Rose Hoban
Throughout their careers in theater and teaching the theater arts, Paulette and John Marty have met, worked with, and mentored many people who identify as LGBTQ.
We have always expressed support for queer and transgender students, and have worked with many students, and have been for years, Paulette said.
As educators, the pair say students need teachers they can trust to talk about challenging topics. Paulette said a trusted teacher in school can help a child who is struggling with their sexuality or gender identity find a sense of acceptance and relief from inner turmoil.
Those teachers aren’t pitting them against their parents, she said. They are just creating a space where they feel comfortable being who they are.
This dynamic is more than theoretical for the Martys. A few years ago, one of the couple’s sons came to them and said they wanted to begin the transition process.
Our daughter first tried it with peers at school, then with educators, and then she came to us, and she was still very nervous, talking to us and telling us, she said.
Their sister knew about it before we found out, John said. Even though, you know, we would have been very supportive, they were still a lot more nervous with us than with anyone else.
It was the experience of their son, now 18, that brought the Martys to the General Assembly Tuesday from their Boone home to protest a series of bills targeting transgender youth. Their experiences as educators also informed their protest: Paulette carried a sign reading Trust Teachers as she walked through the Legislature Building.
Senate Bill 49, called the Parents Bill of Rights, revives legislation proposed by the previous legislative session that would force kindergarten through high school educators to notify parents if a child asks school staff to use other pronouns or other nouns for them. The bill, approved by the Senate in February, had been meeting in committee. It was suddenly echoed last week during a contentious committee hearing in which opponents were not given an opportunity to speak.
Critics say these kinds of laws can harm LGBTQ students by forcibly exposing them to their families, even if those families don’t accept their identities.
With the possibility of financial penalties in the bill, the measure could place teachers and counselors in an ethical quandary as they try to balance their obligations to their students and the need to comply with state law. Opponents of the bills also say the legislation could harm children’s mental health during an emotionally challenging period in their lives.
With Senate Bill 49, North Carolina joins at least 31 other states considering education-focused legislation and so-called bills of rights for parents, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. At least a dozen North Carolina states, among them, have sections in their bills that require teachers to share information with the parents of a child who is questioning their gender identity or sexuality.
Four states from Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana passed parental rights laws in 2022. Many of these laws focused on giving parents access to information about the curriculum being taught, while giving them the option to opt out to sex education and, as in North Carolina, focusing on gender and sexuality.
As school counselors, we have all kinds of kids who come in with a lot of personal issues, including, and often, gender identity issues, because middle school is that developmental time when young people are looking for an identity of who they are as a person. and how they fit in, said Cathy Zizzi, a middle school guidance counselor who has worked in Winston-Salem-area schools for 15 years. Their sense of identity can be one of the biggest stressors they have at that time in their lives.
Zizzi said she often had children come to her to talk about internal struggles, and many of them came to her because their family members weren’t supportive.
We know from current research that students who struggle with gender identity and have no supportive adults in their lives are. . . What is that? Three, maybe five times more likely to die by suicide? Zizzi said. Because they don’t get the support they need.
Often, she said, school counselors are the only adults children can talk to without involving a parent who could further escalate an already sensitive situation. Those same children, Zizzi added, can be subjected to emotional and sometimes physical abuse at home for being different.
Disclosing that kind of information without a teenager’s permission, Zizzi added, would go against ethical guidelines promulgated by the American School Counselor Association.
But Sen. Amy Galey (R-Burlington), a major sponsor of the bill, told the House Education K-12 committee last week that when it comes to rights, the rights of the parents trump those of the child, even if a child asks for privacy about a sensitive situation such as gender identity.
In the United States, children generally have no rights over their parents. Parents have the right to educate and morally train and to provide for the physical safety of children unless that parent is abusive or neglectful and otherwise enters the social services system, Galey told the committee.
Medical right to privacy
Galey said the bill won’t change some of the medical privacy rights young people already have. Currently, a teenager can consent to treatment without parental notice when it comes to receiving treatment for STDs, pregnancy, substance use, or many mental health issues.
I don’t think there has been much concern that that statute is being abused by the medical community, Galey said. And I think there are good public policy reasons why they need to be done. So the bill doesn’t really change medical consent, it elaborates and clarifies it.
But the bill would prohibit schools from having policies that allow any school staff to withhold information about a child’s mental, emotional or physical health or well-being.
Zizzi has defended what she and her peers do and noted that she always encourages a young person to talk to family.
What we’re talking about is confidential, Zizzi said. I always explain what it means to students when I meet them, that unless they describe self-harm, harm that has been done to them, or their intention to harm someone else, or if I get sued in those four cases, I breach the trust. Otherwise, what we are talking about is confidential and private.
I don’t know how you could do my profession without adhering to that.
The bill also provides penalties for school staff or school systems and allows a parent to file a lawsuit if they feel that school staff have not shared information they deserve to know.
The parent can notify the State Board of Education and request a hearing regarding the parents, or the parent can file an action against the public school unit for declaratory judgment, Galey said. And the court can give the parent injunctive relief, as well as reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.
Medical groups join the opposition
For Riley Smith, a Durham GP, pinpointing gender identity issues in this bill seems to pile up, especially in the context of other bills targeting transgender people that have moved through the General Assembly.
I can’t tell you the number of kids I’ve had crying in my office and parents walking in just wondering, what the hell are we supposed to do? It seems to be changing by the minute, Smith said. If these bills are passed and we don’t really know what they’re going to look like, it’s going to be really hard to do our job and take care of these kids.
At least 30 medical associations and groups across the country have spoken out against such laws, including, most recently, the American Medical Association. That organization overwhelmingly affirmed a resolution at its annual meeting in early June stating: It’s the responsibility of the medical community to speak out in support of evidence-based care. Medical decisions should be made by patients, their relatives and health professionals, not politicians.
Smith said that when he was growing up as a queer boy in North Carolina and he heard a teacher talk about his wife as a normal thing, it was powerful.
For teachers to feel like they can’t bring their true selves to school out of concern that some parents are going to say something to someone and it’s going to escalate, or, you know, that it’s somehow different to talk about queer relationships than it is it’s for talking about straight relationships, Smith said. That’s not true, and it’s harmful.
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