On March 8, 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a House Bill 1557, known as both the “Parental Rights in Education” and the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. In February, President Joe Biden called the bill “hateful.”
The “Don’t Say Gay” title comes from some of the bill’s key passages, prohibiting “classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” The bill itself is further reaching than just LGBTQ+ issues, impacting the health needs of students. Parents are able to opt their children out of counseling and health services, and if students receive any type of health service from school, parents will be notified. Between the “Don’t Say Gay” and the health services portion of the bill, the access students will have to help outside of their parents is worrying, to say the least.
Deciding to exclude words like “gay” or “homosexuality” from a classroom will not stop a person from being Queer; it only makes them think that they are alone. According to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention among LGBTQ+ kids, “LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past 12 months.”
While it is not the first bill of its kind to be written, it is unlikely to be the last. House Bill 800 in Tennessee asserts, “textbooks and instructional materials and supplemental instructional materials that promote, normalize, support, or address controversial social issues, such as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) lifestyles are inappropriate” and “the promotion of LGBT issues and lifestyles in public schools offends a significant portion of students, parents, and Tennessee residents with Christian values.” Tennessee’s bill is not vaguely limited to kindergarten through third grade like Florida’s; it covers all public K-12 classrooms.
Opponents of Tennesse’s bill question the implication of words like “normalize” and “address” — what about the Queer educators? Will pictures of spouses be removed from their classroom desks? What about the students with Queer parents? Are both parents allowed to enter the classroom for parent-teacher conferences? (The question of books and educational material will continue to be argued, particularly with the banning of specific books related to LGBTQ+ issues and racial inequality in the United States).
Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill affecting not only what is said in the classroom but outside is chilling. Students like Will Larkins, a junior in high school from Winter Park, Florida, are worried. Larkins published an opinion essay in The New York Times on March 12, explaining the positive influence that an understanding teacher had, writing, “Education made me hate myself less.”
Larkins and their friend Maddi Zornek led a walkout of more than 500 students on the day of the signing. Other protests have taken place since, notably those including Disney employees. The fight for LGBTQ+ rights does not seem to be over, especially as other states follow in Florida’s footsteps. Earlier this month, Alabama passed legislation banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors and threatening those who attempt to provide such cares with prison time. They also passed a similar, though more severe, K-12 “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would force students to use the bathroom and locker room of their sex assigned at birth. Alabama’s legislation would ban classroom instruction concerning gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through fifth grade, further than Florida’s K-3 bill.
Medical groups, like the American Medical Association, are in great opposition to Alabama’s bill. Last year, the organization sent a letter to the National Governors Association describing the detrimental effects and risks of banning gender-affirming care for trans youth. In the letter, the AMA expressed specific concern for the higher risks of suicide and mental health disorders due to stress for transgender minors, and stated, “Studies suggest that improved body satisfaction and self-esteem following the receipt of gender-affirming care can have tragic health consequences, both mental and physical … Studies also demonstrate dramatic reductions in suicide attempts, as well as decreased rates of depression and anxiety.”
Parents are often not licensed healthcare professionals, nor are they the primary educators for kids K-12. The bill is vague, and its interpretation has the capability to hurt not only the students but teachers. Between the ages of six to 18, children spend seven to eight hours, five days a week in a place that they expect will support them in their growth and development (and allow them to use the bathroom where they are most comfortable). Their social lives often primarily exist within the walls of these schools, as do the teachers and counselors they confide in. How can a bill that excludes help from every source other than a parent be truly supportive for a growing kid or teen? What does that mean for parents, who may work most of the day and cannot give the kind of support that their child deserves due to their time and circumstances of their home?
Upon learning about LGBTQ+ issues, some kids have big “ah-ha” moments. Sometimes, they have known it their whole life. Removing language about these topics will not stop children from being Queer, nor does including the language make the students automatically Queer. It will not suddenly make them reach out to their parents, either. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill merely removes the resources students rely on in turbulent times of their lives, when they are trying to figure themselves out, and hope that people accept them the way they are. Hate has no place in the classroom, and removing the conversation surrounding it will not solve the issues these parents and lawmakers are concerned about — it will merely silence them.
Giselle Mills is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.