NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A bill passed Friday by the Tennessee Senate would forbid public school teachers and students in grades kindergarten through eight from discussing the fact that some people are gay.
The measure has prompted student protests and even a humorous suggestion for foiling it from former "Star Trek" actor George Takei.
Opponents deride the measure as the "don't say gay bill." They say it's unfair to the children of gay parents and could lead to more bullying. Supporters say it is intended to give teachers clear guidance for dealing with younger children on a potentially explosive topic.
In Nashville, student groups have been protesting the bill for weeks.
"I've said it multiple times: This is the civil rights movement of our time," said Brandon Holt, a high school senior, NBC station WSMV of Nashville reported, "and if we don't take advantage of our opportunity to stand up for what we believe in then we have lost that opportunity and this is something that we all feel so strongly about."
The bill only applies to elementary and middle schools and the language was changed somewhat shortly before being passed in a 19-11 vote, but the sponsor says the intent is the same.
"There's more than one way to skin a cat," Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville said after the vote. "I got what I wanted."
The original version said no elementary or middle schools could "provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality."
Under the proposal, any instruction or materials at a public elementary or middle school would be limited to age-appropriate lessons about the science of human reproduction.
Campfield said the language is appropriate because "homosexuals don't naturally reproduce," and he said it's necessary because the state's curriculum is unclear on what can be taught.
However, a critic said the new wording could create other problems.
Sen. Roy Herron, D- Dresden, said it "may inadvertently prevent the teaching of ethics, morality and abstinence."
The bill isn't likely to be taken up by the House before lawmakers adjourn this spring, but the sponsor there has said he would push it forward in 2012 when the General Assembly comes back for the second year of the session.
Passage would make Tennessee the first state to enact such legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2003, Washington defeated a proposal similar to Tennessee's, as did California in 2005 and 2006. A Louisiana law forbids the use of sexually explicit materials depicting homosexuality in sex education classes.
Meanwhile, Takei has come up with a proposal for the "Don't Say Gay" bill: "Any time you need to say the word, 'gay,' you can simply say, 'Takei.'"
KNBC of Los Angeles said Takei offered some examples in a YouTube video posted Thursday.
"You could safely proclaim you support Takei marriage. If you're in a more festive mood, you can march in a Takei Pride Parade. Even homophobic slurs don't seem as hurtful if you say, 'That's sooo Takei.'"
The suggestions go on, but Takei wraps with a few pitches for "It's OK to be Takei" merchandise.
Takei, aka Sulu from "Star Trek," has a record of activism. He also rallied against California's Prop 8, which defines marriage as between only a man and woman. He married his longtime partner in 2008.
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