Today is an infamous day in Florida, with potential repercussions throughout the nation, as the state’s “don’t say gay” law goes into effect, restricting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The ugly law has an ugly history, with a Florida state senator saying too many kids are coming out as gay, another claiming that being LGBTQ+ is not a permanent state, and the governor’s press secretary saying its opponents are grooming children for sexual abuse.
Along the way, however, those opponents expressed themselves fearlessly, with students and Disney workers staging walkouts, a gay senator offering a tearful floor speech, and a graduating high school senior managing to deal with the issue in his commencement address without saying “gay.”
Versions of the legislation, officially titled Parental Rights in Education, were introduced in the Florida House and Senate in January. Dennis Baxley, chief sponsor of the Senate version, claimed he simply wanted to increase parents’ involvement in their children’s schooling. However, in a March debate on the issue, Baxley, a Republican with a deeply anti-LGBTQ+ record, raised concerns about young people coming out as gay or anywhere under the LGBTQ+ umbrella.
“Why is everybody now all about coming out when you are in school?” he said. “There really is a dynamic of concern about how much of this are genuine type of experiences and how many of them are just kids trying on different kinds of things they hear about and different kinds of identities and experimenting. … All of the sudden we’re having all these issues come up about this topic of their sexuality and gender. I don’t understand why that’s such a big wave right now.”
Another Republican senator, Ileana Garcia, contended that LGBTQ+ identities are temporary states. “Gay is not a permanent thing,” she said. “LGBT is not a permanent thing, and it's not a bad thing.
A few days earlier, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, had tweeted that the bill was actually an “anti-grooming bill.” “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8-year-old children,” she wrote. That got her plenty of criticism, although anti-LGBTQ+ forces embraced the idea that inclusive education amounts to preparing children for sexual abuse.
The debate over the legislation also saw Sen. Shevrin Jones, a gay Democrat, break down in tears. “I never knew that living my truth would cause church members to leave my dad’s church or friends to stop talking to me or families to make jokes about who you are,” Jones said. Other out Florida lawmakers defended their very humanity while addressing their colleagues.
While the legislation was under consideration, there were massive protests, with students walking out of school in several cities and workers at the Walt Disney Co., the state’s largest employer, walking out as well in objection to the company’s weak and belated opposition to the measure — and the fact that Disney had donated to its backers.
Many celebrities and political figures denounced it — among them President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg — pointing out that it would further oppress marginalized young people, increasing their risk of mental health issues and suicide. Some used humor against it, such as when Kate McKinnon lampooned it on Saturday Night Live.
But in the end, both the House and Senate passed it, and DeSantis, a Republican with presidential ambitions, signed it into law March 28. Opponents are fighting on, though, with a lawsuit against the measure, and they are continuing to speak out. Zander Moricz, a gay youth who’s the youngest plaintiff in the suit, gave a graduation speech in which he used his curly hair as a metaphor for being gay, as he’d been told he couldn’t discuss his activism in the speech. He praised the faculty and staff members who supported him throughout his school years.
The “don’t say gay” movement isn’t limited to Florida. Several other states have seen similar bills introduced, but so far the only one that has passed this year was in Alabama, where it was an amendment to a bill restricting school restroom use by transgender students. South Dakota has enacted a ban on the teaching of “divisive concepts” in higher education, which specifically mentions race and sex but is expected to affect LGBTQ+ content as well. However, many state legislatures have concluded their sessions for the year, and “don’t say gay” bills will most likely be back when they reconvene.
“Schools are becoming the sector where the culture wars are playing out,” Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes, vice president of policy, partnerships, and organizing with Advocates for Youth, said in an interview with The Advocate. These culture wars tend to focus on LGBTQ+ issues, sex education, and teaching about racism.
Florida’s law will further marginalize queer students and LGBTQ+ families, she said. “It is already creating a culture of fear for students and educators,” she noted.
Some conservative commentators have said those fears are exaggerated. They point out that the law doesn’t shut down all classroom discussion of LGBTQ+ topics, just says that teachers cannot deliver instruction on them in grades K-3 and that any instruction in higher grades must be age-appropriate.
But critics say that standard is too vague and is making both teachers and students afraid to broach the subject. “We know this is going to have a chilling effect,” Rhodes said.
Local, state, and national LGBTQ+ organizations have been speaking out against the Florida measure all along, and as its effective date neared, some released new statements against it.
“School policy should focus on education, not discrimination,” said Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign. “Governor DeSantis’s ‘Don’t Say Gay or Trans’ law is a shameful attack on students already struggling with the weight of discrimination. It is a slapdash, mean-spirited, impossible-to-comply-with law designed to make LGBTQ+ students feel shame and isolation at school, a place where every child deserves a chance to learn and succeed. The Human Rights Campaign strongly condemns these discriminatory policies taking effect on Friday and will continue fighting for Floridians who deserve to exist freely, proudly, and to have their stories shared.
“Parents, teachers, doctors, business and faith leaders, and countless others in communities across the country are increasingly standing up and uniting to speak out against these vicious efforts to marginalize LGBTQ+ students. Shameful efforts to replicate DeSantis’ ‘Don’t Say Gay or Trans’ law in other states are being pursued by extremist legislators trying to rile up a small but radical base, who foolishly believe peddling hate against children will win them support at the ballot box come November. We have a message for them: The country is tired of watching you use the lives of our children for personal political power. And come November, we’ll make sure you hear that message from all of us, loud and clear.”
“Students need to know they can be themselves and learn in peace,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. “There is nothing wrong with being LGBTQ, or talking about LGBTQ families and history. Florida's Don’t Say LGBTQ law is a permission slip to discriminate, and laws like this are creating all new problems and unsafe environments. Every citizen and voter should use their voice to speak up for vulnerable youth and families in Florida and throughout the country.”