- Emanne Khan
Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill Sparks Debate Over Gender, Sexuality, and Public Education
A new bill in Florida has stirred up controversy in recent weeks for its provisions regarding sexual orientation, gender identity, and public education. In late February, the Florida House of Representatives passed the Parental Rights in Education Act, or the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, as it has come to be known by critics. Shortly thereafter, the bill headed to the State Senate and passed in early March. After making its way through the legislature, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law on March 28, 2022, stating, “We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.”
The Don’t Say Gay bill earned its name from the restrictions on early classroom instruction about gender and sexuality, particularly through the lens of increasing the rights of parents in matters related to public education. One key passage states, “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” This section and its accompanying clauses effectively ban or limit instruction on gender and sexuality for students in Florida’s public schools. Given the non-specific language, it could encompass anything from removing books from classroom libraries to prohibiting students with gay relatives from talking about their families in class.
An additional passage mandates that schools “adopt procedures for notifying a student’s parent if there is a change in the student’s services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being and the school’s ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student.” The bill’s opponents fear this section would allow schools to inform parents if their children seek support services for issues related to gender or sexuality.
A third major provision grants parents permission to “Bring an action against the school district to obtain a declaratory judgment that the school district procedure or practice violates [these rules] and seek injunctive relief.” In essence, this section empowers parents to sue schools for violating the tenets of the Don’t Say Gay bill, all at the expense of the district.
Many of the bill’s opponents are concerned about the harmful impact on LGBTQ youth in Florida schools. Some students may not feel comfortable or safe discussing gender and sexual orientation with their parents, and critics argue the bill removes the option for these students to find help and support at school.
“[The LGBTQ community] are in distress because this bill is yet another attack on our community," Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-FL) said during debates over the bill in the Florida House. "This bill goes way beyond the text on its page. It sends a terrible message to our youth that there is something so wrong, so inappropriate, so dangerous about this topic that we have to censor it from classroom instruction."
In a March 28 statement condemning the bill, the Trevor Project, a prominent LGBTQ advocacy organization, cited research that LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year. “LGBTQ youth in Florida deserve better. They deserve to see their history, their families, and themselves reflected in the classroom,” CEO and Executive Director Amit Paley added.
The Biden administration has also come out in opposition, expressing support for the LGBTQ community in a tweet about the legislation. On a grassroots level, students staged walkouts in protest and the Walt Disney Company paused political donations in Florida after backlash from employees about the company’s hesitancy to take a strong pro-LGBTQ stance.
On the other hand, supporters of the bill argue that its main goal is not to marginalize LGBTQ students but rather to promote parental involvement in children’s lives. “This bill says [to] parents [that] your right to raise your children does not end when they walk into a classroom. This bill recognizes that parents are not the enemy,” Senator Danny Burgess (R-FL) said in defense of the legislation. “The bill simply says that there should be an age limit on certain discussions. It’s not a new concept, nor is it radical.”
It is unclear whether discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity were even taking place in Florida classrooms. The president of the Florida Education Association said curriculum guidelines for young students never included such topics, and one teacher called the bill “a solution in search of a problem.”
Meanwhile, Governor DeSantis has adopted fiery rhetoric to undermine critics of the legislation. “I don’t care what corporate media outlets say, I don’t care what Hollywood says, I don’t care what big corporations say. Here I stand. I’m not backing down,” he said while signing the bill. “[Critics oppose the bill] because they actually support having woke gender ideology in the first grade.”
With the “Don’t Say Gay” bill set to go into effect on July 1, other states seem to be drawing inspiration from Florida’s lead. Lawmakers in Ohio have recently introduced a similar bill, and the Lieutenant Governor of Texas expressed strong interest in following suit. Regardless of whether one views the Parental Rights in Education Act as a positive step towards protecting the role of parents or as a targeted attack on LGBTQ youth, it’s clear that such initiatives will continue to gather momentum in the coming months as the country enters a new era of regulating public education in the name of individual rights and morality.