Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has signed into law a controversial piece of legislation aimed at restricting schools in the Sunshine State from teaching students about sexual orientation and gender issues, with teachers opening themselves up to lawsuits should they fail to comply.
Dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its critics but formally known as the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, the text of the legislation states that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through [third grade]” or “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards” in other grades.
Further, it explicitly states that parents “may bring an action against a school district to obtain a declaatory judgment” and a court may award damages and attorney’s fees if it finds that a school violated the measure.
The bill was passed by Florida’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives on 24 February and the state Senate on 8 March. Governor DeSantis signed it into law on 28 March, meaning its terms will come into effect from 1 July, with all school district plans required to be updated by June 2023. LGBT+ advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit against Mr DeSantis and the state’s education officials to block enforcement of the law on 31 March.
Democratic legislators proposed a series of amendments to clarify the bill’s intent, or to separate its ostensible intent from its impact, by striking out language that could target LGBT+ students and their families. They all failed.
A Republican amendment proposed asking schools to disclose whether a child is LGBT+ to their parents within six weeks of learning that they are not straight – but it was withdrawn before the bill reached the House.
Why Florida’s LGBT+ advocates oppose the bill
The bill has attracted widespread criticism in Florida and beyond, with opponents arguing it would effectively silence vulnerable LGBT+ students and hinder or harm their personal development while potentially violating educators’ freedom of speech and First Amendment rights.
Thousands of high school students staged walkouts in protest over the bill, and a large demonstration was held outside the state Capitol building as legislators debated the legislation.
The bill came up for debate in the Senate on 7 March, where Shevrin Jones – the first openly LGBT+ member of Florida’s Republican-dominated Senate – made an emotional appeal for proponents of the bill to shoot it down because it could forcibly “out” LGBT+ students and have a chilling effect on LGBT+ people and issues in Florida schools.
“Seeing these kids, I don’t think y’all understand how much courage it takes to show up every day,” Mr Jones said, reflecting on his father’s “disappointment” and the insults hurled at him after he publicly came out.
Official defending the bill insisted its intention is simply to keep parents “in the know and involved on what’s going on” with their children’s education and that its critics are “absolutely misinformed on what exactly the bill does”, according to one the bill’s chief sponsors, Republican state representative Joe Harding.
But critics argue that supporters of the legislation have failed to provide comfort to LGBT+ students and families voicing concerns that proponents of the measure believe are unfounded or overstated.
The bill’s critics also argue that right-wing proponents have weaponised the bill’s language, reviving anti-LGBT+ attacks to build public support for the legislation.
One of the most outspoken supporters of the proposal is the Trump-aligned state governor and possible 2024 Republican presidential Mr DeSantis.
He signed the bill into law on 28 March at a ceremony surrounded by schoolchildren and administration officials, where he said the bill will ensure that “parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.”
Speaking at a press conference last month, Governor DeSantis said: “My goal is to educate kids on the subjects, math, reading, science, all the things that are so important. I don’t want the schools to kind of be a playground for ideological disputes.”
The governor claims that the bill addresses “sexual stuff” and “telling kids they may be able to pick genders and all that” – none of which is included in the bill.
“How many parents want their kindergarteners to have ‘transgenderism’ or something injected into classroom discussion?” he asked.
On 7 March, he lashed out at a reporter who asked whether he supports the bill, claiming that it would only impact students in kindergarten through third grade. The bill is not limited to those grades; classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity would be prohibited at all grade levels if it is not deemed “age appropriate.”
“We’re going to make sure that parents are able to send their children to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into their curriculum,” the governor said.
His press secretary Christina Pushaw called it the “anti-grooming bill”, reviving anti-LGBT+ attacks suggesting LGBT+ people are paedophiles. Her comments were echoed across social media and by other right-wing media figures and other Republican officials.
LGBT+ advocacy organization Equality Florida said her statement “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.”
Following several hours of debate ahead of a vote in the state Senate, bill supporter Ileana Garcia claimed “gay is not a permanent thing” and “LGBT is not a permanent thing.”
Bill sponsor Dennis Baxley – asked why the bill does not address suicide or drug use, among other difficult topics in classrooms – suggested that “we’re having all of these issues come up about this topic with their sexuality and gender,” adding that he doesn’t “understand why that’s such a big wave right now.”
Equality Florida and a group of Florida families filed their lawsuit to block enforcement of the bill in US District Court on 31 March, calling the measure an “unlawful attempt to stigmatize, silence, and erase LGBTQ people in Florida’s public schools”.
“This effort to control young minds through state censorship – and to demean LGBTQ lives by denying their reality – is a grave abuse of power,” the 80-page complaint states.
Why Disney is under fire
The Walt Disney Company – a massive political force in Florida – has faced growing calls to condemn the bill. Following the weeks of protests, CEO Bob Chapek said he spoke with Governor DeSantis and has sought a meeting with his office and LGBT+ staff from Disney – after the bill passed the state’s legislature.
On 11 March, Mr Chapek announced the company would “immediately” begin supporting efforts to combat similar legislation in other states and will pause “all political donations” in the state pending a review of the company’s political giving, conceding that the company failed to ” be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights.”
The Independent‘s review of state campaign finance records found that several Disney entities donated tens of thousands of dollars to Florida legislators who supported the bill, including at least $4,000 to the 2022 re-election campaigns for the bill’s chief sponsors, state Representative Joe Harding and state Senator Dennis Baxley.
Disney entities also donated $50,000 to a political action committee tied to the governor in 2021.
For weeks, LGBT+ employees and their advocates at the company – which touts its record as a LGBT+-friendly workplace and celebrates its diverse programming – have demanded that the company speak out against the measure.The company’s LGBT+ employees and staff opposed to the legislation are staging daily walkouts to protest the bill and pressure Disney to indefinitely cease all campaign donations to state officials who created or helped pass the measure.Protesting workers also demand that Disney leadership publicly commit to an actionable plan that protects employees from anti-LGBT+ legislation, among other demands urging the company to bolster its support for LGBT+ people and their families. The actions culminate in a full workday walkout or “sick out” on 22 March.
In a staff memo issued hours before Florida’s Republican-controlled Senate debated the bill before its final passage, Mr Chapek said “corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds” and are instead “often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame.”
He said the company’s films and programs “are more powerful than any tweet or lobbying effort.”
During a shareholders meeting on 9 March, Mr Chapek broke his silence on the bill, saying that the company “opposed to the bill from the outset”, and that he talked with Governor DeSantis “to express our disappointment and concern that if legislation becomes law , it could be used to unfairly target gay lesbian, nonbinary and transgender kids and families.”
A statement from the governor’s office said his position on the measure “has not changed” after the call with Mr Chapek, and that no in-person meeting had yet been scheduled.
What the White House says
US President Joe Biden told Florida students in a message on Twitter in February that they “are loved and accepted just as you are”.
“I have your back, and my administration will continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve,” he said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki also denounced the legislation.
“Every parent hopes that our leaders will ensure their children’s safety, protection, and freedom,” she said. “Today, conservative politicians in Florida rejected those basic values by advancing legislation that is designed to target and attack the kids who need support the most – LGBTQI+ students, who are already vulnerable to bullying and violence just for being themselves.”
US transport secretary Pete Buttigieg, the first openly LGBT+ member of the White House cabinet, has warned that the bill could inspire a spike in teen suicides.
A 2021 report from LGBT+ suicide prevention and crisis intervention group The Trevor Project found that LGBT+ youth are four times more likely to seriously consider, plan or attempt suicide than their peers, while LGBT+ young people between the ages of 13 and 24 attempt to kill themselves every 45 seconds within the US.
Another report from the organization found that LGBT+ young people who learned about LGBT+ people or issues in school were 23 per cent less likely to report a suicide attempt within the last year.
This story was previously published on March 12 and has been updated
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