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Michelle Rhee's Education Reform Group Slammed for Honoring 'Don't Say Gay' Lawmaker

Author of Tennessee law forbidding discussion of LGBT issuesl honored as 'Education Reformer of the Year'

Educational lobbying organization StudentsFirst named Tennessee State Rep. John Ragan, the co-sponsor of Tennessee's infamous "Don't Say Gay" bill, as "education reformer of the year." The organization also called him a "leading advocate for change."

StudentsFirst is a high profile and controversial educational lobbying organization. Its founder, Michelle Rhee, was formerly the chancellor of the Washington DC school district and has made a big name for herself in the media for her efforts to change the way the educational system works. Most of Rhee and StudentsFirst's efforts have gone to expanding charter schools, removing tenure for teachers, and weakening unions, all in the name of putting students first.

When initially introduced, Ragan's bill would have forbidden teachers and school staff to talk about human sexuality in any way, outside of describing reproductive function. Teachers would not be allowed to acknowledge that LGBT people, including their own students, exist. When the bill died in 2012, sponsors threatened to bring it back up, which they did in January. Only this time, the bill had evolved to require that teachers report LGBT students to their parents, as well as send them to a psychologist. The "Don't Say Gay" bill turned into a "Mandated Outing" bill, telling parents that their child was gay, even against the protests of the child.

Ragan's bill is based on the idea that LGBT students have a psychological disorder (which hasn't been the case since 1972), and must be reported to parents who may or may not accept their child. We know that 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT, many of whom have been kicked out of their homes by parents who wouldn't accept an LGBT child. The bill would no doubt penalize hundreds of LGBT students, and potentially create more homeless youth.

StudentsFirst claims that they didn't know that Ragan was behind such egregious anti-LGBT legislation when they honored him as "educational reformer of the year." In a statement, they distanced themselves from the legislation that would have caused harassment of LGBT students, not only by fellow students, but by teachers as well. However, they have not revoked their honor from Ragan.

While StudentsFirst did make an "It Gets Better" video, they have done little to advocate for policies that protect LGBT students. And by throwing their support toward a lawmaker with such egregious anti-LGBT positions, StudentsFirst has sent the message that LGBT students are certainly not first in their advocacy efforts.

StudentsFirst has been completely silent on the Student Non-Discrimination Act, or even Tennessee's Dignity for All Students Act, both of which would create safe school environments for LGBT (and other) youth, allowing them to focus on learning instead of on safety. StudentsFirst could also be a champion for Spirit Day in October, when millions go purple to oppose bullying and stand in solidarity with LGBT youth. 

If Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst really want to put students first, they cannot laud the praises of a lawmaker who routinely targets LGBT students for abuse by classmates and teachers. GLAAD calls on StudentsFirst and its founder, Michelle Rhee to rescind their "education reformer of the year" award from Rep. Ragan. Furthermore, StudentsFirst needs to advocate for education policy that actually protects LGBT students in schools, which is sorely missing in Tennessee.

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Ross Murray

Ross Murray is director of news and faith initiatives at GLAAD

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