Just hours after 19 children were killed in a mass shooting at a Texas elementary school, North Carolina lawmakers held a news conference to propose a bill they said would help protect our state’s K-12 students.

Would the bill protect them from gun violence? Of course not. It would “protect” them from learning about gender and sexuality.

Similar to the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills that have been passed in other states, North Carolina’s proposed bill prohibits gender identity and sexual orientation from being taught in K-3 classrooms, allows parents to object against the use of certain textbooks and resources, and forces schools to out LGBTQ students if parents request information about “what’s happening with their children.”

Democratic Governor Roy Cooper will likely veto the bill if it passes in the legislature, but it could be used to appeal to voters ahead of the November midterm elections if Republican candidates fold its contents into their rhetoric.

At the press conference, Republican state senators Phil Berger, Deanna Ballard, and Michael V. Lee each described the bill as a way to increase “transparency and trust” between schools and parents and ensure that children are receiving “age appropriate instruction.”

“During the pandemic, parents were able to get an up close look at what their children were being taught,” Berger said. “It opened their eyes in a lot of ways.”

In response to a request for specifics on what the bill will require schools to disclose—if a student changes their pronouns, for example, will their parents be notified?—Berger implied that being a member of the LGBTQ community is a mental health issue.

“Parents have a right to know what’s happening in schools, in connection with their children, in terms of instruction, in terms of health issues, in terms of mental health issues,” Berger said. 

One reporter asked if senators were concerned that the bill could put LGBTQ students at risk of being punished by, or cut off from, family members who aren’t accepting of their child’s sexual or gender orientation. Berger dismissed the question, reiterating that parents have a “right to know” and for some reason added that “we’re talking about modern children.”

In regard to the bill’s ban on discussing LGBTQ topics in K-3 classrooms, one reporter asked whether teachers would face consequences if the subject matter arose organically.

“[If a student says], ‘My two moms said this yesterday,’ can a classroom discussion continue?” the reporter asked. “If the teacher is gay, and a student asks about their family situation in some manner, can that be discussed?”

Berger said that the bill isn’t currently drafted to prohibit these kinds of conversations; for now, it only applies to the formal curriculum. But if a parent is curious about the questions that their child is raising, they’ll be able to find out.

“If my child asked a question about something like that, I think I would want to know about it,” Berger said to the reporter. “And I think it would be incumbent upon the school to notify a parent that those are the kinds of inquiries that that a child is engaging in.”

Berger added that if a parent feels that their request for information has been ignored or insufficiently addressed, they can file an appeal through the school system or take legal action. 

One reporter called attention to the timing of the bill, noting that schoolchildren had just been slaughtered in Texas and highlighting the need for legislation that improves safety in schools.

“What’s behind the decision to move it now?” the reporter asked. 

The subtext: Is this seriously what we’re talking about right now?

Berger seemed offended by the question, saying that the proposed bill “has nothing to do with what happened in Texas” and that it was “interesting that somebody would even try to connect the two things.”

“This is an issue that parents all across the state have been concerned about,” he said. “They’re showing up at school board meetings, they’re talking to their legislators, they are worried about things that they have seen, and things that are happening in the public schools. This is an effort by legislators to try to address those issues. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Shortly before the conference, local LGBTQ advocacy group Equality NC posted a series of tweets that condemned the proposed bill and asked state residents to call legislators with their concerns.

“Students feel more comfortable when there is a forum to understand inequality. Curriculum is that forum for dismantling inequality in our schools and communities,” Equality NC wrote in a tweet. “We can’t allow Republicans to target our marginalized students for life-long trauma.”

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to lgeller@indyweek.com.