‘A concern for everyone’: Tennessee poised to ban Pride flags in schools

<span>People protest the pride flag ban bill at the capitol in Nashville, Tennessee, on 26 February 2024. </span><span>Photograph: Seth Herald/Reuters</span>
People protest the pride flag ban bill at the capitol in Nashville, Tennessee, on 26 February 2024. Photograph: Seth Herald/Reuters

Tennessee is poised to become the first state to in effect ban Pride flags in public and charter school classrooms, prompting outrage from the LGBTQ+ community.

The Tennessee house advanced a bill, HB 1605, that forbids schools, teachers or faculty from displaying flags other than the US flag and the Tennessee state flag in public schools. The bill would also allow “a parent of a child who attends, or who is eligible to attend” a Tennessee public or charter school to sue their school district if a Pride flag is displayed “anywhere students may see the object”.

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The bill does not mention LGBTQ+ Pride flags or Black Lives Matter outright, but some Republican lawmakers have made it clear that the bill is meant to restrict them.

The bill is expected to clear the senate as early as next week.

Members voted for the bill after a verbal showdown between the state representative Justin Jones, a Democrat, and the Republican house speaker, Cameron Sexton. Jones was blocked from speaking on the house floor after likening the anti-LGBTQ work of the Tennessee legislature to a neo-Nazi rally held in Nashville earlier this month. When Sexton moved to end the debate and proceed to a chamber-wide vote, Jones blasted the speaker for silencing criticism of the proposed ban on Pride flags.

Despite opposition, house Republicans comfortably passed the bill with a final vote of 70 to 24, splitting predictably along party lines.

The vote sparked backlash from LGBTQ+ advocates, who noted that the bill’s advancement comes just weeks after Nex Benedict – a non-binary teenager in Oklahoma – died following a fight at the public high school they attended.

“The flag is a symbol of acceptance, so if a teacher has a small Pride flag on the desk, or a pin on their bag, that signals to students, ‘oh, this is a safe person,’” said Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project. “When there is an affirming adult in schools, it sends a signal that there is a place in the building that is safe for LGBT youth.”

LGBTQ+ youth consistently report higher rates of bullying, physical threats and other forms of harassment, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. In 2021, nearly two-thirds of all LGBTQ+ youth reported feeling “persistently sad and hopeless”, compared to roughly one-third of heterosexual youth.

And this is hardly the only attack on LGBTQ+ people in the state of Tennessee: just this year, lawmakers have filed at least 33 bills targeting LGBTQ+ individuals, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sanders warned that the proposed ban on Pride flags harms all of Tennessee, not just LGBTQ+ and Black residents.

“They are targeting our communities, but creeping restrictions on people’s expression and speech should be a concern for everyone,” he said.

The bill’s primary sponsor, the Republican state representative Gino Bulso, said that the bill was inspired by parents in his district, who complained about that “certain teachers and counselors were displaying a Pride flag” in some of Williamson county’s schools.

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Bulso said in a January interview with the local news station WKRN that the LGBTQ+ Pride flag represents values and ideas that he opposes, including the 2015 US supreme court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

“Fifty years ago, we had a consensus on what marriage is, we don’t have that anymore,” Bulso told reporters. “So the values that I think most parents want their children exposed to are the ones that were in existence at the time that our country was founded.”

When pressed by Democratic colleagues to explain the proposed ban, Bulso declined to say if the bill prohibits the display of the Confederate flag in Tennessee classrooms.

Bulso’s office did not respond to the Guardian’s multiple requests for comment.

Outside of his work as a state lawmaker, Bulso is a private attorney who helps parents pursue legal action against public school districts. He is currently representing a group of parents in their lawsuit against the Williamson county board of education for allegedly violating the Age-Appropriate Materials Act of 2022, colloquially referred to by critics as a “book ban”, which requires schools to remove books that are deemed inappropriate for students.

Notably, one of the four plaintiffs in the case, Aundrea Gomez, does not have children who are enrolled in Williamson county public schools. She has children who are “eligible” to be enrolled in the county school system, according to the lawsuit. Gomez also works as the Tennessee director of Citizens for Renewing America, a rightwing Christian non-profit that stands against “cancel culture”.

“There’s obviously the risk of a conflict of interest between what Bulso is doing in his private practice, and what he’s doing as a legislator,” said Bryan Davidson, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. “A huge part of his practice is representing plaintiffs who do not have children in the school system they want to sue.”

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Like the state’s “book ban”, the house version of Bulso’s bill would allow parents like Gomez, whose children are “eligible” but not enrolled in the county public school system, to bring lawsuits against local education officials.

Between ethical concerns about the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ students and the conflict of interest presented by Bulso’s private litigation work, Davidson said the bill presents an “obvious first amendment issue”.

If the bill becomes law, it will likely face a legal challenge from attorneys at the ACLU of Tennessee, Davidson said.

He said the bill belies “the first amendment and 100 years worth of supreme court precedenton free speech and expression.