Arizona's SB 1001 sparks debate over the use of pronouns in school settings: What you should know

Arizona State Senator John Kavanagh has introduced a bill that has sparked debates over the sometimes controversial issue over pronoun use in schools.

Kavanagh, a Republican, filed the legislation on Dec. 20, 2022, before the legislature reconvened on Jan. 9, 2023.

Here's what you should know about SB 1001.

What's in SB 1001?

The initially proposed bill, according to documents posted on the Arizona State Legislature's website, adds provisions related to the use of pronouns into Title 15, Chapter 5, Article 1 of Arizona's legal code, which is known as the Arizona Revised Statutes.

Title 15, Chapter 5, Article 1 of the Arizona Revised Statutes contains legal rules and regulations related to school employees.

Under the proposed law, a person classified as "an employee or independent contractor of a school district or charter school" cannot "knowingly address, identify or refer to a student who is under eighteen years of age by a pronoun that differs from the pronoun that aligns with the student's biological sex, unless the school district or charter school receives written permission from the student's parent."

The proposed bill also bans school districts or charter schools to require employees or independent contractors to "address, identify or refer to a person by a pronoun that differs from the pronoun that aligns with the person's biological sex, if doing so is contrary to the employee's or independent contractor's religious or moral convictions."

If approved, all school districts and charter schools would be required to adopt policies implementing the changes.

A proposed amendment to the bill, introduced by State. Sen. Ken Bennett, will also ban school employees or independent contractors from knowingly addressing, identifying, or referring to a student under 18 by a first name that is different from the first name or middle name listed on the student's officials School records, unless that name is "a nickname that is commonly associated with the student's name of record."

What exactly are pronouns?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, pronouns are defined as "any of a small set of words in a language that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases, and whose referents are named or understood in the context."

The definition listed I, she, he, you, it, we, and they as examples of pronouns.

In terms of issues related to the LGBT community, however, pronouns can have additional significance.

"Pronouns are part of someone’s gender expression, and people can have multiple sets of pronouns for themselves," read a portion of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee LGBTQ+ Resource Center website. "Pronouns are not ‘preferred’ but instead are required for respectful communication. Not only transgender or nonbinary communities use pronouns, as it is something we all use and have since we were little."

What is the current status of the bill?

The bill passed the State Senate Education Committee by a four-to-three vote on Jan. 18, following a hearing where both supporters and opponents of the bill spoke to lawmakers.

What did supporters and opponents say?

Supporters

State Sen. Kavanaugh says the bill is in the interest of students' and parents' wellbeing.

"For schools to keep parents knowingly in the blind is dangerous for the student, disrespectful for the parents, and my bill just says schools need to adopt policies that would require parental permission before this occurs," said State. Sen. Kavanaugh. "It also protects school employees who have a moral or religious objection to referring to a person by pronouns or names that don't align with [their] biological sex. They would not have to do it."

Some who attended the hearing appear to support what State Sen. Kavanaugh said.

"We, as parents, are very concerned about the schools not letting us know about the children in the school," said one person.

Opponents

Others had sharp criticism of the bill.

"This bill really introduces a problem, not because parental support isn't important, but having a little more freedom to express themselves can be really beneficial to the parent-child relationship," said a person at the hearing.

Bridget Sharpe, who is the Arizona State Director for the Human Rights Campaign, called the legislation damaging, especially for vulnerable students.

"There are a lot of kids out there who use different pronouns, who use gender-affirming pronouns, and it is important they feel protected and good and not singled out by legislations like this," said Sharpe.

Sharpe adds that there is already clear communication between schools and parents. She calls the legislation a response to a "made-up issue."

"This just adds another layer to a situation where there's not a lot of understanding around pronouns," said Sharpe.

Is the bill close to becoming the law?

The bill still needs to be approved by the legislature, as well as signed by Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs, before it becomes law.

Why is the use of pronouns such a controversial matter?

According to a June 2022 article by the Los Angeles area public media station KQED, there is a lot of resistance to using gender-neutral pronouns among Americans. Some denounce the use of "they/them" pronouns to describe individuals as "poor grammar."

Meanwhile, an article published in 2021 by the Boston Globe states that some parents and conservative Christian organizations believe schools are promoting the idea of being transgender, and that schools are usurping parental rights by calling students what they want at school, and not notifying parents when students do not want families to know.

"Opponents see pronoun forms and other accommodations for LGBTQ students as an improper "normalization" of transgender and nonbinary youth," a portion of the article reads.

What do Americans think about the issue with pronouns?

The controversy surrounding pronouns can be seen in a number of surveys done in recent years.

According to survey conducted in May 2022 by the Pew Research Center, about 1.6% of U.S. adults are either transgender or non-binary, and the share of transgender or non-binary adults in the U.S. is noted to be particularly high among adults younger than 25, with the same survey showing about 5.1% of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29 identifying either as a transgender man, a transgender woman, or as non-binary.

However, another survey done at around the same time by the Pew Research Center also shows Americans have complex views on gender identity and transgender issues.

Data from that survey shows 64% of respondents either favor or strongly favor policies that will protect transgender people from discrimination in jobs, housing, and public spaces. It also shows that 60% of respondents say they believe whether a person is a man or a woman is determined by sex assigned at birth, marking an increase of 6% from September 2017.

As far as views on laws, Pew's survey data shows Americans have widely different views over laws and policies with regard to transgender issues. The data shows:

  • 69% of respondents who are either Republican or leans Republican say they would "strongly favor or favor" laws that make it illegal for public schools to teach about gender identity in elementary schools (18% for those who are either Democrat or leans Democratic)
  • 67% of respondents who are either Republican or leans Republican say they would "strongly favor or favor" laws require transgender individuals to use public bathrooms that match the sex they were assigned at birth. (20% for those who are either Democrat or leans Democratic)

The same survey also shows 45% of respondents, regardless of political leanings, either say their elementary school children have learned about people who are transgender or non-binary at school and see this is a bad thing, or say their children have not learned about it, and see it as a good thing.

That figure, however, drops to 34% for respondents with children in middle school or high school.

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