On Tuesday night, President Joe Biden took to Twitter to condemn a controversial bill that’s swiftly moving through the Florida legislature.
The proposed law, often referred to by critics as “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, bans public school districts from “encouraging” classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity. State Rep. Joe Harding, a Republican who introduced the bill into the state House, tells TIME the intention of the bill is to keep parents “in the know and involved on what’s going on” with their child’s education. But critics say the bill is a dangerous, discriminatory attempt by Republican lawmakers to stir political support amid a broader climate of increasing politicization of LGBTQ rights and heightened scrutiny of what subjects children are taught in schools—and what they are not. Its passage could have devastating mental health impacts on LGBTQ students in the state, they argue.
“I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community—especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill—to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are,” Biden tweeted Tuesday evening.
In an interview with TIME, Harding says he thinks the bill’s critics are “absolutely misinformed on what exactly the bill does.” He argues that it aims to keep parents aware of instances in which sexual orientation and gender orientation are being discussed with their children. (He did not address the discrepancy between “informing” parents and an outright ban on LGBTQ instruction.)
On Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made a similar argument, telling reporters that it is “entirely inappropriate” for teachers to be having conversations with students about gender identity. “The larger issue with all of this is parents must have a seat at the table when it comes to what’s going on in their schools,” he said.
The advocacy group Equality Florida condemned DeSantis’ seeming endorsement of the bill, arguing that he “is using anti-LGBTQ legislation as a springboard to serve [his] national political ambitions.”
“His political agenda is driven not by the real pressing needs of our state,” the group tweeted. “He is willing to inflict harm on the most vulnerable in FL in order to shore up his extremist base.”
The Florida Senate Education Committee passed the bill on Tuesday; it will be considered by two more Senate committees before the whole Republican-controlled chamber votes on it. In January the bill also passed a committee in the state House of Representatives, which Republicans also control.
If passed, the law would go into effect on July 1, and all school district plans would need to be updated by June 2023.
What is Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill?
Florida Senate Bill 1834 and House Bill 1557, both titled “Parental Rights in Education,” ban public school districts from encouraging classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in “primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmental appropriate for students.”
The bill does not define “primary grade levels,” and Florida doesn’t have a statutory definition for the term at the moment, so critics argue it’s unclear exactly what age range the ban would apply to. (In an interview with TIME, Harding referred to “primary grade level” and Kindergarten through third grade.)
Such a law would directly impact how teachers could provide instruction. At a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Republican Sen. Travis Hutson gave the example of a math problem that includes the details that “Sally has two moms or Johnny has two dads.” Republican State Sen. Dennis Baxley, who sponsors the bill in the Senate, says that is “exactly” what the bill aims to prevent.
Kara Gross, the legislative director and senior policy counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, provides another example: Elementary school students are assigned to draw pictures of their families and present them to their class. If a child being raised by a same-sex couples draws a picture of their two dads, Gross says, their teacher may face a decision between allowing the child to participate—and opening themselves and their school up to lawsuits—or excluding them from the exercise.
“It is always appropriate for kids to talk about themselves, their experiences and their families,” adds Gross. “These are not taboo subjects, but banning them makes them so.”
In addition, the bill creates a new cause of action for lawsuits. If implemented into law, any parent could sue a school district if they believe it “encouraged” inappropriate classroom discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity, regardless of the grade level where the discussion was had.
“And the question is… who determines what is age-appropriate?” Gross argues. “Is it the parent? Is it the teacher? Is it a judge after the lawsuit is brought? This will open the door to frivolous lawsuits against school districts.”
What impact could it have?
Critics argue the bill would effectively silence students from discussing LGBTQ family members, friends, or neighbors—and prevent LGBTQ students from speaking about their very existence. In particular, they flag the provision which allows a parent to sue the school if they feel there was an inappropriate discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in any grade. Such a rule effectively silences students, advocates say.
(Harding, the bill’s sponsor, argues it would not. Rather, he says, it would ban teachers from encouraging discussions of such topics, and admits that there may be room for improvement on the definition of what exactly “encourage” means.)
If implemented, LGBTQ advocates argue the law would make classrooms unsafe, discriminatory spaces for LGBTQ children, who often already face increased rates of stigma and isolation.
“This bill does nothing to help and support our youth,” argues Gross. “It’s meant to stigmatize LGBTQ youth and family members, and to make teachers fearful of providing a welcoming and inclusive classroom.”
Gross adds that the bill would chill teachers’ freedom of speech and First Amendment rights. When asked whether the ACLU of Florida anticipates any legal challenges in the future, Gross says their focus is on “making sure it does not get enacted into law.” But if it were to be enacted, she adds, the organization would “evaluate all options going forward.”
The bill is the latest in what advocates argue is a dangerous trend. LGBTQ students in particular have found themselves subject to increasing focus from conservative lawmakers, and the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights campaign calculates that a record-breaking 280 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced into state legislatures last year. Twenty-five were enacted into law, including 13 laws that specifically impacted trans people across eight states.
It is also the latest in a string of legislation targeting what can and cannot be said in public school classrooms. Conservative politicians in at least 28 states last year introduced bills that would limit discussions of race in classrooms, ten of which were signed into law. Three states in particular—Arkansas, Montana and Tennessee—have passed bills allowing parents to have their children opt out of lessons that mention sexual orientation or gender identity, per GLSEN, a nonprofit focused on supporting LGBTQ students.
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