Sen. Karen Berg, D-Louisville, speaks to reporters following the Senate Education Committee’s vote to forward Senate Bill 150. (Photo by McKenna Horsley for the Kentucky Lantern.)
This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.
FRANKFORT — The Senate Education Committee voted 11-1 Thursday to advance a bill sponsored by Sen. Max Wise, Republican candidate for governor Kelly Craft’s running mate, over the objections of Sen. Karen Berg, whose transgender son recently died by suicide.
Berg, D-Louisville, said she needed to be in the room because she wanted her colleagues to cast their votes in her presence. She said the bill, which Wise said protects the rights of parents, is about scoring points with voters in the upcoming Republican primary.
The Craft-Wise ticket “just needs to show that they are further right than the current Republican front runner,” Berg said. “That’s what this whole thing, this whole sh*t show, is. And they’re putting our children smack dab in the middle of it on purpose without a care in the world.”
Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, who cast the lone no vote, said: “This bill offers no safe space to a child. And this bill is designed doing one thing, and that is to promote an agenda. An agenda that is not helpful, or easy, or comforting to a child, but only to harm the child.”
Wise told the committee that Senate Bill 150 aims “to ensure parental communication, inspection and authorization, as it relates to three key things: health services that are offered and recommended by schools; two, school curriculum transparency on the subject of human sexuality; and, three, the protection of First Amendment freedoms of staff and students.”
The bill takes aim at guidance from the Kentucky Department of Education to school districts on how to support LGBTQ+ students, including using students’ preferred names and pronouns. It would prohibit the Department of Education and state Board of Education from recommending or requiring policies to keep minor students’ information confidential from their parents, a Senate majority press release said.
Several speakers, including LGBTQ+ rights advocates, mental health advocates and Kentuckians who are transgender, expressed concerns about the bill. No one from the public spoke in favor of the bill.
Miles Joyner, a transgender man from Louisville, called the vote “heartbreaking” after the meeting but said he was proud to speak.
“We have to keep showing up, keep making our voices heard. Refuse to cower to the glares that I actually got sitting there. We can’t cower to them. We have to stand up and speak the truth.”
Wise, R-Campbellsville, said of Craft’s support for the legislation: “Kelly’s about empowering parents. She’s also about communication lines.” In recent days, she has criticized the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky State Board of Education for “pushing woke agendas in our schools.”
Berg’s son, Henry Berg-Bousseau, 24, died by suicide in December. He had recently been promoted at the Human Rights Campaign, a nationwide LGBTQ advocacy and lobbying organization.
The senator said Thursday that he “killed himself, guys, because he didn’t want to face this again, all over the country, in every state house.”
Senate Bill 150 received a first reading when the Senate convened Thursday. Thomas and Berg also filed floor amendments to it. Berg said one of her amendments would allow a parent to request a school district use their child’s gender-conforming pronouns and that the school district abide by that request. The second would change a reference to ” student’s original, unedited birth certificate” to just “birth certificate.”
While in session, Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, R-Smithfield, spoke in support of Senate Bill 150 while highlighting her own bill, Senate Bill 102, which also focuses on parents’ rights and would establish a process for schools to receive complaints about rights violations and give parents access to education materials. Tichenor said the Department of Education and Commissioner Jason Glass have created policies that “keep information from parents regarding their children.”
As Tichenor spoke, Berg stood and listened at the end of Tichenor’s row, feet away. Earlier in the day, Tichenor voted to move Senate Bill 150 forward.
A study of youth in grades 7-12 found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Some risk factors are linked to being gay or bisexual in a hostile environment and the effects that this has on mental health.
A survey of youth by the Trevor Project last year found that nearly half of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Amit Paley, CEO and executive director of the organization in the report pointed to “the negative impacts of COVID-19 and relentless anti-transgender legislation.”
In his weekly Team Kentucky update, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear told reporters that he had not read the bill or heard Wise’s floor speech Wednesday. The governor said he was concerned that the bill could increase bullying in schools against students who may already feel marginalized.
“I’m struck by the callousness of introducing this type of bill. Sen. Karen Berg just almost right next to you, buried her son — what a month ago?” the governor said. He added that it showed a lack of respect and empathy.
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