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Florida Set to Dramatically Expand its ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Laws. Here’s What They Do

Republican lawmakers in Florida appear likely to expand provisions in the Parental Rights in Education Act, or so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law with a host of new restrictions on what teachers can and cannot say in their classrooms about gender, sex, and sexual orientation.

Bills currently being debated in the Florida state House would make it a statewide school policy to define sex as “an immutable biological trait.” Teachers would be banned from addressing students by pronouns that differ from those they were assigned at birth. Staff would also be unable to share their own preferred pronouns if they do not “correspond to his or her sex.”

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The bills would also heavily restrict in-school discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity until ninth grade when most students are 14 or 15. The current “Don’t Say Gay” law bans such discussions through third grade.

Experts TIME spoke to say the bill is likely to pass.

Republican state Senator Clay Yarborough, who introduced one of the bills, says the legislation gives parents control over “when and if certain topics should be introduced to young children.”

But critics, including the American Civil Liberty Union of Florida, say the bills are part of a “concerted effort” to “remove LGBTQ+ people from public life.”

“[This bill] would silence students from speaking about their LGBTQ+ family members, friends, neighbors, and icons. It would also bar LGBTQ+ students from talking about their own lives and would deny their very existence,” says Kirk Bailey, political director for the ACLU of Florida.

The existing “Don’t Say Gay” law is already working to squelch conversations for LGBTQ students, as students and faculty feel a climate of fear, says Brandt Robinson, a sociology teacher and co-sponsor of his school’s Gay Straight Alliance at Dunedin High School in the Tampa Bay area.

Teachers feel like they are being watched closely, and LGBTQ students feel they do not have the same protections they did before, he says. “Students have a lot to say. But ironically, public school is not the place where we often talk about it because you’re concerned that there’ll be a complaint,” Robinson says.

Many fear for the health and wellbeing of queer families and children if they feel that they are unwelcome in schools. A survey conducted by Morning Consult in 2021 found that 85% of transgender and nonbinary youth have seen their mental health decline amid debates around anti-trans bills.

Here’s what to know about House Bill 1223, 1069 and Senate Bill 1320.

How do these bills expand the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law?

“Don’t Say Gay,” which was enacted in March 2022 bans public schools from teaching about sexual orientation and gender in the classroom from kindergarten through the third grade or, in a way that is not “age” or “developmentally” appropriate for students. That vague language, many believed, could be interpreted to mean that school lessons on sex and sexuality could be deemed inappropriate for older children.

Critics feared that the law would prevent queer students and families from equal participation in the classroom. During a Senate hearing in February 2022, for instance, Republican Sen. Travis Hutson said that a math problem that mentioned that a child has “two moms” or “two dads” was “exactly” the type of discussions the law would prevent. Schools are thus essentially barred from acknowledging the existence of anything out of the heteronormative structure.

The additional bills would make those measures stronger.

Florida—which already allows students to opt out of sexual health lessons— would restrict discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity from pre-kindergarten to the eighth grade, despite extensive research showing that access to sex education can help decrease teen pregnancy.

The legislation would make it public school district policy to define sex as “a person’s sex chromosomes, naturally occurring sex hormones, and internal and external genitalia present at birth.” (A recently added amendment to HB 1223 makes an exception for people who are born intersex.)

House Bill 1069, which was also introduced as an accompanying bill to HB 1224, would require teachers to teach students in grades 6 through 12 that “biological males impregnate biological females by fertilizing the female egg with male sperm; that the female then gestates the offspring; and that these reproductive roles are binary, stable, and unchangeable.” All materials used to teach reproductive health would need to be approved by the Florida Department of Education, which has worked to heavily restrict the kinds of text books that are allowed in classrooms and also banned the teaching of the new AP African American Studies class.

District school boards would be required to create a form where anyone who lives in the district could submit complaints about instructional material used.

Why is this happening?

This legislation is all part of the ongoing culture war plagued in the state where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says “woke goes to die.” DeSantis has previously pushed back against instructing courses like AP African American Studies class, which was stripped down by the College Board after the Florida governor voiced concerns about “indoctrination.” Similar to arguments in favor of the Parental Rights in Education Act, proponents of these bills contend that the current legislation being debated is all about parental rights and protecting kids from ideologies that families may disagree with.

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“There is no doubt that one family is completely different than another family,” Christian Ziegler, chairman of the Florida GOP, tells TIME. “But the most appropriate way to handle this is to allow parents and families to introduce these concepts and have these discussions with their family when they think it’s appropriate.”

Other proponents claim they are pushing for the advancement of these bills to better address Florida’s poor education statistics—the Sunshine state was ranked as the state with the worst learning rate across the nation, as students learn 12% less each grade than the national standard. They maintain that gender issues and social justice have gotten in the way of teachers doing their jobs effectively in the classroom.

Keith Flaugh, co-founder of the Florida Citizens Alliance, an organization that is lobbying in favor of these bills, says that he believes the state needs to focus more on improving their education tactics instead of gender, sex and sexuality. “The end objective in my view is hopefully to get school districts out of the whole social justice arena and back into teaching academics,” he says.

Ziegler adds that he hopes schools will “focus on education rather than being indoctrinated.” He believes a teacher who uses preferred pronouns that differ from what they were assigned at birth are “pushing an agenda” that highlights “gender [and] sex alternative identities.”

Bailey of the ACLU Floria says these bills are “part of a larger, concerning pattern of legislation that uses the mere existence of LGBTQ+ teens and adults to chill the First Amendment right to free speech and free expression in classrooms.”

Brandon Wolf, press secretary for LGBTQ rights group Equality Florida, says Republican leaders, including DeSantis, are politicizing these issues to “manufacture hysteria and moral panic.”

This legislation adds to the approximately 300 anti-LGBTQ bills that have already been introduced at the state level across the U.S., according to GLAAD.

“I think the hypocrisy is on display when you see an unwillingness to give parents the rights to see their children respected in school when those parents may dare to disagree with the right wing politicians that are bringing these policies forward,” Wolf says.

What effects could these bills have?

The advocates for and against these bills that TIME spoke to believe this legislation will pass.

LGBTQ+ advocates especially fear that the bill would have adverse effects on LGBTQ+ families and the more than 16,000 Florida youth that identify as transgender.

The impact of the current iteration of the “Don’t Say Gay” Law is already profound. Research by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that more than half of all the LGBTQ+ parents surveyed considered moving out of Florida because of the bill.

About 88% of LGBTQ+ parents were very or somewhat worried about the effect “Don’t Say Gay” would have on their family. Those surveyed were particularly concerned their kids would not be able to talk openly about their family, and that such legislation could “encourage a hostile school climate that would negatively impact their children.”

“It’s driven teachers from the profession, it’s led to books being banned, classroom topics being censored. It’s led to parents wondering whether or not Florida schools are even worth sending their kids to anymore. And this 1223 would expand those provisions all the way to eighth grade,” Wolf adds.

In order for a bill to pass the Florida state legislature, the bill has to pass through at least two committees before going to a broader vote in their respective legislative chambers. Wolf notes that these all offer opportunities for amendments to be added to the bill. In the Florida state House Republicans have an 84-35 majority with one vacancy. In the state Senate, it’s 28-12. However, one amendment that would have offered parents the opportunity to ask a school to refer to their child by their preferred pronouns was already rejected on party lines.

One of the biggest concerns is that these bills will compound the problems transgender people confront. Trans people have a suicide rate nearly nine times that of the broader U.S. population, the attacks on their rights are harrowing.

“They send a message to those young people, that they don’t belong here, that there’s something wrong with them. And that only deepens the mental health crisis they’re already experiencing,” Wolf says.

With reporting from Olivia Waxman.

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