In schools and counseling offices, the possibility that Tennessee educators could be banned from discussing homosexuality with K-8 students is bearing down, experts say, like no other state anti-gay legislation has.
"If it becomes taboo or illegal to even talk about homosexuality in the classroom or even in the halls, it creates a situation where a kid who may be gay will not have anyplace to go," said Jonathan Cole, chairman of the Tennessee Equality Project.
If teachers and school counselors can't intervene, who will stop the bullying, he asks.
Tennessee's state Senate takes up the bill tonight. If it passes, Tennessee's two-year legislative cycle means it would only have to pass the House next year.
The bill would make it illegal for school employees in elementary and middle schools to teach about or discuss homosexuality. Currently, the state's family-life curriculum teaches only heterosexual lifestyles.
Bill opponents spent the weekend fighting in online campaigns organized by the equality project and Change.org.
"This bill is attracting more attention here in Tennessee and nationally than just about any anti-gay bill I know from Tennessee. And there are several," Cole said.
In Nashville, McGavock High School students last week presented Senate leaders with 1,000 signatures against the bill.
Bob Loos, president of Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Issues in Counseling in Tennessee, says LGBT children as young as 5 or 6 "have some inkling they are different."
"When a child is feeling they are different, and there is a name put to it that is not talked about and legitimized by law, they perceive themselves as less-than, unloved and unwanted," Loos said. "If they don't have a way to express those feelings, out of fear of being abused, it increases the anxiety."
A Columbia University study showed LGBT teenagers were five times as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers. It found that those who live in supportive environments are 25 percent less likely to attempt suicide.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville.
"The only people who are really against it have a goal of pushing this agenda on very young children," he told a Nashville TV station. "It is not controversial to let families talk about this themselves."
Memphis City Schools officials declined comment. While the city schools teachers union has not taken an official stand, the union is "against censoring topics that can be openly and intelligently handled by professional people," said president Keith Williams. "Any misnomers children may have, if they don't get help in the classroom, where will they get it?"
Harold Wingood, head of Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, said the bill would create an environment indifferent to student needs.
"To help students reach their potential, we have to care for the whole child," he said. "Students come to our student services staff with a wide range of issues. It is our job to be prepared for whatever comes our way and to support the student and his or her family."
(Contact Jane Roberts of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., at email@example.com.