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What Donald Trump Jr and GOP proponents of ‘Don’t Say Gay’ get wrong about the bill

Supporters of Florida’s controversial legislation tell critics to ‘read the bill.’ We did, and it doesn’t say what they think it does

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 15 March 2022 21:04 GMT
LGBTQ+ Florida senator makes tearful plea against 'Don't Say Gay' bill

To hear Republican officials tell it, what critics have called Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill simply gives parents more control over their children’s classroom instruction, or it prevents young children from learning about sex, or it stops LGBT+ teachers from “grooming” their students.

To those officials, the “Parental Rights in Education Act” does not discriminate against LGBT+ people – what Governor Ron DeSantis calls a “fraudulent” narrative promoted by advocacy groups and the media to promote “woke gender ideology” – it merely forbids schools from forcing young children to learn about LGBT+ sex and gender transition. They argue it’s a straightforward, reasonable measure while characterising its opponents as child predators.

But the text of the bill does not say any of those things. Republican legislators, after hours of debate in the state Capitol, even rejected several amendments that would have explicitly forbidden lessons on sex or classroom instruction about transitioning.

Instead, the text of the bill relies on vaguely written and broad prohibitions on classroom speech while allowing parents to sue school districts over perceived violations, inviting costly investigations and lawsuits targeting teachers that could have a chilling effect on LGBT+ issues and people, critics have warned.

Defence of the bill – echoed across right-wing media, from Ben Shapiro to Donald Trump Jr – insists it protects children from sexual predators, or corrects critics by asserting that the word “gay” does not appear in the text. So what does it say, exactly?

Proponents of the bill argue that it only applies to children in kindergarten through third grade, but the text of the bill says otherwise; it prohibits schools from encouraging “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.”

That second “or” distinguishes an outright ban on classroom instruction in lower grades, while the state would also prohibit those discussions in other grades if it deems those conversations not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

The bill’s own sponsor in the state House, state Rep Joe Harding, even explained to a legislative committee that the bill applies to all students in all grades.

“Beyond the third grade, it’s age appropriate, it’s in line with state standards,” he said.

Governor DeSantis lashed out at a reporter who asked a question about the bill to insist that it only impacts younger students, adding that “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.”

“First graders shouldn’t have ‘woke’ gender ideology imposed in their curriculums,” he told a group of supporters last week.

The bill does not determine or define what those “state standards” entail, as there are no current Florida standards to discuss gender identity or sexual orientation, which could effectively freeze any kind of discussion of any LGBT+ issues – from students’ own families to instruction of the US Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality.

The bill’s supporters also have conflated issues involving gender identity and sexual orientation with sex education instruction by broadly banning any discussion “on” such issues while reviving homophobic and transphobic attacks relying on anti-LGBT+ tropes that gay people prey on children.

“No opponent of the bill sought to expand sex ed to K-3 students – they sought to ensure that LGBT people and families could still be discussed and not erased, and for some reason they were voted down by the conservative majority every time,” said LGBT+ rights researcher Ryan Thoreson with the Human Rights Campaign.

“In fact, opponents of the bill tried to amend it so it would instead prohibit discussions of sexual activity in K-3 grades, and for some reason that nobody can explain to me, the proponents of the bill voted that down,” he said.

Republican legislators repeatedly rejected amendments to explicitly clarify that the bill would prohibit sex ed instruction in those grades.

Senator Shevrin Jones, the first openly LGBT+ member of the state senate, also proposed an amendment to instead ban school instruction “intended to change a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity”. That amendment was also shot down.

Instead, legislative debate offered a launchpad for homophobic and transphobic attacks.

After hours of debate, the bill’s co-sponsor, Republican state senator Dennis Baxley – asked why the bill singles out gender identity and sexual orientation over topics like drug use or suicide – conceded that he believes children are “trying out identities” and “experimenting”.

“All of a sudden we’re having all these issues come up, this topic of their sexuality, and their gender … I don’t understand why that’s such a wave right now,” he said. “My question is simply, are we encouraging this or eliminating it by putting emphasis on it, or are we helping something?”

Before the Senate passed the bill, state Senator Ileana Garcia claimed “gay is not a permanent thing” and “LGBT is not a permanent thing.”

The governor’s press secretary Christina Pushaw called the measure the “anti-grooming” bill, comments that have been echoed across social media and by other right-wing media figures and Republican officials.

Another communications aide for the governor said that “either you support the sexualization of children under 10 years old or you don’t.”

“There is no ‘don’t say gay’ bill but given all the crazy sexualization of our kids propaganda I’m seeing maybe we need a ‘Don’t Groom Our Kids’ bill,” Donald Trump Jr said on 15 March. “If the left needs to teach toddlers these things there can be few other rational explanations and parents need to push back now!”

The bill passed the state’s House of Representatives on 24 February and the state Senate on 8 March. Should it be signed into law, its terms would come into effect from 1 July, with all school district plans required to be updated by June 2023.

Georgia Republicans have also introduced the “Common Humanity in Private Education Act”, which prohibits the state’s private schools and programmes from promoting, compelling or encouraging classroom discussion of “sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not appropriate for the age and developmental stage of the student.”

Another measure in Tennessee would block public schools from using instructional materials that “promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender issues or lifestyles.”

This year, Republican state legislators have proposed more than 266 bills targeting LGBT+ Americans, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Of those proposals, at least 125 directly target transgender people.

In 2021, at least 25 anti-LGBT+ measures were signed into law across the US, including 13 laws targeting transgender people in eight states, according to the organisation.

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