The Florida Senate passed the controversial so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill on Tuesday, sending the Republican-backed legislation banning LGBTQ instruction in primary schools to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.
The bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate 22-17, and passed the Republican-controlled state House two weeks earlier 69-47. DeSantis has signaled his support for the bill and is expected to sign it.
The proposed law, often referred to by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, bans public school districts from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade, or “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students”—language that critics say could extend the ban to higher grade levels. State Rep. Joe Harding, a Republican who introduced the bill, told TIME in February that the bill’s intention is to keep parents “in the know and involved on what’s going on” with their child’s education, but critics argue the bill is discriminatory, and an attempt by Republican lawmakers to stir political support amid a broader climate of increasing politicization of LGBTQ rights and heightened scrutiny of what children are taught in schools. Advocates warn its passage could be harmful for students’ mental health.
“The Florida state legislature is playing a dangerous political game with the health and safety of LGBTQ+ kids,” said Cathryn M. Oakley, the state legislative director and senior counsel at the national LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, in a statement. “The existence of LGBTQ+ people across Florida is not up for debate. We are proud parents, students, and teachers, and LGBTQ+ people deserve to exist boldly, just like everyone else.”
What impact could the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill have?
Advocates say that because Florida’s K-3 curriculum does not currently include discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity, the law would not mandate an update to the state’s curriculum. But LGBTQ advocates warn that the law would make classrooms unsafe spaces for children who are LGBTQ or whose family members are LGBTQ. Such children often already face increased rates of stigma and isolation.
The legislation could also impact how teachers provide instruction on a day-to-day basis. At a Senate hearing on Feb. 8, 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, said that is “exactly” what the bill aims to prevent.
The bill also creates a new avenue of litigation, as it potentially allows parents to sue the school district if they believe their children were provided inappropriate instruction about “sexual orientation or gender identity.” Advocates say that broad wording of the law could open the door for lawsuits about instruction provided in grade levels higher than the third grade.
“Let us be clear: should the vague language of this bill be interpreted in any way that causes harm to a single child, teacher, or family, we will lead legal action against the State of Florida to challenge this bigoted legislation,” tweeted the LGBTQ advoacy group Equality Florida on Tuesday.
Imagine elementary school students are asked to draw pictures of their families and present them to the class, says Kara Gross, the legislative director and senior policy counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which opposes the bill. What happens if a child being raised by a same-sex couples draws a picture of their two dads? Their teacher may face a decision between allowing the child to participate, Gross told TIME in February, and opening themselves and their school up to lawsuits, or excluding them from the exercise.
Gross argues that the bill could also have a chilling effect on teachers’ freedom of speech and First Amendment rights.
On March 4, DeSantis signaled his support of the bill, telling reporters: “How many parents want their kids to have transgenderism or something injected into classroom instruction?” That same day, Christina Pushaw, a DeSantis spokesperson, tweeted that opponents of the bill are likely “groomers.” Equality Florida decried the comments, tweeting that Pushaw had said “the quiet part out loud: that this bill is grounded in a belief that LGBTQ people, simply by existing, are a threat to children and must be erased.” The group has also repeatedly criticized DeSantis’ seeming endorsement of the bill, tweeting Feb. 7 that he “is using anti-LGBTQ legislation as a springboard to serve [his] national political ambitions.”
During the Tuesday hearing, Baxley said his aim when introducing the bill was to help parents raise children in a world where “so many different images are flashing before them, and so many challenges are before them about how to get their education.”
Democratic state senators pushed back, including Sen. Shevrin Jones, Florida’s first openly gay Florida state senator, who told the legislative body: “To those who think you can legislate gay people away, I’m sorry. You cannot. I think you should legislate to protect them.”
Over the past week students across Florida have been staging walkouts to protest the bill’s passage, including over 500 students at Winter Park High School in Orange County, Fla. on Monday, per CNN.
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