Florida moves a step closer to making the controversial “don’t say gay” bill into law. The Florida House of Representatives on Thursday passed the legislation in a vote 69-47.
If signed into law, the bill would ban classroom instruction on sexual orientation completely in kindergarten through third grade, and restrict educators from teaching about the subjects “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
Florida Rep. Joe Harding, a Republican, insisted on the floor the bill will not prohibit discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in school, but said this will guarantee parents will determine what values get instilled in their children. He even titled the legislation a “parental rights in education” bill.
“We believe that the best environment for students is an environment where the parent is empowered and involved and working concurrently with the school district,” he said.
But the bill includes a significant number of restrictions LGBTQ+ advocates believe will silence speech or even acknowledgment that gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people exist. Florida Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, the first Black lesbian elected to the Florida Legislature and a Democratic candidate for Congress, noted she’s married to a teacher who has kept family photographs on her desk. She asked on the House floor earlier this week whether she could even answer questions from students about who appeared in the photograph.
She filed an amendment earlier this week that would have taken out the controversial language forbidding the mention of gay or transgender individuals in instruction, but her language failed on a party-line vote. It left the lawmaker incensed over the cavalier treatment of LGBTQ+ Floridians.
"I am normal, I am healthy. I am a part of this world and I am a part of this chamber,” she said.
“It's incredulous I have to be here defending my humanity.”
Florida Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, the Florida House’s only other queer member, questioned how important events, including the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub near his Orlando district, could even be discussed in school should the bill become law.
“This bill is deeply personal to me,” he said.
It’s also apparently personal to many who listened to the debate in the Legislature as well. Smith tweeted on Thursday that two House pages approached him privately on the floor about his arguments against the bill.“One student told me they were in tears during my debate,” he wrote. “To all LGBTQ youth— we see you, you're loved and your lives are worth fighting for!”
Smith, the first Latinx LGBTQ+ member of the Legislature wore a face mask with the word “Gay” in large letters on the floor to debate against the bill.
The legislation would prohibit school district personnel from discouraging or prohibiting parental notification and involvement in critical decisions about students’ mental, emotional, or physical well-being, but that’s language many view as dangerous for students who feel safe to come out at school to teachers, counselors, and even other students, but now worry they could face ramifications at home.
Smith noted on the House floor that 40 percent of homeless youth in the state of Florida identify as LGBTQ+. “That’s not a coincidence,” he said, noting many were kicked out or ran away from home because parents didn’t approve of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
And he noted that whatever lawmakers say about the legislation, supporters who have spoken out about the bill in legislative hearings have frequently made homophobic sentiments known. In one example, a public speaker called this the “don’t turn my son into my daughter bill.”
Activists fear severe consequences especially for LGBTQ+ youth, but also for any students with family members who identify as queer.
“LGBTQ people are a normal, healthy part of society,” said Jon Harris Mauer, public policy director for Equality Florida. “We are parents, students, and teachers. We are your family... This bill is about erasing our existence.”
The bill still must pass in the Florida Senate, where it’s carried by Republican Florida Sen. Dennis Baxley. There, the bill already cleared the Senate Education Committee but has two meetings to go.
Most anticipate the bill will pass as the latest in a list of culture war priorities for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.