Ron DeSantis signs ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill into law during staged ceremony surrounded by children

LGBT+ advocates demand full repeal and warn against GOP’s growing ‘authoritarianism and censorship’

Alex Woodward
New York
Monday 28 March 2022 19:56 BST
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs controversial 'Don't Say Gay' bill into law
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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has signed legislation into law blocking classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, a measure that the bill’s opponents and LGBT+ advocates have warned will marginalise already-vulnerable LGBT+ students and their families while chilling classroom speech.

During a ceremony surrounded by schoolchildren and administration officials, the governor said the bill will ensure that “parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.”

The “Parental Rights in Education” bill – named “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” by its opponents – prohibits “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”

Parents can also sue their school districts if they believe such measures were violated, potentially exposing teachers and schools to costly, grievance-driven lawsuits.

Nadine Smith, executive director of LGBT+ advocacy group Equality Florida, said the governor “has damaged our state’s reputation as a welcoming and inclusive place for all families, he has made us a laughing stock and target of national derision.”

“Worse, he has made schools less safe for children,” she added.

The governor signed the bill just days after putting his signature on a measure to ensure “curriculum transparency” that critics warn will bring unnecessary and potentially dangerous scrutiny into school libraries.

Several other states are considering similar “Don’t Say Gay” bills, part of a nationwide campaign supported by powerful conservative Christian lobbyists and Republican state legislators asserting “parental rights” against LGBT+ Americans and their education and healthcare.

More than 300 anti-LGBT+ bills –are under consideration in state legislatures across the US, with roughly one-third of those bills directly targeting transgender people, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Roughly half of those bills prohibit transgender youth from participating in school sports.

“We’re staring at a new reality where LGBTQ+ students may wonder if they’re allowed to even acknowledge their own sexuality or gender identity; a reality where young people with LGBTQ+ family members may be forced to remain silent while others can speak freely; a reality where LGBTQ+ school staff may be forbidden from so much as mentioning their loved ones,” said Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign.

“The existence of LGBTQ+ people across Florida is not up for debate, and this restriction on free speech flies in the face of one of our most sacred rights,” she added.

Proponents of the measure have insisted that the law simply gives parents more control over their children’s instruction, while they repeatedly conflate issues involving gender identity and sexual orientation with sex education instruction by broadly banning any discussion “on” such issues and reviving homophobic and transphobic attacks against LGBT+ teachers, students and their families.

They also have argued that the measure only applies to children in kindergarten through third grade, despite the broad scope of the bill text.

The bill does not define “instruction” or age appropriateness, potentially leaving its interpretation open to bans on discussing LGBT+ people, history and events in curriculum, or students’ families, or questions from students about any those issues.

During a press conference on 28 March, Governor DeSantis said kindergarten-aged students learning that “they can be whatever they want to be” was “inappropriate”.

“It’s not something that’s appropriate for any place, but especially not in Florida,” he said.

The widely derided measures – rejected by a majority of Floridians as well as the rest of the US – have also been criticised by major corporations, the White House and, after a massive public pressure campaign, the Walt Disney Company, a political heavyweight in the state.

The Independent’s review of campaign finance reports found that the company – the state’s largest private employer – donated tens of thousands of dollars to the bill’s supporters. For weeks, opponents of the bill demanded that the company leverage its influence and condemn the measure, prompting company leadership to publicly denounce the legislation and freeze political spending in the state.

In a statement, Disney said the bill “should never have been passed and should never been signed into law.”

“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 the supporting the national and state organisations working to achieve that,” the company said.

Equality Florida has vowed legal action should the measure be “interpreted in any way that causes harm to a single child, teacher or family.”

Florida state Senator Shevrin Jones, the state senate’s first openly LGBT+ members, said in a statement that the “party of ‘less government’ is becoming the party of authoritarianism [and] censorship.”

“To every LGBTQ child, parent, and ally – we see you, we love you, and the fight has just begun,” he said.

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.

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