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Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law — known to its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law — will officially take effect today.
The measure has already had a chilling effect on public school educators, who in some cases have been instructed to remove LGBTQ+ Pride flags and photographs of same-sex partners from their classrooms to avoid violating the law.
Republican lawmakers have from the start argued that the measure’s only intent is to empower parents. Democrats and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups say the law is intentionally vague and represents a huge step backward for equality.
In early January, an eleventh-hour proposal filed in the Florida House of Representatives caught the eye of state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat representing Orange County. The bill didn’t seem particularly insidious; it aimed to advance the involvement of parents in their children’s schooling — something education advocates had been endorsing for years.
But then Smith read something that made his breath catch. The measure, officially titled Parental Rights in Education, would prohibit, in certain grade levels, “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Smith, who in 2016 became the state’s first openly gay Latino lawmaker, said he wasn’t exactly surprised that the bill had been introduced. It was just one of a number of bills that had been pre-filed before the legislature met on Jan. 11 that in some way targeted the LGBTQ+ community.
But he was worried.
In April, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that rates of suicide in Florida had grown faster than much of the nation between 2019 and mid-2021. In its own reporting, Florida health officials have acknowledged that the state’s LGBTQ+ youth face elevated rates of mental health challenges and suicidal thoughts.
Smith says those facts have been largely ignored by conservative lawmakers in Florida, who make up the majority of both the House and the Senate. They also have control of the governor’s office.
“There’s no acknowledgment whatsoever from Republicans in Tallahassee or Governor DeSantis that LGBTQ students are vulnerable and at risk,” Smith told Changing America in an interview.
Since the bill was introduced, its potential impact on the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ youth in Florida has been a primary concern for the measure’s opponents. Worry over whether the bill — dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its critics — violates the First Amendment rights of public school teachers and students has also been widespread.
Under the measure, which was signed into law in March by Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, public primary school teachers are prohibited from engaging in classroom instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity.
The law officially takes effect Friday.
Public school educators through high school under the law are not able to address either topic in a manner that is not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for their students.
In House and Senate hearings through early March, Republican lawmakers backing the measure evaded questioning that would have clarified what is meant by “classroom instruction,” leaving it up to the interpretation of school districts.
Florida’s Department of Education will have until next summer to develop new rules that define that and other parts of the law, such as “age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate” instruction.
The department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Smith said he believes the measure is intentionally broad so as to chill the speech of public school teachers fearful that they may unintentionally violate the law.
Should that happen, parents may choose to take legal action against school districts, as is their right under the measure.
“When we talk about the culture of fear that this bill has created and the chilling effect, we’re talking about the fact that educators and school districts are scared to approach anything related to LGBTQ people or issues out of fear of lawsuits and professional ruin,” Smith said.
“The real enforcement mechanism for this law is not oversight from the state department of education,” he said. “It’s litigation.”
Already, reports have surfaced detailing Florida school districts’ attempts to get ahead of potential lawsuits — through which parents may be awarded damages — by rolling out new policies that limit the ways in which LGBTQ+ issues and identities may be talked about in class.
Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association (FEA), told Changing America that that isn’t a sign of increased anti-LGBTQ+ hate in schools — it’s a signal that educators and other school officials are afraid of losing their jobs.
“That’s why we may see some districts overreact by being extra cautious and just banning any conversations” about LGBTQ+ topics, he said.
Spar said a number of teachers have already approached the FEA about a series of trainings that have taken place in some school districts. During those trainings, teachers said, they were instructed to remove LGBTQ+ Pride flags, safe space stickers and photos of same-sex partners from their classrooms in the lead-up to Friday.
From the beginning, Spar said, an overwhelming majority of Florida’s teachers have opposed the new law, mostly because they believe it will keep them from protecting their students from anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and help perpetuate harmful stereotypes about LGBTQ+ people.
Teachers have also argued that the legislation solves a problem that does not exist in Florida.
Topics related to sex education, which some state lawmakers have equated with sexual orientation and gender identity, are not taught in grades K-3, according to Sunshine State Standards.
Currently, sex education in Florida does not begin until the fifth grade, Spar said, when health instructors are required to give a one-time lesson on bodily changes that students may be experiencing because of puberty.
Lessons about sexual orientation or gender identity are not part of the curriculum, he said.
But conservative lawmakers have argued to the contrary, claiming that both topics are being pushed in an inappropriate manner on children in classrooms across the state.
In emailed comments to Changing America, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Harding (R), said the measure had successfully prevented “far-left school districts from trying to sexualize our children.”
“Florida is no longer just the freest state in the country, it is now the most pro-parent state as well,” he said.
In March, Harding during a television interview with ABC affiliate WPLG in Miami said he had introduced the bill because he had been notified of multiple instances where educators of students as young as kindergarten were teaching lessons about “gender theory and gender identity.”
“The reason that the bill exists is because we have specific examples where this type of instruction has happened in Florida schools,” he said at the time.
Harding added that the legislation’s primary purpose is — and has always been — to empower parents and give them a greater say in the education of their children. He said Democrats calling the measure the “Don’t Say Gay” bill were lying to children and using them as “political pawns” to further an agenda.
LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, meanwhile, have accused Harding and other Florida Republicans of doing the same thing.
“The country is tired of watching you use the lives of our children for personal political power,” Joni Madison, the interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Thursday in a statement directed at conservative politicians in Florida and other states where similar measures have been introduced.
“We’ve always understood what we’re up against in the state of Florida,” Brandon Wolf, the press secretary of the organization Equality Florida, told Changing America. “We know these lawmakers, we know the rightward shift that has happened under Governor Ron DeSantis.”
Equality Florida is one of several groups suing the DeSantis administration over the new law, which it called “blatantly unconstitutional” in a complaint filed in March.
The law is also personal for Wolf, a queer man who survived the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016. His two best friends, Drew and Juan, were among the 49 people killed that night.
Wolf worries that measures like this one will stoke division and worsen anti-LGBTQ+ violence, which has increased nationwide over the last year.
“It feels very ominous that in a state that saw the deadliest attack on LGBTQ people in this nation’s history … that we would be having conversations about erasing our history, our lives, our lived experiences from classrooms,” he said.
Wolf said he’s recently felt a renewed vigilance when it comes to his personal safety — a vigilance he has not felt since the days immediately following the Pulse attack.