HELENA, Mont. (AP) - More than two dozen Republican Montana lawmakers are co-sponsoring a bill that would allow students to misgender and dead-name their transgender peers without punishment, a move that some argue would further the bullying of kids already struggling for acceptance.
The proposal would declare that it's not discrimination to use a classmate's legal name or refer to them by their birth gender and would prevent schools from adopting policies to punish students for actions that aren't discriminatory.
Opponents of the bill said students are not being disciplined for the accidental use of a wrong pronoun or a student's former name, but refusing to acknowledge a transgender student's preferred name and pronouns amounts to bullying that schools should address.
"I think that the problem with the bill is that it takes away the ability of schools and teachers and administrators to intervene when something becomes cruel, before it becomes physical," said SK Rossi, testifying on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign.
It's not believed that any other states are considering similar legislation, said Olivia Hunt, the policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equity.
"In our experience, this would make Montana unique in enshrining the right to be bigoted toward or the right to bully trans children in the state code," she said.
The Montana proposal would not apply to teachers, but some states are considering bills that would protect teachers' rights to refer to students by their birth names and gender.
The bill comes as conservative legislatures around the country, including Montana, are considering bills to ban gender affirming medical care for minors. The Montana Senate on Wednesday passed a bill to ban gender affirming medical and surgical treatment for minors, sending it to the House.
The main sponsor of the school discrimination bill, Rep. Brandon Ler, began his presentation Wednesday by noting that his children, who live on a farm and ranch, "have learned from a very young age that cows are cows and bulls are bulls" and that such facts are not up for interpretation.
"Children should not be forced to call somebody something they're not," Ler said.
Montana Pride President Kevin Hamm argued we should "trust that each of us know ourselves best and we can inform others as to the correct pronouns and gendered expressions to be used when referencing us."
People representing educational organizations, pediatricians, parents of transgender children and school students testified against the bill, all emphasizing that it would lead to unchallenged bullying and harassment in schools and lead to anxiety and depression among transgender students.
Max Finn, a transgender middle schooler from Missoula, said he faces backlash from fellow students, including having crude remarks made about him and being tripped in the hallway, even though his teachers try to stop it from happening.
"If my teachers can't or won't intervene, it gets much worse," Finn said.
Layla Riggs told lawmakers about defending friends who were being bullied at school because they are transgender or gender nonconforming, and that someone once threw rocks at her and a nonbinary friend after school.
"School is supposed to be a place where you are accepted and a place where your safety is supposed to be one of the top priorities," Riggs testified. "With the passage of this bill, even the illusion of safety for transgender and nonbinary students would be gone."
A survey by The Trevor Project in 2022 found that 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous year, but that LGBTQ youth who were supported socially or at school reported lower rates of attempting suicide.
Emily Dean, the director of advocacy for the Montana School Boards Association, said she was unaware of any students who had been punished by schools for bullying a fellow student by misgendering or dead-naming them.
Richard Schade told lawmakers his 9-year-old nonbinary stepchild is bullied at school on a near daily basis with little to no intervention from school administrators.
"This demonstrates that the stated purpose of (the bill) is to address a problem that doesn't exist, and that the real intent is to send a message to trans kids that they deserve to be bullied because of who they are," he said.
During his testimony, Hamm intentionally misgendered the lone supporter and a male lawmaker, who had earlier sought to block opposition arguments that the bill would lead to bullying. Hamm said he wanted to hear "her" reasoning on that.
"Does she feel that misgendering isn't a bullying tactic?" Hamm asked.
At that point, Rep. Amy Regier, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, interrupted, saying: "Please don't attack other testimony."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Hamm responded. "Is it a bullying and an attack? So you do understand what this bill will do. Thank you for proving my point. Don't enshrine a tool for bullying into the law."
The committee did not vote on the bill.