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As N.H. parental rights bill advances, opponents warn of ‘Orwellian’ impacts for transgender kids

Critics contend the proposal would single out LGBTQ students for unnecessary and harmful surveillance and reporting

Opponents of Senate Bill 272, a parental bill of rights measure that has alarmed advocates for LGBTQ young people, rally outside the State House in Concord, N.H., on Tuesday, April 18, 2023, to denounce the bill.Steven Porter

CONCORD, N.H. — Supporters and opponents of a parental rights bill squared off Tuesday with dueling rallies outside the State House. While one group flew rainbow flags and called for protecting LGBTQ youth, the other touted a “pro-parent” message pushing back against secrecy and gender-affirming care.

Their competing messages reflect a political flashpoint and partisan divide over whether and how public schools should honor the privacy of transgender youth, a topic that has captured the attention of Republican lawmakers in dozens of states.

Email blasts from both major political parties in New Hampshire urged people to attend Tuesday’s rallies and testify in the legislative hearing that followed. The GOP called for people to speak in support of Senate Bill 272, while the Democratic Party called for people to speak against the measure.

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The bill, which cleared the Senate with a party-line vote in March and is now pending in the House, reaffirms the idea that parents have a right and responsibility “to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their minor children.” And it lists many education-related rights that parents already have under existing laws, including the right to review instructional material and opt out of any lesson deemed objectionable.

But the crux of the controversy relates to the fact that SB 272 would require schools to answer “truthfully and completely” whenever parents ask about their child’s gender expression, including any nicknames, pronouns, or other “intervention” being used at school to affirm or accommodate the child’s gender identity. The measure would also require schools to disclose information about any extracurricular activities, clubs, or organizations with which the child is involved.

Those provisions prompted alarm from mental health and LGBTQ rights advocates, who warned that forcing teachers to out transgender students can put an especially vulnerable group of young people at further risk.

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Supporters of Senate Bill 272 rallied at the New Hampshire State House in Concord on Tuesday, April 18, 2023, before a legislative committee hearing on the parental rights bill.Steven Porter

Speaking to the rallygoers who oppose SB 272, attorney Chris Erchull with GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders said he’s angry that lawmakers continue to press forward with such a “malicious, Orwellian, and unconstitutional” piece of legislation.

“It’s intended to single out transgender adolescents in public schools for special surveillance, recordkeeping, and reporting,” he said.

While opponents of SB 272 heard from transgender people and their parents, proponents of the bill gathered a few hundred feet away to hear from lawmakers and parents upset about school district policies that direct teachers to withhold information about a student’s gender identity unless the student has consented to its release.

House Speaker Sherm Packard, a Republican, told the crowd that SB 272 must become law to ensure that New Hampshire children are raised by their parents, not the state.

“The school system is supposed to teach our children how to read, mathematics, and all the other subjects that go along with what I was taught when I was a child,” he said. “They’re not supposed to indoctrinate them into some kind of socialist, communist society.”

The rally in support of the bill included speeches from two young women who spoke about regretting their decision to undergo gender-affirming care in their youth. They were introduced at the rally by Shannon McGinley, executive director of the conservative Christian advocacy group Cornerstone.

“My scars will never heal,” said 27-year-old Katie Lennon of Lowell, Massachusetts. “I will never have children. My face is permanently masculinized, and I have to shave my beard every morning. This is where social transition leads, and the schools are hiding it.”

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A majority of transgender adults report that transitioning has led to higher levels of satisfaction with their lives, though their definitions of what it means to transition vary, according to polling by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation.

Supporters of Senate Bill 272 rallied at the New Hampshire State House in Concord on Tuesday, April 18, 2023, before a legislative committee hearing on the parental rights bill.Steven Porter

The bill’s lead sponsor, Senator Sharon Carson, said it’s wrong for schools to deceive parents, though this bill includes a layer of protection that allows schools to justify withholding information from parents in certain limited circumstances.

To lawfully withhold information from a parent under SB 272, school personnel would have to prepare a written report that explains the factual basis for “a compelling state interest” to infringe parental rights. Any parent who claims the law has been violated would be allowed to file a lawsuit against the school or school personnel. If a parent wins their case, then the court would award reasonable attorney fees and court costs, according to the bill.

Representative Alicia Gregg, a Democrat from Nashua, testified Tuesday that this bill would fail to protect kids from domestic abuse. Speaking from personal experience, she said abuse isn’t always evident to those outside the home, and lawmakers should remember that domestic violence “is not rare.”

Representative Jared Sullivan, a Democrat from Bethlehem, testified that lawmakers should also consider the potential emotional harms that could befall students who are outed prematurely. Sullivan said it took him years to come to terms with his identity as a bisexual man.

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“There were times,” he said, “when I was truly debating killing myself. … It wasn’t a constant thing that I was struggling with, but there were moments that I definitely felt that way.”

Sullivan said he would have been harmed if a teacher had been forced to tell his parents about his sexual orientation.

Hundreds attended Tuesday’s hearing before the House Education Committee. After the committee makes its recommendation, the proposal will head to the full House, which narrowly tabled its own version of a parental rights bill last month.

New Hampshire GOP Chairman Chris Ager told rally attendees Tuesday that Governor Chris Sununu has indicated he’ll sign SB 272 into law. Spokespeople for Sununu did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment about the governor’s plans.



Steven Porter can be reached at steven.porter@globe.com. Follow him @reporterporter.