Arizona Rep. Lorena Austin Shares Personal Insight on the Harm a Pronouns Bill Would Cause

(Screenshot from Arizona Capitol Television Live)

By Alyssa Bickle

April 28, 2023

SB 1001 is one of a suite of pieces of discriminatory legislation from the Arizona Republican party aimed at LGBTQ communities.

In a contentious debate over a proposed law that would regulate the use of preferred pronouns in schools, Arizona House member Lorena Austin opened up about their lived experience as a queer person, and the potential discrimination students would face if the bill were to become law. 

Although likely facing a veto from Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, Senate Bill 1001 would prohibit any school employee from referring to a student under 18 with a pronoun that does not match their biological sex–unless they have permission from a parent. 

When the bill was presented by its sponsor, Republican Sen. John Kavanagh, it was clear to Austin the intent was to out a student to their parents if they had a conversation with a school staff member about their gender identity.

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Austin, who uses she/they/ella pronouns, said despite the view that the bill could be positive, allowing for parents to be supportive of their child, the reality is that not all homes are supportive.

“I grew up in a community where I knew I would not be accepted. I knew I would not be supported in my home or in public,” Austin said in their vote explanation during a House Appropriations Committee meeting on April 3. “School was literally the one place where I knew I could at least breathe and the reason I never came out was for fear of retribution. I was one of those students that considered suicide.”

According to the Trevor Project, fewer than 1 in 3 transgender and nonbinary youth found their home to be gender-affirming, and 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

“The bill…creates a really unsafe space for trans youth who already are much more likely to be depressed or contemplate suicide or actually take their own lives,” said Beth Lewis, director of Save our Schools Arizona and former middle school teacher. “We should not be ostracizing these students.” 

Bills like SB 1001 are outdated, based upon an old version of America, Lewis told The Copper Courier.

Assumption vs. Reality

When introducing the bill, Kavanaugh showed he was under the impression that nothing negative would result from this bill—that parents would just embrace their children or figure out how to “fix them,” Austin said. 

Austin has received a number of messages from both parents and teachers about students’ gender identities, everything from parents who want to be supportive of their child, to horror stories of students getting kicked out of their homes or facing physical harm.

As a middle school teacher, Lewis has had students who confided in her that they were transitioning before they were ready to tell other students, much less their families. Through her experience in schools, Lewis said lawmakers in support of the bill are seeing it through a very slim lens.

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Lewis said the bill conflates sexuality with gender identity. “It is such a prude, puritanical bill that is not based in reality,” she said. 

Having someone like Austin at the Capitol sends a message of support to young LGBT communities, fellow lawmakers said. 

“Lorena is someone that is a fearless leader and cares about their community and is here in this space in the political space to do the right thing,” said Democratic Sen. Anna Hernandez.

“I’ve been so surprised pleasantly by how many people have reached out to me since this vote explanation,” Austin said. “That’s why I’m even more committed to fighting against bills like these and ensuring that our communities are safe.”

Rhetoric Surrounding the Bill

Laura Terech, a Democratic House representative and former elementary school teacher, said SB 1001 sets a precedent of the government trying to make children’s lives harder due to a disconnect between the lawmakers and the people the pieces of legislation are affecting.  

“I just don’t believe that it is a proper function of the state Legislature to put ourselves in personal decisions, family decisions, school decisions,” Terech said.

Speaking out against the bill for a second time in the April 25 Committee of the Whole reading, Austin emphasized that not all cases of children speaking to their parents about their gender identity end positively. 

“Rep. Gress just mentioned that in most cases, this might be a well-received conversation. Most cases. That is not all cases,” Austin said. “Unfortunately we do not live in a world where every parent is accepting of a queer child.”

In that same committee reading, Terech read an email she received from a Tucson mother of two trans and nonbinary children. “It’s not anything they choose to do frivolously or because it’s trendy,” Terech read. “It’s how they identify fully, deeply, and after years of self-reflection, research, and even denial.” 

Terech hopes that her fellow lawmakers across the aisle will think differently about the impact bills like this will have on young people. 

Hernandez pointed out there are many more urgent matters in the state’s education system that don’t require attacking students’ pronouns—like getting adequate funding in schools, providing resources for teachers, and providing students with the best education they can receive.

“I don’t know why we’re focusing on the culture war bills, when there are more pressing things facing Arizona,” Terech said. 

“I just really hope in the future we can bring bills to the table here at the House that are going to help people and not harm them, and again, not feed into performative politics,” Austin told The Copper Courier. 

The Arizona Senate passed SB 1001 in March. The bill passed the House’s committee of the whole and now awaits a final vote. Should the bill make its way to the governor’s desk, Hobbs reiterated in April that she would veto the legislation, along with any other bills that are hostile towards the LGBTQ community.

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  • Alyssa Bickle

    Alyssa Bickle is an affordability and LGBTQ+ reporting intern for The Copper Courier. She expects to graduate in May 2024 with degrees in journalism and political science and a minor in urban and metropolitan studies. She has reported for Cronkite News and The State Press and is an assistant research analyst at ASU’s Center for Latina/os and American Politics Research.

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