KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Advocates for transgender rights say Tennessee's trio of anti-gay and anti-transgender laws passed this year have led to a surge in calls from educators and students with concerns about harassment in schools.
"The incidents that we’ve seen that have involved students have definitely felt more extreme," said Aly Chapman, the GLSEN Tennessee policy coordinator. "This year has been remarkably intense."
In one viral incident, Fulton High School senior William Watson said he got in trouble for standing up for a transgender friend who was being bullied in the school hallways.
"They were telling that she was going to hell, they were telling her that she will never be a real woman," he said. "It's definitely a problem."
Knox County Schools disputed the allegations in the video and said it provides resources for LGBTQ+ students.
Since posting the TikTok, Watson said he's heard from students across the state reporting similar incidents of harassment at their schools. "It’s kind of disheartening to hear that because I feel like people should be able to express themselves and be who they want to be without the fear of repercussions," he said.
Chapman blames Tennessee's newly-passed anti-transgender laws which restrict bathroom use and sports team participation for the increase in harassment and confusion from educators.
She said GLSEN has received numerous inquiries from educators across the state asking how to champion and support their students while following the law.
"Overwhelmingly, the majority of teachers in Tennessee want to do right for these kids," she said.
Her organization is working with the ACLU and others to develop a guide for students and teachers about their rights under the new laws. In the meantime, LGBTQ+ students like Watson continue to show up to class.
"Sometimes it feels like you have to pretend to be someone that you’re not," he said. "You have to kind of like hide, you have to put on a façade if you will."
In a statement, Knox County Schools spokesperson Carly Harrington said the district offers LGBTQ+ support groups in schools, including at Fulton. Counseling is available for students and they said teachers are allowed to address students according to their preferred pronouns.
"KCS continually seeks to have every student feel safe and respected at school and connected to their educational experience," Harrington said. "Earlier this year, the district hired a Title IX Coordinator and Compliance Officer, and part of her role is to provide support mechanisms for students who have concerns regarding discrimination."