Project Summary:

In 2023, a fifth of the country’s state-level bills impacting the LGBTQ+ community were filed in Texas, according to a Human Rights Campaign analysis. Equality Texas tracked a record 141 such bills this year up from just 12 in 2015. Some policies passed and several others progressed substantially in the most recent legislative session. KXAN’s team of journalists – many LGBTQ+ staff members with unique, developed and inside perspectives providing nuance to our fair, rigorous and balanced reporting standards – produced multimedia stories like this one for the “OutLaw” project, taking an in-depth look at what this trend could mean for Texas’ future.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Following a Texas legislative session that featured dozens of bills aimed at LGBTQ+-related issues, some school districts statewide are taking matters into their own hands to implement policies restricting gender identity and sexual orientation discussions.

Texas State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, introduced Senate Bill 1072 during the 88th regular session that, had it become law, would’ve restricted conversations surrounding gender identity and sexual orientation in Texas public and charter schools for students in prekindergarten through 12th grade.

That bill passed in the Senate Committee on Education but failed to advance in the House. Despite the lack of an across-the-board state law, districts in north and south Texas have each adopted policies that champion the vision set forth in SB 1072.

On Aug. 28, just shy of midnight, members of the Katy Independent School District’s Board of Trustees voted 4-3 to enact its gender identity policy, effective immediately.

District employees are now required to inform parents if a student requests to “be identified as transgender, change his or her name, or use different pronouns at school.” It would also require students use the bathrooms that match their sex assigned at birth.

The vote came after hours of testimony from students, teachers, district families and community members, speaking to the potential benefits — or consequences — the measure could have on students who identified as members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Some who testified commended the measure, saying it promoted transparency between the school district and parents on issues their student might be navigating. Community member Simon Lin spoke in favor of the policy, arguing students under 18 are classified as minors and, therefore, laws and policies are needed to provide protection for them.

Others, including Cinco Ranch High School student Alastair Parker, said he and fellow trans students would be forced into non-safe spaces and situations and stripped of their equal opportunities under this policy.

“This policy perpetuates violence,” Parker said, adding the measure could out trans students and open them up to possible attacks, hatred and discrimination.

Elsewhere in Texas, Carroll and Keller ISDs in north Texas also adopted policies related to LGBTQ+ issues this summer.

Both Keller ISD and Carroll ISD‘s latest board approvals require students to use the bathroom that matches their sex assigned at birth, as voted on by each district’s school board this summer. Keller ISD and Carroll ISD‘s new policies also don’t require teachers to use gender-identifying pronouns for trans students, as approved by the school boards.

For or against? Gender identity, sexual orientation in schools

Before gender identity policies and restrictions on sexual orientation instruction passed in several state school districts, Hughes’ SB 1072 laid the framework for a state-level initiative.

“A school district, open-enrollment charter school, or district or charter school employee may not provide or allow a third party to provide instruction, guidance, activities, or programming regarding sexual orientation or gender identity to students enrolled in prekindergarten through 12th grade.”

SB 1072, engrossed version

During an April 12 Senate Committee on Education public testimony meeting, Hughes said the legislation was designed to ensure “parents are involved in the curriculum review process.” He said it was an extension of work the Texas Senate and Texas House of Representatives did in the 87th session to review, amend and adopt curriculum related to human sexuality instruction in schools.

Lori Kuykendall serves as president of Beacon Health Education Resources, with decades of experience working in teen pregnancy prevention efforts along with health and sex education. Over the past few years, she said she has aided in consulting work with Texas school districts to help ensure they are in full compliance with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, and reflect state standards.

She testified in favor of SB 1072 in April, saying the proposed legislation would have offered critical safeguards for students, teachers and school districts at large.

KXAN Digital Reporter Kelsey Thompson speaks with Beacon Health Education Resource President Lori Kuykendall.

Kuykendall said this rising prominence of “parental rights movements” is designed to reinstate the relationship between parents and school district administrators.

“We’ve seen a greater division and a separation of what had been a partnership between parents and schools. And I think that parental rights movements are created to restore that partnership — that these are our children that we are placing in the hands, voluntarily into the school districts,” she said. “And we want to make sure that that partnership is restored.”

For privacy-related issues or content Kuykendall described as “sensitive and important and value-laden,” she said ensuring parents have full involvement in and knowledge of their child’s learning environment and curriculum is vital.

Some testimonies delivered at the April education committee meeting said SB 1072 had vague, gray spots that could have made for difficult interpretation and execution in school districts. Kuykendall said the bill’s focus on sensitive topics like sexual education and human sexuality was aimed at making sure these conversations were handled in an appropriate counseling environment and with parental knowledge.

“We know that those topics are more subjective than objective, and there’s a lot of variance, a lot of division, a lot of debate culturally and within school communities as well,” she said. “So [SB 1072] really protects all children, to guard those topics for the appropriate teachers’ classrooms, who’ve been trained in the law and know the state standards and what’s expected to be taught on those topics.”

Sheri Richmond, a high school English teacher at Leander ISD, said she was concerned when SB 1072 was introduced as a bill into the Texas Legislature. As an English teacher, she was apprehensive over the impacts the bill could have had on the materials in her classes and interactions with students if it had become law.

She was concerned “just on a classroom level of my day-to-day interactions with students, because I do have a lot of students who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community,” Richmond said. “Is even my ability to connect and just recognize them as a human being, as a person in my class, is that also going to fall into (this bill’s scope)?”

Many of her students are 16 or 17 years old — an age where she noted they are often grappling with different issues, some of which could include their sexual orientation or gender identity. She said she’s worried about possible impacts to school-based support systems for students, should a policy like this become state law or be enacted in school districts.

KXAN Digital Reporter Kelsey Thompson speaks with Leander ISD teacher Sheri Richmond.

Several of the people who testified in favor of the bill, including Kuykendall, referenced parental rights when it comes to knowing the kinds of curricula and materials taught in schools. Richmond said she has seen a shift in that mentality since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when virtual learning gave parents and guardians more of a front row seat into day-to-day teaching.

Richmond said educational best practices have evolved substantially in recent years, as teachers are trained with better sciences and tools to help students learn. But when a curriculum style is unfamiliar to the educational environment a parent was taught in, that can lead to a hesitation, she said.

“These parents who are bringing these things up, it’s coming from a place of love, and ‘we want our best for our kids,'” she said. “But I think we have to keep in mind that a public school is a community and we have to do what is best for the community — and that community is pretty diverse and comes with a lot of different people. We need to make sure that all are being taken care of.”

Ultimately, SB 1072 didn’t become law. It passed in the Senate’s education committee before stalling in the House’s public education committee. But as proposed, SB 1072 was similar in nature to the Florida Parental Rights in Education law, which the state expanded earlier this year.

The newly-extended version of Florida’s law restricts instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for students in prekindergarten through 8th grade. It also prevents school boards from “imposing or enforcing requirements” that students be referred to with pronouns that don’t correspond with their biological sex at birth, per Florida legislative documents.

How Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law could pave the way for similar policies in Texas

The similarities between Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law and the proposed SB 1072 legislation are rooted in instruction related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Florida’s initial version of the law was enacted in 2022 and prohibited those conversations for students in grades kindergarten through 3rd grade.

The latest extension to it, passed earlier this year, expanded restrictions on those topics from being discussed in Florida schools for students grades pre-kindergarten through 8th grade. The newest version also added new requirements related to personal titles and pronouns used in Florida public schools, as well as created a formal process for removing materials like books from schools, per reporting from KXAN’s sister station WFLA.

That’s not to say the law hasn’t been without controversy since its initial passage. In August, Central Florida federal judge Wendy Berger dismissed a lawsuit filed against four Florida school boards in relation to their enforcement of the law, according to reporting from Florida TV station WESH.

“The lawsuit, filed in federal court, targeted not only the Orange County School Board but also three other school boards,” WESH reporter Bob Hazen wrote. “The plaintiffs’ central argument is that the law’s vagueness coerces individuals to censor their own expressions. Furthermore, it empowers vigilant parents to initiate lawsuits against any mention of LGBTQ+ subjects within educational institutions.”

An initial version of that same lawsuit was dismissed last October, the Associated Press reported, before the plaintiffs were granted an opportunity to edit and resubmit their claims.

While Texas’ next regular legislative session isn’t until January 2025, that’s not to say that there couldn’t be an interest in revisiting a piece of legislation akin to SB 1072. The American Civil Liberties Union said Texas lawmakers introduced at least 53 bills pertaining to LGBTQ+ issues during this year’s regular legislative session — the most of any state nationwide.

KXAN reached out to Hughes’ office for comment as to whether he’d reintroduce SB 1072 or a similar bill in a future legislative session. We have not heard back from his office.

Creative Producer Eric Henrikson, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Content Producer Abigail Jones, Lead Editor Eric Lefenfeld, Assistant News Director Chrissy Mazzone, Social Media Senior Producer Jaclyn Ramkissoon, Digital Executive Producer Andrew Schnitker, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.