Commentary

Respectfully, Indiana — just call students by their name

March 28, 2023 7:00 am

House Bill 1608 is ostensibly about sex education for young students but has become a game about pronouns. (Getty Images)

I have a sister named Peggy. But because “Peggy” is not a saint’s name, my grandmother objected to my parents naming her that. So, the name they gave her was “Margaret,” and only to satisfy grandma and an outdated, dumb, Catholic rule. Peggy legally changed her name when she was old enough to do it herself, and to eliminate that dumbness once and for all. Whew! 

The only place she was ever called Margaret, after she was baptized, was at school. But only until they were told: her name is, was and always will be Peggy.

I would have loved to see my dad deal with a school that refused to call her Peggy. My grandma was a famously difficult woman, and while dad might have taken that naming crap from her the day my sister was born, any school that tried that would have regretted it. 

House Bill 1608 is an offensive and ignorant bill rolling through the Indiana General Assembly this year. The bill is titled, “Human sexuality instruction.” It should be titled, “Prohibited human sexuality instruction,” since the primary function of the bill is to specifically prevent the teaching of something. The bill is not solving a problem in Indiana. It is borrowing a made-up problem from somewhere else and legislating a made-up epiphany to solve it. 

It prohibits sex education in grades K-3. Because of course, that was a thing. Where exactly? You guessed it: nowhere. But the strategy is obvious. Part one is to prohibit it where it doesn’t exist, so it appears to not be an actual bother. After no one surrounds the Statehouse with pitchforks and torches, part two kicks in the following year: the expansion of it through the twelfth grade. 

This is the Florida plan. Learn it now to prepare for next year’s Indiana General Assembly. 

Pronoun addendum

As transparently offensive as the Indiana-version of this national GOP, fear-mongering nonsense is, it’s the bonus section that takes the cake in House Bill 1608. 

The House-passed version of the bill allows teachers and school staff to ignore the wishes of students and their families to use their name of choice. “A school may not discipline an employee or staff member of the school for using a name, pronoun, title, or other word to identify a student that is consistent with the student’s legal name.”  The Senate Education Committee amended the bill by adding: “if the employee or staff member does so out of a religious conviction.”

A religious conviction? Huh? There is no religion that instructs on this. None. Nada. Zero. But lawmakers don’t want students with gender dysphoria, and their families to choose their own names and pronouns. And why not? Uh, well, religious conviction! That’s it! Because any made-up religious conviction is a justifiable reason to do nearly anything. Particularly if the made-up religious conviction is being made up by Christians. 

My famously difficult grandma would have been proud of Indiana. 

It’s an attempt to legally protect teachers and school staff from consequences when being blatantly disrespectful to people they are paid to teach. And that’s not how teaching works. 

This strained and silly name issue appears to be in response to a situation that began at Brownsburg High School in 2017. A teacher there made the religious conviction argument in his relentless refusal to use students’ preferred names. The school made extensive attempts to accommodate him before he was forced to resign, a decision upheld by the courts. WISH-TV reported extensively on the chronology of events. Good for Brownsburg and the courts. 

It’s not that hard

I have experience with this. The first teenager I met with gender dysphoria was in 1990 when I worked at the Indiana Boys School. Even in that all male, correctional institution, the staff and faculty were able to adjust and use the student’s preferred name. The real difficulty wasn’t ours. It was the student’s. This young person had the courage to cope with these challenges. It would have been shameful for the grown-ups to say, “it’s just too hard for us.”

Attention lawmakers, teachers and everyone else! This is easy. Just call students by their names. 

We don’t need a law. We need adults in the schools and in the Statehouse.  

The best advice I got from a mentor of mine when I first started teaching was this: “learn your students’ names. You can’t have a relationship with them without it.” 

I don’t give my students their names. They give them to me. And I respect them.

My sister’s name is Peggy, not Margaret. Get used to it Indiana. Then move on. 

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Michael Leppert
Michael Leppert

Michael Leppert is an author, educator and a communication consultant in Indianapolis. He writes about government, politics and culture at MichaelLeppert.com.

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