July 24, 2024

Florida LGBTQ advocacy groups and lawmakers are gearing up for another uphill battle against Gov. Ron DeSantis and his fellow Republicans as the legislature appears poised to pass an expansion to the controversial state education law restricting talk of sexual orientation and gender identity in public school classrooms.

The state’s Parental Rights in Education measure, known to critics as “Don’t Say Gay” for its disproportionate impact on LGBTQ students and families, has been the law of the land in Florida for more than a year. 

It bars public kindergarten through the third grade teachers from engaging in classroom instruction related to sexual orientation and gender identity, and prohibits educators through high school from addressing either topic in a manner that is not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for their students.

In February, 11 Florida House Republicans introduced legislation seeking to expand the law’s restrictions through the eighth grade and add provisions that block school districts from adopting policies that require transgender students to be addressed in accordance with their gender identity, even at the request of their parents.

The measure, House Bill 1069, would also add additional restrictions for lessons about “human sexuality” through high school and require that “all school-aged students” are taught to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage.

Florida teachers would also be encouraged to promote “the benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage” in reproductive health courses under the bill, which would also extend the ability to challenge school library books considered inappropriate for young readers to individuals nationwide.

State education officials, lawmakers and members of the LGBTQ community have voiced concerns that the proposed legislation, if passed, would worsen social stigma and discrimination against LGBTQ people in Florida, particularly youth.

“We want to make sure that every child comes to school feeling loved and supported and cared for and welcomed. There’s great concern that a lot of this legislation going through the legislature in Florida right now does not allow for that to happen,” Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar told The Hill.

At least 10 bills targeting LGBTQ rights are under consideration in both the Florida House and Senate this session, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), including five that would directly impact teachers and LGBTQ students.

“It’s almost like they’re trying to desensitize teachers in schools so that they can’t connect with their students,” Spar said of the bills’ GOP sponsors.

“Kids who identify as being part of the LGBTQ+ community will not feel welcomed, loved and cared for, because people who work in our schools will not be allowed to meet them where they are and support them for who they are,” he said.

In March, DeSantis and the state education department unveiled a proposal that would, similar to House Bill 1069, extend the existing law’s restrictions to pre-K classrooms.

The administration’s proposal, which does not require legislative approval, includes an additional provision that limits instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity through high school. Lessons on either topic would be permitted under the administration’s proposal under certain circumstances, such as when instruction is “expressly required” by state academic standards or part of a reproductive health course.

A great concern with the expansion of “Don’t Say Gay” is the parameters for discussion on sexual orientation are so broad that teachers may be concerned about even discussing situations where a student might have two moms or two dads. 

“The concern is that people will interpret it as they’re not allowed to say anything about gay people or gay issues,” said Michael LaSala, professor of social work at Rutgers University. “You’re going to have students who have been raised by gay or lesbian couples or same-sex couples, or who have parents who are transgender, or gender non-binary, so it’s going to make them feel if this can’t be talked about or acknowledged — it’s gonna make them feel invisible.”

This can have “damaging effects on the psyche of these kids” because “it’s going to make them feel as if something is wrong with their families,” LaSala said. 

State Republicans have argued that the legislature’s effort to expand the law is benign and not meant to go after LGBTQ youth, but to ensure parents know what is taught to their children. 

“This bill promotes parental rights, transparency, and state standards in Florida schools. It requires that lessons for Florida’s students are age-appropriate, focused on education, and free from sexualization and indoctrination,” state Rep. Adam Anderson (R) said.

Opponents of the bill say Republicans are using parental rights as a shield to take over public education.

“This has always been about some parents’ rights,” said Brandon Wolf, the press secretary for the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida. “Very specifically, it’s been about some right-wing parents’ rights to impose their values and beliefs on everyone else.”

Equality Florida this year has sent hundreds volunteers to engage with lawmakers in Tallahassee every day this session, Wolf said, in a mobilization effort exponentially larger than that of prior years, when the group dedicated a maximum two days to lobbying efforts at the capitol.

“One of the things we recognized in this political climate is that two days is not going to cut it,” Wolf said. “We have to have a constant presence in the capitol.”

Equality Florida will join a number of other Florida LGBTQ rights groups later this month in supporting a coordinated student-led walkout at more than 300 high schools and colleges across the state.

The walkouts are in protest of a slate of anti-LGBTQ bills moving through the legislature this year, said Zander Moricz, the executive director of the Social Equity through Educatiion Alliance, which is spearheading the walkout effort.

“This is happening in a way that is so aggressive, that it disrupts the daily experience of every single Florida student educator,” said Moricz, who made national headlines last year when he was barred from using the word “gay” during his high school graduation speech. “It is a doomsday scenario.”

Florida House lawmakers approved the proposed law on March 31 — the International Transgender Day of Visibility — despite an estimated 200 protesters at the capitol, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

The expansion is now under consideration in the Florida Senate, where it is expected to pass. DeSantis has voiced support for the measure, calling it “curriculum transparency.”

With the weight of the governor’s office behind it, the bill is “one hundred percent” expected to pass into law, said state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat and the first openly LGBTQ person elected to the Florida Senate.

With a Republican supermajority in the legislature, Jones said it is not likely that legislation to repeal the existing “Don’t Say Gay” law or its expansion will be introduced by Democrats over the next two years.

“Democrats do not have any leeway in either chamber because we’re in the super minority,” he said. Jones said he would advise his colleagues against introducing such legislation, unless they are certain it will have enough bipartisan support to pass.

Jones said he’s prepared to argue against the bill once it comes up for a floor vote in the Senate, just as he did last year, but for now, he’s focused on empowering his community to fight back.

“We have to go back to grassroots,” Jones said. “I know that’s what I’m doing. I know that’s what other legislators are doing; and that is showing people how to create their own groundswell, because politicians are not going to change what we’re seeing right now. The people will.”

“I’ll remind people that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it always, always, always bends towards justice,” Jones said.

Along with grassroots mobilization, organizations such as the ACLU are currently evaluating whether there are grounds for litigation, Kirk Bailey, the political director of the ACLU’s Florida affiliate, said.

A lawsuit challenging the state’s existing “Don’t Say Gay” law filed by Equality Florida last year was dismissed by a federal judge in October.

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