Bill would exclude misgendering transgender students from discrimination protections

By: - February 8, 2023 2:30 pm

Quinn Leighton with Planned Parenthood of Montana testifies in opposition to House Bill 361 in the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed quotes to Rep. Jedidiah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, that were from bill sponsor Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Savage. The story has since been corrected. 

Kassia Finn, a mother of three, said her family moved across the state in part because a teacher didn’t stop students from bullying when her children came out as transgender.

“They chased my son with sticks, called him a freak, asked him what his genitals look like, and then turned their bullying toward his younger sister when she tried to stop them,” she told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning.

Finn was one of 30 opponents who testified against House Bill 361, which would prevent teachers from disciplining students if they call other students by their legal names instead of their chosen names and don’t use their preferred pronouns.

Opponents included the Montana School Boards Association, Montana Federation of Public Employees, the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and current middle and high school students and parents, among others.

They argued the bill would increase harassment of transgender children in schools, take away local control to handle trans discrimination, and goes against Title IX protection of students on the basis of sex.

But in his opening, Rep. Brandon Ler, R-Savage, said his children learned from growing up on his farm that “cows are cows and bulls are bulls.”

“I would dare to say that you are not going to convince my 8-year-old son that anything is different,” he said. “Because these are facts.”

The existing statute this bill would amend provides statewide protections for discrimination on the basis of race, religion and physical disability, for example. But trans kids would be exempt from those protections under this bill.

“I don’t think we should be preventing schools from intervening before it becomes physical bullying,” said SK Rossi, with the Human Rights Campaign.

At the start of the hearing, Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade, requested the word bullying be refrained from testimony, as he said the bill did not address it.

“Miss Hinkle doesn’t like that we’re talking about bullying, and I’d like to hear her reasoning on this,” said Montana Pride President Kevin Hamm to Hinkle. “Does she feel that misgendering isn’t a bullying tactic?”

Committee Chair Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, responded to not attack a committee member.

“Oh I’m sorry, is it bullying and an attack? ​​So you do understand what this bill will do,” Hamm said. “Thank you for proving my point.”

During committee questions, Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, asked Rossi if a student is gender fluid — which he said he assumed meant “they change their gender or sex every day of the week, from what I gathered,” — how would kids not be confused when they go to address that student.

“If this bill doesn’t pass, how do we protect the confused students who should be at school learning about math reading, writing, not about new genders every day?” Mitchell said.

Rossi replied that Mitchell’s assumptions about gender fluidity were incorrect and that teachers can address students who are making mistakes or confused without discipline.

“That’s not what this bill is referencing,” Rossi said. “This bill is making it impossible to discipline or address intentional and possibly cruel misgendering and deadnaming and not making it impossible to address mistakes or misunderstandings.”

To deadname someone is to refer to the name they used prior to transitioning, which opponents testified can be done in malice.

Ler said students would still be protected from attacks, and it was untrue the bill was changing bullying statutes.

“Bullying is still bullying,” he said. “If you shove somebody into a bathroom, that is still bullying and should be prosecuted by the school board, or any other law that we have.”

He also said his children are respectful but have First Amendment rights.

“I expect my children to treat everybody with respect, but it’s also disrespectful to my children to force them to lie and not be truthful to themselves about what they believe,” Ler said.

The Montana Family Foundation was the only proponent to speak on the bill.

“State teachers have enough on their plates,” said Jeff Laszloffy, with the foundation. “They should not now be forced to become the pronoun police and children should not suffer if they call another student by their legal name.”

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.