On February 17, 2022 the Florida Senate advanced legislation that would ban discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. The Parental Rights in Education Bill prohibits, “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels” and legally authorizes parents to sue Florida public schools for violations. The bill is expected to pass the Florida House of Representatives, with Governor Ron DeSantis expressing his support at a press conference on March 4, asking, “How many parents want their kids to have transgenderism or something injected into classroom instruction?” DeSantis’s comments masquerade as genuine concern, but they are indicative of the intense and thinly-veiled discrimination that inspires this bill.
Using the word “transgenderism”—an offensive and outdated term that harmfully implies that being transgender is an abnormal “condition”—is an attempt by the governor to otherize transgender people and instill fear into Floridian parents. Branding gender identity as a topic that cannot be broached with children invalidates all of the students who do not identify with the sex that they were assigned at birth and limits the opportunity for open and productive discussion.
Instead of moving forward with anti-discrimination bills, legislatiors in red states like Florida, Alabama, and Kentucky are moving backward. Lawmakers continue to add more restrictions to what can be taught and discussed in classrooms. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 2021 was a record year for new anti-LGBTQ+ laws: Over 250 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced in 2021, and 25 were enacted. Already in 2022, several states have introduced legislation that aims to curb LGBTQ+ rights. For example, the Idaho House of Representatives recently passed legislation that makes it a felony for doctors to provide gender-affirming medical care for transgender children, despite research that shows gender-affirming care reduces the risk of depression by 60 percent and that of suicide by 73 percent.
The Florida legislation follows a long history of discrimination against LGBTQ+ students in the Sunshine state. The current attempt to ban discussion surrounding LGBTQ+ history and issues is a modern day iteration of the Johns Committee, which was active from 1956 to 1965 and persecuted gay students and faculty under the pretense of investigating communist ties to civil rights movements. The committee, operated by the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee and led by Florida State Senator Charley E. Johns, interrogated and intimidated suspected gay students and professors at the University of Florida in 1958, leading 15 faculty members and 50 students to leave the school.
The committee also restricted academic freedom at the University of South Florida in Tampa, dismissing several faculty members for including novels like John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Margaret Mead’s Sex and Temperament in their curricula. The committee did so despite the guaranteed right in the school’s Staff, Faculty, and Advisors Handbook for faculty members to teach with unimpinged academic freedom. The committee conducted these investigative practices in Florida public schools as well.
The battle between academic freedom and parental rights, especially as it relates to issues of LGBTQ+ discrimination and erasure, has become increasingly prevalent across the country. Preventing children from learning about LGBTQ+ health and history is not only stigmatizing but also incredibly isolating for queer children. Queer students without support are more at risk for depression and suicide compared to their cisgender and straight peers. In 2016, the federal government’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey for the first time asked students nationally about their sexuality, and found that an alarming 42.8 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents had seriously considered suicide in the previous year, compared to 14.8 percent of heterosexual youth.
Governor DeSantis is a key proponent of furthering harmful legislation and denying resources to LGBTQ+ youth. Last year, just days before the five-year anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, DeSantis cut $750,000 from the state budget that was supposed to create programs for gay and transgender youths without housing. Knowing that gay and transgender youths comprise just 5 to 10 percent of the youth population but 20 to 40 percent of the homeless youth population makes DeSantis’ decision to cut money from housing programs seem especially targeted. The Florida Department of Education went beyond this, removing links to federal anti-bullying resources that helped to address the targeting of LGBTQ+ students.
Students who have queer family members or identify as LGBTQ+ are being taught that their existence is something to be ashamed of, something that is too taboo to be discussed openly in classrooms. Setting a precedent at a young age that there is an inappropriate way to love and be loved based solely on sexuality not only harms the queer children receiving that message, but also prevents society from moving into a more accepting and open-minded era.
Polls conducted by the Public Opinion Research Lab (PORL) at the University of North Florida found that 49 percent of voters oppose this legislation while only 40 percent support it. Among Republicans, 44 percent strongly support the bill, and support is strongest among 55 to 64-year–olds, with 48 percent strongly supporting the “idea that teachers should not encourage these discussions.” Conversely, only 35 percent of voters aged 18 to 24 supported the bill. Republicans framing this bill as opposing the supposed sexualization of children by queer people and activists taps into the potent “parents’ rights movement” and longstanding homophobia among their supporters. Unabashed dog whistling has abounded in the promotion of this bill to parents, with DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw implying that queer people are “groomers,” or pedophiles. The Republican party is using legislation such as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill and Delaware’s SB 227—a bill would require students to compete on sports teams aligned with their assigned biological sex at birth—to secure votes from conservative parents.
The age distribution of supporters of the bill is indicative not only of a shift in thinking but a question of who should have the power to determine classroom curriculums. In a state where 60 percent of voters who cast ballots in the presidential election are 45 or older, voter power is concentrated in older generations who have less connection with LGBTQ+ identifying people.
Despite the optics of the bill being focused on “parental rights,” polling and voting demographics show that more Florida voters oppose this bill than support it and that younger generations have significantly different views on the issue compared to older generations.
By using “parental rights” to justify discrimination and limit conversations surrounding gender, race, and sexuality, Republican politicians are preventing the next generation from having safe spaces and open dialogues. Limiting knowledge and visibility is a form of oppression, undertaken in past generations in different forms. In the era of segregation, the opposition to integrating schools was driven in part by racist parents, and, even today, there is significant parental opposition to giving medically accurate sexual education to middle and high schoolers.
With academic freedom and an inclusive approach, education has the power to connect and enlighten people. Without these conditions, it also has the ability to perpetuate harmful narratives that divide people. Fighting the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill and other similar legislation is crucial for protecting LGBTQ+ education and freedoms.