The House chamber erupted in an emotional debate on Thursday as Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore and Harford) introduced an amendment to an anti-discrimination bill that would have prohibited public school staff from discussing sexuality and gender.
“It’s pretty simple, it just says that our public schools shouldn’t teach kids [aged] four, five, six and seven about sex and gender identity,” Szeliga said.
The bill, House Bill 850, would prohibit public and private schools from refusing enrollment, expelling or discriminating against a student or their guardians based on their race, ethnicity, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
The legislation would also ban school administrators from retaliating against families who file discrimination complaints and would set up complaint, mediation and appeal procedures.
Under the bill, sponsored by Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery) and Del. Nick Charles (D-Prince George’s), schools that violate the nondiscrimination requirements would be subject to having their funding withheld.
Szeliga called her amendment “a really scaled-down, small version of what nine other states have passed.” The eight-line amendment would have specifically limited classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity to students in prekindergarten through 3rd grade “in a manner that is not age-appropriate.”
“Parents want schools to focus on learning basic skills — not promoting someone’s agenda,” Szeliga said.
House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) likened it to the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ legislation that was recently passed in Florida. The language in Szeliga’s amendment closely mimics a provision in the Florida law.
The majority leader said he was confused about how anyone could make an argument in favor of Szeliga’s amendment when they have gay and lesbian colleagues who are parents.
“This amendment does not say that and does not do that, Mr. Majority Leader,” Szeliga asserted. “You are making this D.C. politics — not us.”
Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery), thanked Luedtke for standing against the amendment.
“…I am gay gay gay, and so is my wife,” she said.
Kaiser said that having gay parents is normal and teachers should feel free to help their young students, like her daughter, explain that to their classmates.
“When Father’s Day comes and in the schools, they start writing cards, my daughter has to say, ‘I have two mamas, I don’t have a father,’” she said. “And other kids are gonna say, ‘What? How can that be?’”
“I’m gonna say it one more time: I am gay, I am gay, I’m gay and I’m alright,” Kaiser proclaimed.
Del. Matthew Morgan (R-St. Mary’s), who was in favor of the amendment, asked Szeliga if the amendment said “gay,” or mentions “LGBTQ or … transgender.”
She said no.
Morgan asked the same of Del. Eric D. Ebersole (D-Howard and Baltimore County), who was leading the debate on the bill.
“The word ‘gay’ doesn’t appear but the word ‘sexual orientation’ — that phrase does,” he responded.
Morgan then asked if sex education curriculum is taught at age-appropriate levels. Ebersole said yes.
“So why wouldn’t this [amendment] be appropriate, then?” Morgan asked.
The delegates’ voices grew louder and they began to speak over each other.
Ebersole replied that curriculum is not the subject of the bill, so the amendment was inappropriate. Morgan, not satisfied with Ebersole’s answer, kept pressing the question.
“Madam Speaker, can we get a floor leader to answer the question whether this is a good idea?” Morgan asked. “Because I don’t see why we should be teaching other people’s children … sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Luedtke rose from his seat.
“Because it’s a strawman argument,” he said. “It’s a strawman argument — it’s a falsehood to say that schools are, like, proactively engaging in whatever it is you think they’re doing.”
Luedtke argued that the language of the amendment would lead teachers to think that they can’t address questions regarding orientation and identity at all.
“A number of us on this floor have spent our careers in classrooms, and what will happen if this passes is that classroom teachers will get the message that you are not allowed to talk about this,” he said.
Szeliga’s amendment failed on a vote of 95-37.
In explaining her vote, Szeliga said she was upset that the intent of her amendment had been “impugned.”
“Of course, teachers can talk about the many different types of families,” Szeliga said. “What this is going to do is say that ‘Drag Queen Story Hour’ is not going to happen in the public schools.”
The anti-discrimination bill could come up for a final vote in the chamber on Friday.
In an interview after the vote, Szeliga said Democrats were wrong to suggest that her amendment was a carbon copy of the policy pushed by Florida Republicans.
“That was not the Florida bill,” she said. “The Florida bill was much more comprehensive. It’s like eight pages long. … My amendment was much more simple, saying ‘age-appropriate.'”
Kaiser acknowledged that Szeliga’s amendment wasn’t a cut-and-paste of the entire Florida proposal, but she said it was “don’t say gay light.”
“It’s the theme that’s going across the country,” the Democrat said. “It erases us because she’s suggesting that [LGBTQ issues] can’t be talked about.”
Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to correctly identify Del. Eric D. Ebersole as the floor leader on House Bill 850.