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Utah Repeals ‘No Promo Homo’ Law

Legislature’s Vote Sets Example for Other US States

In a major victory for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, Utah has repealed its “no promo homo” law restricting discussions of homosexuality in schools.

On Monday, Governor Gary Herbert signed SB 196, revising a state law provision that prohibited the “advocacy of homosexuality” in schools. The provision did not specify what “advocacy of homosexuality” entailed, and it was broadly applied in many schools to silence virtually any discussion of LGBT topics.

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NARRATION / TEXT ON SCREEN “No promo homo” laws are on the books in eight US states. These laws restrict how teachers can talk about LGBT issues in the classroom. Arizona forbids portraying homosexuality as a “positive alternative life-style” and bans teaching “safe methods of homosexual sex.” In South Carolina, instruction “may not include a discussion of alternate sexual lifestyles” except “concerning sexually transmitted diseases.” Alabama schools must teach that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public.” Utah’s law prohibits “the advocacy of homosexuality” in schools. It’s also the first state where a “no promo homo” law is being challenged in court. We spoke to teachers, students, and parents there. Bonnie Owens After School Program Coordinator Many teachers, because the law is vague, understand it as a gag rule, meaning they can't say anything about homosexuality at all. And what that means is that a lot of teachers aren't actually fulfilling their responsibility to keep children safe, because they don’t think that they can intervene in anti-gay behavior. Joshua Greer High School Student “No promo homo” does affect how they deal with bullying in the classroom or even in the hallways. Just because they think that they can't even talk about it in school. Last year it was like pretty much every day. It was like, “You’re such a queer, you’re such a fag.” I got pushed into walls and called a gay or a fag. Rose Greer Joshua’s Mom They can't be safe because they have very few people to talk to and until we get rid of laws like “no promo homo,” they're not safe. Kimberlee Irvine Teacher The biggest bullying issues are centered around LGBTQ issues and right now we don’t have the tools or the ability or the freedom to be able to have the discussions that we need to have. These laws keep kids from learning the basics of sexuality and safe sex in health class. Bea Giauque High School Student When I went into 10th grade Health, with the knowledge of "I'm bisexual," the entire thing was "Hey, men and women go together. Girls and boys are going to have sex. That's how it is." Troy Williams Executive Director Equality Utah The “no promo homo” law originally was designed to only apply to health and sex ed class. But we're seeing the effects of “no promo homo” in history classes, in English classes, et cetera. For an assignment on family history, Josh tried to do a presentation about his uncle, who’s gay. But his teacher wouldn't allow it. Joshua Greer High School Student She was just saying like, "We can't talk about that. Gay is not something that we can actually talk about.” So it was kind of hard for me because that's my family and I'm gay. If I can't talk about my family members, then how am I supposed to feel? Bea Giauque High School Student It's absolutely ridiculous that I can't talk about my own sexuality. I can't talk about who I am as a person without feeling like I'm going against the law. And every time I tried to bring it up with a teacher, they also brushed by it and said, "Sorry, we can't help you here. Go to the internet." “No promo homo” laws are discriminatory and harm kids. They should be repealed. Rose Greer Joshua’s Mom There are kids who want to fall in love, who want to date, who want to go to prom, who want to be just as anybody else is in the school system. There's nothing wrong with being gay, and when we don't talk about it in the school system we create a perception that there is something wrong with it. Kimberlee Irvine Teacher If the “no promo homo” law were repealed, it would send a powerful message to our students. It would send the message to these students that they are valued, that their voice is being heard. That we care about them and that they have a place in our classroom.

In 2015, I traveled across Utah to interview students, parents, teachers, and administrators about the effects of the no promo homo law, as it was known. They described how the law discouraged school personnel from intervening to stop bullying and harassment, deterred teachers from providing basic information, and limited students’ ability to form and organize LGBT groups. Their stories, which are recounted in Human Rights Watch’s recent video about no promo homo laws and report on LGBT issues in US schools, powerfully underscore why repealing these restrictions and providing accurate information about LGBT issues is vital.
The legislative action was in response to a lawsuit brought last fall by the organization Equality Utah and three students against the state board of education and individual school districts, alleging the law was discriminatory and restricted free speech. In February, lawmakers introduced a bill to repeal the no promo homo provision, contending that legislators should address these problems rather than waiting for the courts to resolve them.

Support for the measure was broad: Utah’s House voted 68-1 and the Senate voted 27-1 in favor of repeal, and the governor signed it. Prominent conservative figures also supported the repeal, noting that the revised law continues to promote abstinence outside of marriage in sex education classes.

Utah has recognized that no promo homo laws are discriminatory and harmful, and demonstrated that their repeal is possible. For the sake of their LGBT youth, lawmakers in states with similar restrictions – Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas – should now follow suit. 

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