ELENA, Mont. (AP) — More than two dozen Republican Montana lawmakers are cosponsoring a bill that would allow students to misgender and name their transgender peers dead without punishment, a move some say would further bullying children who already struggling for acceptance.
The proposal would declare it non-discriminatory to use a classmate’s legal name or refer to them based on birth gender, and prevent schools from adopting policies to punish students for actions that are non-discriminatory.
Opponents of the bill said students are not punished for accidentally using a wrong pronoun or a student’s previous name, but refusal to acknowledge a transgender student’s preferred name and pronouns amounts to bullying that schools should address.
“I think the problem with the bill is that it takes away the ability for schools, teachers and administrators to intervene when something gets cruel, before it gets physical,” SK Rossi said, testifying on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign.
No other state is believed to be considering similar legislation, said Olivia Hunt, policy director at the National Center for Transgender Equity.
“In our experience, this would make Montana unique in enshrining the right to be a bigot or the right to bully trans children into state code,” he said.
Montana’s proposal would not apply to teachers, but some states are considering bills that protect teachers’ right to refer to students by birth name and gender.
The bill comes as conservative lawmakers across the country, including in Montana, are considering bills to ban gender-affirming medical care for minors. The Montana Senate on Wednesday passed a bill to ban medical and surgical treatment for gender-affirming minors, sending it to the House.
The lead sponsor of the school discrimination bill, Rep. Brandon Ler, began his presentation Wednesday by noting that his children, who live on a farm and ranch, “learned from an early age that cows are cows.” and bulls are bulls” and that such facts are not up for interpretation.
“Children shouldn’t be forced to call someone they’re not,” Ler said.
Montana Pride president Kevin Hamm said we should “trust that each of us knows ourselves best and that we can educate others about the correct pronouns and gender expressions to use when referring to each other.”
Representatives from educational organizations, pediatricians, parents of transgender children and school students testified against the bill, noting that it would lead to unchallenged bullying and harassment in schools and lead to anxiety and depression among transgender students.
Max Finn, a transgender high schooler from Missoula, said he faces backlash from fellow students, including scathing comments about him and being tripped in the hallway, even as his teachers try to stop that from happening.
“If my teachers can’t or won’t intervene, it gets a lot worse,” said Finn.
Layla Riggs told lawmakers she stood up for friends who were bullied at school for being transgender or gender nonconforming, and that someone once threw rocks at her and a non-binary friend after school.
“School should be a place where you are accepted and a place where your safety should be a top priority,” Riggs testified. “With the passage of this bill, the illusion of safety for transgender and non-binary students would also vanish.”
A survey by The Trevor Project in 2022 found that 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous year, but that LGBTQ youth who were supported socially or in school reported lower rates of suicide attempts.
Emily Dean, director of advocacy for the Montana School Boards Association, said she was unaware of any students who had been punished by the schools for bullying a fellow student with a gender error or naming him dead.
Richard Schade told lawmakers his 9-year-old non-binary stepson is bullied at school on an almost 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 does not exist, and that the real intent is to send a message to trans children that they deserve to be bullied because of what they I am,” he said.
During his testimony, Hamm intentionally gender-swapped the sole supporter and a male MP, who had previously tried to block opposition arguments that the bill would lead to bullying. Hamm said he wanted to hear “his of his” reasoning from him on this.
“Do you feel that misgendering is not a bullying tactic?” Hamm asked.
At that point, Congresswoman Amy Regier, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, interrupted by saying, “Please don’t attack any more testimony.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Hamm replied. “Is this a bullying and an attack? So you understand what this bill will do. Thanks for proving my point. Don’t enclose a bullying tool in the law.
The committee did not vote on the bill.