HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana schools would not be able to punish students who purposely misgender or deadname their transgender peers under a Republican-backed legislative proposal that opponents argue will increase bullying of children who are already struggling for acceptance.
The proposal, co-sponsored by more than two dozen GOP lawmakers, would declare that it’s not discrimination to use a transgender classmate’s legal name or refer to them by their birth gender. Schools would be prevented from adopting policies to punish students who do so.
It comes amid a wave of legislation this year in Montana and other conservative states seeking to limit or ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth. Montana’s Senate passed a ban on gender-affirming medical care or surgery for minors on Wednesday.
But the proposal on misgendering and deadnaming is apparently the only existing legislation of its kind in the country this year, said Olivia Hunt, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equity.
“This would make Montana unique in enshrining the right to be bigoted toward or the right to bully trans children in the state code,” Hunt said.
The proposal would not apply to teachers, but some states are considering bills that would protect teachers’ rights to refer to students by their birth names and gender.
The main sponsor, Rep. Brandon Ler, said Wednesday during a hearing that his children, who live on a farm and ranch, “have learned from a very young age that cows are cows and bulls are bulls” and it’s not open for interpretation.
“Children should not be forced to call somebody something they’re not,” Ler said.
Opponents agreed that students who accidentally use a wrong pronoun or name should not be punished, but said schools should still be able to respond to purposeful misgendering and deadnaming, perhaps under an anti-bullying policy. Refusing to acknowledge a transgender student’s preferred name and pronouns amounts to bullying, said SK Rossi, testifying on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign.
“The problem with the bill is that it takes away the ability of schools and teachers and administrators to intervene when something becomes cruel, before it becomes physical,” Rossi said.
The issue of punishment for misgendering or deadnaming doesn’t appear to be a problem in Montana, according to Emily Dean, director of advocacy for the Montana School Boards Association. She said she was unaware of any students who had been punished for such actions.
Max Finn, a transgender middle schooler from Missoula, said he faces backlash from fellow students, including having crude remarks made about him and being tripped in the hallway, even though his teachers try to stop it from happening.
“If my teachers can’t or won’t intervene, it gets much worse,” Finn said.
People representing educational organizations, pediatricians, parents of transgender children and students testified against the bill, saying it would lead to unchallenged bullying and harassment as well as anxiety and depression among transgender students.
Layla Riggs told lawmakers about defending friends who were being bullied because they are transgender or gender nonconforming. Someone once threw rocks at her and a nonbinary friend after school, she said.
“School is supposed to be a place where you are accepted and a place where your safety is supposed to be one of the top priorities,” Riggs testified. “With the passage of this bill, even the illusion of safety for transgender and nonbinary students would be gone.”
A survey by The Trevor Project in 2022 found that 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous year, but that those who were supported socially or at school reported lower rates.
Jeff Laszloffy with the Montana Family Foundation told lawmakers his group supports the measure because it would avoid students possibly facing civil lawsuits over using the wrong pronoun or name. He was the lone supporter to testify in a hearing that ended without lawmakers voting on the measure.
Richard Schade told lawmakers his 9-year-old nonbinary stepchild is bullied on a near daily basis with little to no intervention from school administrators.
“This demonstrates that the stated purpose of (the bill) is to address a problem that doesn’t exist, and that the real intent is to send a message to trans kids that they deserve to be bullied because of who they are,” he said.
During his testimony against the bill, Montana Pride President Kevin Hamm intentionally misgendered Laszloffy and a male lawmaker who had earlier sought to block opposition arguments that the bill would lead to bullying. Hamm said he wanted to hear “her” reasoning on that.
“Does she feel that misgendering isn’t a bullying tactic?” Hamm asked.
At that point, Rep. Amy Regier, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, interrupted, saying: “Please don’t attack other testimony.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Hamm retorted. “Is it a bullying and an attack? So you do understand what this bill will do. Thank you for proving my point. Don’t enshrine a tool for bullying into the law.”