A new censorship bill that gives parents the power to ban so-called “sexually explicit” books and educational materials from schools is on the verge of being signed into law in Virginia, much to the dismay of local students, teachers and activists. Given its similarities to Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill, critics have argued that the legislation could result in the stigmatization of already vulnerable LGBTQ2S+ students.
Known as Senate Bill 656, the legislation would require local school districts to adopt policies ensuring parental notification of “instructional material that includes sexually explicit content.” Teachers would also have to submit their lessons for review and provide a non-explicit alternative lesson plan in case of objections.
SB 656 is headed to the desk of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin after passing the state legislature by slim margins: 20-18 in the Senate and 52-46 in the House.
Opponents say the proposal is a moot point because most local school districts in Virginia already have systems in place for notifying parents of any controversial material assigned in class, according to the local news publication Virginia Mercury.
“Bills like SB 656 in Virginia put unnecessary labor on our great teachers who are already working so hard to prepare our youth and students for a bright future,” Narissa S. Rahaman, executive director of Equality Virginia, tells Xtra in an emailed statement. “Teachers should be empowered to continue developing curricula that is age-appropriate and reflects the diversity of the students they are teaching.”
Although Virginia’s bill does not explicitly mention sexual orientation or gender identity, advocacy groups believe SB 656 will likely be used to target LGBTQ2S+ education in schools. Youngkin, a Republican, campaigned on his opposition to trans inclusion in school sports during his 2020 gubernatorial bid and made headlines earlier this year for defending a public school teacher who was suspended for refusing to respect students’ correct names and pronouns.
Part of the concern over SB 656 lies in its striking similarities to House Bill 516, an infamous proposal that became known as the “Beloved” bill. The 2016 legislation was partially inspired by a parent’s petition to remove Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved—which deals with slavery in the deep South and includes descriptions of sexual violence—from her son’s AP English curriculum.
Like SB 656, the legislation would have mandated that schools to notify parents before “sexually explicit” materials are introduced in classrooms. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed HB 516 over objections to that requirement, saying: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Advocacy groups note that SB 656 could be used to target not only LGBTQ2S+ books but also any other educational material deemed offensive to parents, such as those dealing with race or racism. Youngkin, for instance, got elected by promising to ban critical race theory (CRT) from being taught in Virginia schools, even though K-12 classrooms don’t teach it.
“This bill, like many of the other bills seeking to censor curriculum in schools to erase discussion of racial justice and LGBTQ+ identity, is so troubling, in part, because of its vagueness,” Adam Polaski, a communications director for the Campaign for Southern Equality, tells Xtra in an emailed statement. “It is so vague that it could empower anti-LGBTQ+ forces to contest a broad range of educational materials, such as those that simply include LGBTQ+ characters or historic figures.”
Virginia isn’t the only state to have introduced legislation restricting the discussion of LGBTQ2S+ topics in schools this year. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed its House and Senate earlier this month and now awaits being signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The legislation bars lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in K-3 classrooms and allows parents to sue school districts for broaching these topics.
Tennessee is pushing an even stricter bill that would explicitly bar any discussion of so-called “LGBT issues or lifestyle” in all K-12 curricula. Meanwhile, Oklahoma is weighing legislation that would prohibit school libraries from stocking books about “the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity or gender identity, or books that are of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know of.”
More than 60 bills introduced across the United States this year seek to limit LGBTQ2S+ education in schools, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Advocates say the people most harmed by these efforts are students themselves.
“These efforts to advance an extreme political agenda are made at the expense of students who should be able to thrive and reach their full potential,” Aaron Ridings, chief of staff for the youth advocacy organization GLSEN, tells Xtra in a written statement. “We will continue to support leaders in Virginia and across the country who are fed up with these cynical, politically motivated attacks against students.”