‘Another stain in the history of Florida’: ‘Don’t Say Gay’ passes state legislature, will be signed into law

Advocates warn legislators are ‘playing a dangerous political game’ with health and safety of LGBT+ children

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 08 March 2022 17:00
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Demonstrators chant ‘we say gay’ in Florida Capitol to protest ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

Florida’s Republican-controlled state legislature has passed a widely criticised measure that opponents argue will chill discussion of LGBT+ people and issues and stigmatise LGBT+ children and families by banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Following more than six hours of debate, a bill named “Don’t Say Gay” by its opponents passed the state Senate by a vote of 22-17 on 8 March. Two Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the bill.

Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill into law.

The “Parental Rights in Education” bill prohibits instruction of “sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten through the third grade and any such discussion “that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” in other grades. It also grants parents the ability to sue school districts and collect damages if they believe their children’s teachers have violated the measure. The bill does not define “age appropriate” or “developmentally appropriate.”

Opponents have warned that the bill effectively expands surveillance and censorship aimed at erasing LGBT+ people from classrooms and the workplace, part of a GOP-led effort to strip away civil liberties while drawing teachers and schools into frivolous culture-war-driven lawsuits.

Its passage follows student walkouts across the state and widespread demands to withdraw the legislation, as well as pressure on the bill’s sponsors and major companies like the Walt Disney Company that have donated to the legislators who endorsed it.

Florida Senator Shevrin Jones, the first openly LGBT+ member of the state Senate, warned that the bill marks “another stain in the history of Florida.”

Florida Senator Dennis Baxley, right, the chief sponsor of what opponents call the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, meets with state Senator Shevrin Jones on 8 March.

“The obvious pain that this bill has caused and continues to cause can be appeased,” Senator Jason Pizzo said. “We’ve had the most beautiful demonstration of young men and women coming into this Capitol … You can’t talk about loving children if you do nothing to ease their pain.”

The bill’s sponsors have repeatedly claimed that the legislation does not target LGBT+ students or families but instead gives parents more control over their children’s instruction, joining a nationwide effort to put “parental rights” at the forefront of GOP campaigns in 2022 elections – from school board debates and library and book censorship to legislation condemning Covid-19 protocols and perceived “critical race theory” curriculum in classrooms and in human resources initiatives.

Critics argue that GOP legislators have also failed to provide comfort to the bill’s critics over their concerns that supporters believe are unfounded or overstated.

The bill’s critics also argue that right-wing proponents have weaponised the bill’s language, reviving anti-LGBT+ attacks to build public support for the legislation.

Governor DeSantis claimed that the bill addresses “sexual stuff” and “telling kids they may be able to pick genders and all that”.

“How many parents want their kindergarteners to have ‘transgenderism’ or something injected into classroom discussion?” he said during a press conference last week.

On Monday, he lashed out at a reporter who asked whether he supports the bill, claiming that it would only impact students in kindergarten through third grade. The bill is not limited to those grades; classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity would be prohibited at all grade levels if it is not deemed “age-appropriate.”

“We’re going to make sure that parents are able to send their children to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into their curriculum,” the governor said.

His press secretary Christina Pushaw called it the “anti-grooming bill”, reviving anti-LGBT+ attacks suggesting LGBT+ people are paedophiles. Her comments were echoed across social media and by other right-wing media figures and other Republican officials.

LGBT+ advocacy organisation Equality Florida said her statement “said the quiet part out loud: that this bill is grounded in a belief that LGBTQ people, simply by existing, are a threat to children and must be erased”.

On the Senate floor on Tuesday, bill supporter Ileana Garcia claimed “gay is not a permanent thing” and “LGBT is not a permanent thing.”

Following four hours of debate on Monday night, bill sponsor Dennis Baxley – asked why the bill does not address suicide or drug use, among other difficult topics – suggested that “we’re having all of these issues come up about this topic with their sexuality and gender,” adding that he doesn’t “understand why that’s such a big wave right now.”

Following passage of the bill, Equality Florida said that “should the vague language of this bill be interpreted in any way that causes harm to a single child, teacher, or family, we will lead legal action against the State of Florida to challenge this bigoted legislation.”

“We will not allow the governor’s office to call us paedophiles,” the group said in a statement. “We will not allow this bill to harm LGBTQ Floridians. We will not permit any school to enforce this in a way that endangers the safety of children. We stand ready to fight for Floridians in court [and] hold lawmakers who supported this bill accountable at the ballot box. At every turn, the legislature rejected reasonable amendments to this legislation and refused to mitigate its harm.”

Cathryn M Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, said the state legislature “is playing a dangerous political game with the health and safety of LGBTQ+ kids.”

“The existence of LGBTQ+ people across Florida is not up for debate,” she said in a statement on Tuesday. “We are proud parents, students, and teachers, and LGBTQ+ people deserve to exist boldly, just like everyone else.”

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