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Tennessee House Votes to Prohibit Rainbow Pride Flags in Public Schools

“This will create an environment that will lead to more deaths of students,” one advocate said.

The Tennessee House passed a bill on Monday prohibiting the display of pride flags in public school classrooms. The bill, House Bill 1605, now moves to the state Senate, where it is expected to pass.

“Yesterday, [the] Tennessee House PASSED a bill that will BAN PRIDE FLAGS from school buildings,” LGBTQ+ legislative researcher Allison Chapman said on social media. “Tennessee is actively makings [sic] schools [into] a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students.”

House Bill 1605 prohibits public schools from displaying any flags other than the United States flag and the official Tennessee state flag. While the legislation doesn’t explicitly mention pride flags, right-wing lawmakers have said that this bill will ban them. In fact, the bill’s primary sponsor, state Rep. Gino Bulso (R), said that he drafted the bill after he heard complaints from multiple parents and a school board member in his district who objected to “certain teachers and counselors displaying a pride flag.”

Democrats criticized the bill, arguing that it marginalizes LGBTQ students and compounds the stigma against them.

“It seems the genuine concern behind this bill is better described as preventing social representation or a sense of belonging in one’s community,” state Rep. Aftyn Behn (D) said.

Advocates for LGBTQ rights stress that lawmakers intensifying stigma against LGBTQ students will escalate the risk of physical violence that LGBTQ youth face.

The bill’s passage comes as LGBTQ communities nationwide have been grieving the devastating loss of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old transgender student with Choctaw Nation heritage who died on February 7, 2024. Benedict was assaulted by three girls in the girls’ restroom at Owasso High School in Owasso, Oklahoma, and succumbed to his injuries the following day. Advocates have said that Benedict’s death is a stark reminder of the deadly consequences of anti-LGBTQ politicians and their policies.

“While the LGBTQ+ community was mourning the death of Nex yesterday, Republicans in Tennessee passed a bill [] that would BAN all PRIDE FLAGS from schools,” LGBTQ+ legislative researcher Allison Chapman said on social media. “This is the kind of hate that ends in trans kids being killed.”

“This will create an environment that will lead to more deaths of students,” Chapman went on.

Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent an open letter to school districts currently enforcing or contemplating bans on pride flags. The organization cautioned that according to First Amendment legal precedents “public schools may prohibit private on-campus speech only insofar as it substantially interferes with or disrupts the educational environment, or interferes with the rights of other students.” Bills like House Bill 1605, therefore, may be an unconstitutional restriction on first amendment rights.

“I am proud when I walk into the public schools in my city to see the LGBTQ flag in the classrooms, proudly put up by teachers who understand the suffering that many of their students go through,” state Rep. Jason Powell (D) said. “We should be welcoming and celebrating our students, not hating on them.”

Tennessee is listed by transgender journalist and activist Erin Reed as one of the “worst states” for transgender youth. Currently, the state prohibits transgender individuals from altering their birth certificates, makes it exceedingly difficult for them to change the gender marker on their driver’s licenses, and prohibits transgender youth from accessing gender-affirming care. House Bill 1605 will add to this list of laws that specifically aim to marginalize LGBTQ individuals and make schools less safe for LGBTQ youth.

“The pride flag is a powerful symbol that communicates acceptance and support of our LGBTQIA community by providing social representation,” Behn said.

Moreover, during this legislative session, lawmakers have introduced 34 bills targeting LGBTQ rights. They also recently approved a measure enabling public officials to refuse to officiate same-sex marriages, which was signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee last week.

Research conducted by the Trevor Project indicates that anti-LGBTQ policies have a detrimental effect on LGBTQ youth. A striking 86 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth report that recent discussions surrounding anti-trans legislation have had adverse effects on their mental wellbeing.

“By restricting their ability to display a pride flag, this bill suppresses a teachers ability to foster a safe and inclusive environment. Without safe environments for students to express themselves, it forces students to stay closeted in fear for their personal safety,” Chapman told Truthout. “ Even worse, by attacking LGBTQ+ people in schools it emboldens violence against queer people within schools, as we have witnessed in Oklahoma with the murder of Nex Benedict.”

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