What is Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill?

Controversial legislation bans ‘sexual orientation and gender identity’ issues from classrooms

Alex Woodward
Monday 09 May 2022 13:35
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LGBTQ+ Florida senator makes tearful plea against 'Don't Say Gay' bill

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has signed into law a controversial piece of legislation aimed at restricting schools in the Sunshine State from teaching students about sexual orientation and gender issues, with teachers opening themselves up to lawsuits should they fail to comply.

Dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its critics but formally known as the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, the text of the legislation states that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through [third grade]” or “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards” in other grades.

Further, it explicitly states that parents “may bring an action against a school district to obtain a declaratory judgement” and a court may award damages and attorney’s fees if it finds that a school violated the measure.

The bill was passed by Florida’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives on 24 February and the state Senate on 8 March. Governor DeSantis signed it into law on 28 March, meaning its terms will come into effect from 1 July, with all school district plans required to be updated by June 2023. A group of LGBT+ advocacy organisations and civil rights attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against Mr DeSantis and the state’s education officials to block enforcement of the law on 31 March.

Democratic legislators proposed a series of amendments to clarify the bill’s intent, or to separate its ostensible intent from its impact, by striking out language that could target LGBT+ students and their families. They all failed.

A Republican amendment proposed requiring schools to disclose whether a child is LGBT+ to their parents within six weeks of learning that they are not straight – but it was withdrawn before the bill reached the House.

Why LGBT+ advocates oppose the bill

The law has attracted widespread criticism in Florida and beyond, with opponents arguing it would effectively silence already-vulnerable LGBT+ students and hinder or harm their personal development while potentially violating educators’ freedom of speech and First Amendment rights.

Thousands of high school students staged walkouts in protest over the bill, and a large demonstration was held outside the state Capitol building as legislators debated the legislation.

The bill came up for debate in the Senate on 7 March, where Shevrin Jones – the first openly LGBT+ member of Florida’s Republican-dominated Senate – made an emotional appeal for proponents of the bill to shoot it down because it could forcibly “out” LGBT+ students and have a chilling effect on LGBT+ people and issues in Florida schools.

Republican officials defending the bill insist its intention is simply to keep parents “in the know and involved on what’s going on” with their children’s education and that its critics are “absolutely misinformed on what exactly the bill does”, according to one the bill’s chief sponsors, Republican state representative Joe Harding.

But critics argue that supporters of the legislation have failed to provide comfort to LGBT+ students and families voicing concerns that proponents of the measure believe are unfounded or overstated.

Analysts argued that the law’s broad scope could prevent classroom discussion or instruction about LGBT+ people, history and events, or students’ families, or questions from students about any of those issues, under threat from potential lawsuits against school districts over perceived violations.

Governor DeSantis, a potential contender for the 2024 Republican presidential campaign, signed the bill into law on 28 March at a ceremony surrounded by children and administration officials, where he said the bill will ensure that “parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.”

Speaking at a press conference in March, Governor DeSantis said: “My goal is to educate kids on the subjects, math, reading, science, all the things that are so important. I don’t want the schools to kind of be a playground for ideological disputes.”

The governor claims that the bill addresses “sexual stuff” and “telling kids they may be able to pick genders and all that” – none of which is included in the bill.

“How many parents want their kindergarteners to have ‘transgenderism’ or something injected into classroom discussion?” he asked.

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On 7 March, 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.”

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”.

Following several hours of debate ahead of a vote in the state Senate, bill supporter Ileana Garcia claimed “gay is not a permanent thing” and “LGBT is not a permanent thing.”

Equality Florida and a group of Florida families filed their lawsuit to block enforcement of the bill in US District Court on 31 March, calling the measure an “unlawful attempt to stigmatize, silence, and erase LGBTQ people in Florida’s public schools”.

“This effort to control young minds through state censorship – and to demean LGBTQ lives by denying their reality – is a grave abuse of power,” the 80-page complaint states.

Why Disney is under fire

For years, Florida legislators and the governor’s office enjoyed a close relationship with The Walt Disney Company, the state’s largest private employer, with roughly 80,000 theme park workers alone.

Disney also is a political heavyweight, dispatching several lobbyists to Tallahassee for legislative sessions and spending millions of dollars through its many entities to Democratic and Republican legislators each election cycle to promote its business.

Campaign finance records reviewed by The Independent found that Disney entities contributed thousands of dollars to the re-election campaigns of the primary sponsors of the law, as well as at least $50,000 to the 2022 re-election campaign for Governor DeSantis, despite the company’s history of LGBT+ advocacy.

Following weeks of pressure among LGBT+ advocates and Disney employees to publicly lobby against the bill, CEO Bob Chapek announced that the company would oppose the bill and suspend its political donations in the state.

On 11 March, Mr Chapek announced the company would “immediately” begin supporting efforts to combat similar legislation in other states and pause “all political donations” in the state pending a review of the company’s political giving, conceding that the company failed to “be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights”.

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The company’s LGBT+ employees and staff opposed to the legislation staged daily walkouts to pressure Disney to indefinitely cease all campaign donations to state officials who created or helped pass the measure and demand that Disney leadership publicly commit to an actionable plan that protects employees from anti-LGBT+ legislation. The actions culminated in a full workday walkout or “sick out” on 22 March.

“Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down by the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organisations working to achieve that,” the company said on 28 March, when the governor signed the bill into law.

Governor DeSantis and members of his administration have lashed out at the company, igniting a feud that escalated to Republican threats to punish its operations in the state.

Florida state Rep Spencer Roach said a group of state legislators met at least twice to discuss potentially changing municipal government agreements affecting Disney in retaliation for what he called the company’s “woke ideology.”

In April, Governor DeSantis expanded the scope of a special legislative session on the state’s redistricting plans to also consider the “termination of all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968,” including the municipal taxing and government district created in 1967 that allows Disney to tax and regulate its sprawling park and resort properties in the Orlando area.

What the White House says

US President Joe Biden told Florida students in a message on Twitter in February that they “are loved and accepted just as you are”.

“I have your back, and my administration will continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve,” he said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki also has repeatedly denounced the legislation, which has been echoed in at least a dozen other Republican proposals across the US in 2022.

She said the measure is among “misinformed, hateful policies that do absolutely nothing to address the real issues” facing American families, and in an emotional interview released in April, she condemned legislation targeting LGBT+ people used as a “political wedge issue, an attempt to win a culture war, and they’re doing that in a way that is harsh and cruel to a community – of kids, especially.”

More than 300 pieces of state-level legislation in 2022 target transgender student athletes, healthcare for transgender young people, and classroom instruction on “sexual orientation and gender identity”, among other measures targeting LGBT+ people, mostly young transgender people.

The administration has urged congressional passage of the Equality Act, which would expand federal antidiscrimination protections to LGBT+ people in employment, housing, credit, jury service, and federally funded programmess, including healthcare and education. That bill is stalled in the US Senate.

The US Department of Justice also has issued a letter to all state attorneys general reminding them of federal constitutional and statutory provisions that protect transgender people from discrimination.

US transport secretary Pete Buttigieg, the first openly LGBT+ member of the White House cabinet, warned that the bill could inspire a spike in teen suicides.

A 2021 report from LGBT+ suicide prevention and crisis intervention group The Trevor Project found that LGBT+ youth are four times more likely to seriously consider, plan or attempt suicide than their peers, while LGBT+ young people between the ages of 13 and 24 attempt to kill themselves every 45 seconds within the US.

Another report from the organisation found that LGBT+ young people who learned about LGBT+ people or issues in school were 23 per cent less likely to report a suicide attempt within the last year.

This story was previously published on March 12 and has been updated

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