Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill further stigmatizes LGBTQ+ kids, will lead to abuse, neglect

The “Parental Rights in Education” bill (HB 1557/SB 1834) has been described by some lawmakers as a means of giving parents in Florida more influence on their children’s education. In reality, it will further stigmatize the LGBTQ community by forcing children and educators into silence, rebuilding barriers that only recently began to fall.

The bill, dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, maintains that classroom instruction “on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate,” without specifying how those age or developmental appropriateness levels will be determined.

The ambiguity of its wording could lead to chilling effects on the mental wellbeing of Florida school children.

One facet of the bill could uproot school confidentiality policies and eliminate safe spaces for children who have nowhere else to turn. The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey reported that only 1 in 3 LGBTQ youth found their home to be LGBTQ affirming, and that “LGBTQ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity reported lower rates of attempting suicide than those who did not.”

If the bill becomes law, it will prohibit school districts from “adopting procedures or student support forms that prohibit school district personnel from notifying” parents about specified information, “unless a reasonably prudent person would believe that such disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment or neglect.”

In effect, countless LGBTQ youth could find themselves walking the line between being forced back into the closet and being outed to their parents without warning. Legislation like this prioritizes parental control over children’s identities and security and uses vulnerable children as political pawns to solidify conservative voters’ support in the current Florida state government.

Proponents of the bill advocate for it based on keeping education on sexuality “age appropriate,” but in doing so, they are attempting to solve a nonexistent problem.

Sex education laws regarding age appropriateness are already in place, such as HB 519, which “modifies required instruction for members of the instructional staff of public schools and requires that the general health education curriculum for kindergarten through grade 12 must be developmentally and age-appropriate.”

This new bill will not do much more but succeed in stopping honest discourse between educators and students.

“Conversations about us aren’t something dangerous that should be banned,” said Jon Harris Maurer, the public policy director for Equality Florida, an LGBTQ political advocacy group.Equality Florida’s public policy director.

The GLSEN 2019 National School Climate Survey found that Florida schools were “not safe for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer secondary school students,” with a majority reporting some form of discriminatory practices at their schools.

If we continue to treat LGBTQ lifestyles as taboo, the stigmas associated will persevere. American schools still have immense amounts of work to do in fostering positive school climates for marginalized groups, and legislation such as this takes two steps backward.

The potential for legal retribution for any LGBTQ discussion under the vague outlines of this bill will stoke fear in teachers. This could effectively prohibit education about landmark events like the Stonewall Riots or the Supreme Court decisions of Obergefell v. Hodges or Bostock v. Clayton County due to their ubiquity in the gay rights movement.

The Organization of American Historians, and the American Historical Association recently released a joint statement on the recent wave of proposed “Don’t Say Gay” laws in multiple states comparing them to the “No Promo Homo” laws of seven states at the height of anti-AIDS hostility in the 1980s and 1990s.

A 2018 study of these older laws conducted by GLSEN found that, despite these laws being intended to apply to health education curriculum, schools in the states that implemented them were less likely to address LGBTQ people and topics in their curriculum overall, but more likely than schools in other states to include negative representations of the LGBTQ community.

For a state government controlled by a political party that has long warned its constituents of the tyrannies of big government, advocating for legislation that dictates conversations between teacher and student and censors history lessons is tragically ironic.

Respect and tolerance must take precedence over political beliefs. We’ve progressed far enough to know that all students deserve to learn in safe environments that recognize and validate them as they are, and one student or parent’s comfort isn’t worth jeopardizing another’s safety or personal identity.

In the words of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, “We must not tolerate the creeping rot of routine discrimination. Nor can we resign ourselves to it as a regrettable attribute of human nature.”

We have the chance to unteach intolerance, but prioritizing censorship over personal and educational freedoms will force both children and educators to continue on in silence.