Republicans on Tuesday backed a bill that would ban books like “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “1984” and “The Great Gatsby” from Arizona schools because they contain frank descriptions of sex and sexuality, and that critics say would effectively make it illegal to teach about homosexuality.
The legislation bans schools from teaching or directing students to study any material that is “sexually explicit,” which the bill defines as “masturbation, homosexuality, sexual intercourse or physical contact with a person’s clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks or if such person is female, breast.”
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An amendment was added to the bill by Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, that allowed for classical literature, early American literature and literature needed for college credit to still be allowed — but only with parental consent.
“We didn’t want it to get overly burdensome and exempt literature that is important,” Udall said, adding that they still wanted to give parents the ability to “opt out” of the literature with sexually explicit material.
Although Udall repeatedly described her amendment as a way for parents to opt their children out of “explicit” schoolwork, it actually requires parents to opt their children into the work — meaning it would be illegal to teach to all students by default.
The legislation would also seemingly ban all sex education in Arizona schools.
Critics of House Bill 2495 said they worry that the inclusion of homosexuality deems that any mention of the LGBT community — whether sexual or not — would be “explicit,” and thus illegal.
“This is about acts of homosexuality, not being a homosexual,” said Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, the bill’s sponsor.
For 18 years, Arizona law prohibited the teaching or discussion of homosexuality in the classroom until a 2019 bipartisan effort repealed the “No Promo Homo” law, which banned HIV/AIDS instruction in schools that “promotes a homosexual lifestyle.”
“There are four openly gay members of the Arizona legislature,” Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, said when explaining his no vote while visibly upset. “We are a minority of a minority.”
Comprehensive sex education
The bill appears to be a response to fears of comprehensive sex education that gripped Republican activists and lawmakers back in 2019.
In 2019, Rusty Bowers, the Republican speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, pointed to a book titled “It’s Perfectly Normal” when attacking comprehensive sex education. Other elected officials called for the banning of the book, as well.
The book is aimed at teaching children 10 and older about sexual health, emotional health and relationships. It contains sections on puberty, pregnancy and sexual orientation, as well as full-color illustrations of naked people.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Hoffman presented images from the book he said he had to clear with the Arizona Department of Public Safety and legislative attorneys before printing. One image was a cartoon of a man and woman having sex, while others were cartoons of a boy masturbating.
The images Hoffman presented are the same as those used by the SPLC designated anti-LGBTQ hate group Family Watch International and their affiliate, the Protect Arizona Children Coalition, to rally against comprehensive sex education.
Bowers spoke at a forum in 2019 that featured a video showing the same images Hoffman displayed.
The 1994 book has been a frequent target of bans for its depictions of puberty, sex and masturbation. When he criticized it in 2019, Bowers did not present proof that the book was in circulation at any Arizona schools.
The book is so often the subject of attacks that the book’s author sits on the board of the National Coalition Against Censorship.
And the Phoenix New Times reported in 2019 that there was no evidence the book was being used anywhere in the state.
Hoffman cited a National Institute for Health study claiming that exposure to sexually explicit material is dangerous for children and leads to adverse outcomes.
The Arizona Mirror attempted to find the research Hoffman was referencing but could not. The only longitudinal study on the NIH website mentioning adolescents and pornography stated that there was “no evidence that pornography use contributes to decreased subjective well-being in adolescent men.”
However, the study did conclude that in female adolescents it caused “dysregulated mood and self-evaluation.” The study also noted that many studies on the issue have diverging findings and that more research is needed.
Hoffman also claimed the American Bar Association agrees on the danger that sexually explicit content has on children. However, the Mirror could find only a guest opinion which “should not be construed as representing” the position of the association shared his opinion on the matter and discussed the issues of ease of acces to online pornography and not explicit content in schools.
A heated debate
Hoffman rejected claims by Hernandez and others that the bill’s inclusion of homosexuality would outlaw anything other than content portraying gay sex acts, and he refused to remove the word from the definition of “sexually explicit” content.
He also bristled when Hernandez pressed him on whose input he sought when crafting the legislation.
“I don’t subscribe, as a strawman argument, that we have to have a robust stakeholder input,” Hoffman snapped at Hernandez.
“We as legislators have the data and we should address it as it comes up,” Hoffman said, adding “there was no robust stakeholder meeting.”
Tension between Hernandez and Hoffman continued to escalate. When Hernandez asked Hoffman to define homosexuality, Hoffman refused to answer.
“I understand the point you are attempting to make to score political points,” Hoffman retorted.
“This is why we have stakeholder processes,” Hernandez told the committee. “We have people who are coming in and presenting bills who have not done that.”
School admins are also concerned
Jeanne Casteen, the executive director of the Arizona Secular Coalition and a former teacher, spoke about how the bill could impact works of literature that have been classics for years, such as “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” Casteen was also concerned about other implications the bill could have.
“We still face a teacher retention crisis the likes of which we have never seen before,” she said, adding that this could see more teachers and other educators deciding to flee. She also wondered if this bill would see the Bible being banned due to its more explicit verses.
Lobbyist Rebecca Beebe said the Arizona Association of School Administrators opposes the bill in part because it includes homosexuality as an “explicit” subject.
“We are not trying to hide things from parents or certainly not trying to show these things to children,” she said of explicit images and parents’ concerns that school administrators are nefariously trying to hide explicit content.
Beebe noted state law already prohibits schools from displaying sexual acts to children.
“In today’s committee, the homosexuality agenda is being pushed forward,” Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, said. “Members of that community want us to come out and celebrate it.”
“That agenda is being pushed forward, and the sex shouldn’t be in the schools at all,” he added.
During his explanation of his vote Hernandez shot back at his colleague’s comments.
“The LGBTQ agenda is simple: to be treated just like every other Arizonan,” Hernandez said.
The bill moved forward along partisan lines and will next head to the house.
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