As ‘parental rights’ bill debate rages, LGBTQ+ advocates feel left out of the process
Gov. Chris Sununu said he would veto the proposed “parental bill of rights” legislation should it reach his desk. (Courtesy)
Linds Jakows lived through high school in two realities. At their school in Arizona, they were out and queer, with friends and teachers who accepted that. At home, Jakows kept that information hidden.
To Jakows, the consequence of telling their father was clear: He would reject that identity and potentially seek punishment.
So Jakows planned to wait. They would tell their father the truth about their identity, but not for several years, until they were financially independent.
Jakows’ father found out anyway. He rooted through their computer, using software to break into their personal accounts on LiveJournal and MySpace, discovering personal information. He insisted that Jakows abandon their identity. And during senior year, he forced Jakows to apply only to religious colleges – the ones that wouldn’t accept their identity either.
“It was a huge invasion of my privacy, and I felt like I was not at all in control of what was going to happen,” Jakows said in an interview. “I thought that there was a time that conversion therapy might be on the table as a consequence.”
Years later, Jakows lives in New Hampshire, working as an advocate for LGBTQ+ residents. But they still appreciate the debate club teacher who accepted them, and the support the school provided.
“It was really simply affirmation,” they said. “It just was a space that I overwhelmingly felt that I could unapologetically be every part of myself.”
As the Legislature debates a bill to require New Hampshire schools to inform parents any time their child seeks advice about their gender identity, LGBTQ+ residents and advocates argue the bill’s sponsors are ignoring their experiences, even when passage of the bill would affect their lives the most.
“My public high school was my one refuge, and if school had stopped being a safe space for me I know I would have fallen into an even deeper depression,” Jakows said in a virtual press conference against the bill last week. “Yes, parents do have rights, but kids have rights too, including the right to decide when and how to come out to their parents.”
On Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu vowed to veto the bill over concerns about the consequences for children, putting the bill’s prospects in serious doubt. But LGBTQ+ advocates still feel sidelined by the process. The amendment requiring schools to inform parents about gender identity developments was not added to the bill until after the bill’s hearings were concluded, giving LGBTQ+ advocates little public platform or time to voice concerns.
Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican, has taken umbrage with those concerns, arguing that advocates should not have mobilized against the bill so late.
“At this point, I find it really offensive that we have been bombarded with emails about how we’re going to destroy these kids,” she said at a committee of conference meeting Tuesday. “This is not the way to have a conversation.”
Chris Erchull, a staff attorney at GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), said the criticism is misplaced.
“Senator Carson kept repeating over and over again that the LGBTQ advocacy groups weren’t there at the table beforehand,” he said. “And the reason is these amendments came after any opportunity for meaningful public input.”
In presenting the amendment, Republican supporters have called it a means to allow parents to stay in the loop about their child’s life, and to be privy to and supportive of life-changing decisions.
“We want to know what’s going on with our kids. I trust in the parents in New Hampshire,” said Sen. Bill Gannon, a Sandown Republican who has championed the bill through a turbulent process that saw the bill fall apart Tuesday and be resurrected Thursday.
LGBTQ+ advocates counter that parents are not always understanding or supportive. And they say even within accepting families, children still need time and planning to break that major news.
“Even in situations where parents are totally supportive and affirming of LGBTQ children, it’s really totally inappropriate for school officials to take on the role of outing students to their families,” Erchull said. “Coming out is an intimate moment in a family, and when school is getting involved, it becomes a clumsy, orchestrated event that happens at the wrong time.”
In New Hampshire, 78 percent of LGBTQ+ identifying students have heard negative remarks about gender expression, and 63 percent have been verbally harassed over it, according to a 2019 National School Climate Survey by GLSEN, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization.
A 2022 national survey by the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, found that 45 percent of LGBTQ+ respondents had “seriously considered” attempting suicide in the past year.
Amid those risks, school counselors can feel caught in the middle of difficult dynamics when students come out to them confidentially. As an attorney in New England, Erchull says he regularly receives queries from school counselors who aren’t sure whether they are legally obligated to tell parents what they heard.
The answer in most cases is no, Erchull said, unless the student is at risk of harming themselves or is being harmed by other students as a result of their identity.
Informing parents without a student’s consent can have real consequences, Erchull added.
“We hear countless stories about young people who are forced out of their homes, who experience violence at the hands of their families, who are forced into conversion therapy, or who contemplate or attempt self harm out of fear that their families will learn about their sexual orientation or gender identity,” he said.
Elle Gallo is a parent who did accept her trans daughter. Gallo’s daughter came out at 16, knowing that her family would welcome her. But Gallo said she would have been happy if her daughter had found an adult to talk with at school first.
“We were an affirming household; there was no question about that,” Gallo said. “But even still, there was a hesitancy, or reluctance let’s say, and a fear about speaking it out loud.”
Gallo has seen other LGBTQ+ children receive less parental support.
“There’s a fundamental difference of opinion as to the validity of the existence of transgender people,” she said. “I think a lot of parents question whether it’s a phase.”
After vowing to veto the bill Thursday, Sununu received emphatic criticism from social conservatives. Many propagated fears that school staff would encourage or influence their children to express a different identity, and argued that information on that behavior should be shared at all times.
Gallo, for her part, sees school staff as allies.
“We’re on the same team,” she said. “Because this is about my kid. And this is about the kid that these teachers really love and care about too. But if it came down to it, and my daughter had something that she wasn’t prepared to speak with me about, I am so grateful that she has other wonderful adults in her life that she can go to.”
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