TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Republicans want to forbid discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in schools with a bill that activists say endangers children and echoes a previous wave of laws that sought to squelch LGBTQ conversations in the classroom.
Activists have dubbed the proposal moving through Florida's GOP-controlled Statehouse as the “Don't Say Gay” bill, and it has attracted condemnation on social media and from Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
If passed, the measure would "effectively silence students from speaking about their LGBTQ family members, friends, neighbors and icons,” said Kara Gross of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The bill emerged amid a national debate over how U.S. schools should teach about race, gender and history. The broad reexamination of public education has often turned contentious and led to books being pulled from school library shelves.
As written, the proposal states that school districts "may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” A parent could sue a district for violations.
In a committee hearing last week, Democrats peppered bill sponsor Rep. Joe Harding with questions about whether kids would be able to talk freely about LGBTQ people or history.
Harding repeatedly said his bill is meant to give parents more control over what their children learn. He maintained that it would not silence spontaneous discussions but instead stop a district from integrating such topics into the curriculum. He added that schools could still have lessons on Pride Month and events such as the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in which a gunman killed 49 people in Orlando.
“This doesn't preclude discussion and conversation that’s going to happen. We’re talking about a school district initiating something through a standard procedure or policy that they’re doing,” he said.
Critics said Harding's statements contradicted the broad text of his bill, particularly in terms of having lessons on LGBTQ history, which they argued would be barred from the curriculum. They also said the proposal does not specify what grades would be affected. Harding said it would apply to students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“There’s a lack of clarity clearly on what this bill is seeking to do. But what we do know is that LGBTQ people are a normal, healthy part of our society," Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director of Equality Florida, told lawmakers at the hearing. “We're parents, students and teachers. We are your brothers and your sisters. Conversations about us aren't something dangerous that should be banned.”
Aaron DiPietro, legislative director for the conservative Florida Family Policy Council, spoke in support of the measure, telling the committee: “These are issues that parents need to be involved in.”
The bill passed the GOP-controlled committee and now heads to another committee. After the hearing, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat who is gay, posted a video to social media criticizing the proposal.
"We should and we are encouraging these types of conversations in our schools,” he said.
A similar bill introduced by a Republican state senator has yet to have a hearing.
The Florida proposal has echoes of a cluster of state laws passed mostly in the late 1980s and early 1990s to restrict discussions of LGBTQ issues in public schools.
In Utah, the restrictions banning “advocacy of homosexuality” in sex education and elsewhere affected kids for years, according to a 2017 lawsuit. They hamstrung one school’s response to bullying after a 7-year-old boy was beaten and burned on a hot metal slide because the laws prevented teachers from telling other kids it was OK to be gay or wear girls’ clothes, his mother said in court papers.
A school district also pulled a book about a lesbian couple raising children from library shelves under those rules.
In another case, a boy was told he could not do a family-history project on an uncle who was gay, said Clifford Rosky, a law professor at the University of Utah whose research formed the basis of the lawsuit.
“Any child or any student whose parent is a member of that group feels stigmatized, like the law stigmatizes their family,” he said. “We saw this very dramatically in Utah.”
Utah changed the law in response to the lawsuit, as have other states such as Arizona, South Carolina and Alabama.
Rosky said the Florida measure "has a greater discriminatory effect and a greater chilling effect, because it’s up to every individual parent to enforce the law,” he said.
The bill "would make teachers fearful of providing a safe, inclusive classroom,” said Julie Wilensky, senior staff attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “It would really harm LGBTQ students and families, and it would stigmatize them by suggesting there’s something so shameful or dangerous about LGBTQ people that they can’t be discussed at school.”
Large majorities of LGBTQ kids in Florida reported hearing homophobic remarks in school in a 2019 survey, and 69% reported being verbally harassed based on sexual orientation.
Last year, a handful of states passed new laws requiring parents to be notified about any discussions of LGBTQ issues in schools and allowing them to opt out. Those states included Tennessee, Arkansas and Montana, where the law has a broadly written in reference to “human sexuality education.” A similar measure was vetoed in Arizona.
It was part of a record year for anti-LGBT bills, with 26 enacted in 10 states, according to Human Rights Campaign. This year, less than a month into many legislative sessions, the LGBT-rights group is opposing at least 200 bills.
Whitehurst contributed from Salt Lake City.