Opponents of bigotry and censorship are raising their voices in protest after Florida's GOP-controlled Senate Education Committee on Tuesday advanced legislation that would effectively prohibit teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in primary grades or at any level "in a manner that is not age-appropriate."
"It is always appropriate for kids to talk about themselves, their experiences, and their family. These are not taboo subjects, but banning them makes them seem so."
Dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by critics, S.B. 1834 and its companion, H.B.1557, would also require all school districts' trainings on "student support services" to adhere to the guidelines, standards, and frameworks established by the Florida Department of Education (DOE). But as the ACLU of Florida pointed out, the state DOE "currently excludes anti-bullying resources intended to help prevent LGBTQ+ youth suicides."
Kara Gross, legislative director of the ACLU of Florida, said Tuesday in a statement that "this government censorship bill seeks to ban classroom discussions related to sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. If passed, it would effectively silence students from speaking about their LGBTQ+ family members, friends, neighbors, and icons."
In addition, said Gross, "it would bar LGBTQ+ students from talking about their own lives and would deny their very existence. It is always appropriate for kids to talk about themselves, their experiences, and their family. These are not taboo subjects, but banning them makes them seem so."
After Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis voiced support for the legislation earlier this week, President Joe Biden tweeted: "I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community—especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill—to know that you 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."
Equality Florida, the state's largest organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, has launched a petition people can use to tell lawmakers to oppose legislation that the group says "is meant to stigmatize LGBTQ people, isolate LGBTQ kids, and make teachers fearful of providing a safe, inclusive classroom."
"If we don't speak up now, and act, Republicans will keep fighting to make laws like DeSantis' hateful 'Don't Say Gay' bill the norm," warned Patrick Gaspard, president of the Center for American Progress.
According to Gross, the "dangerously vague provisions" in S.B. 1834 and H.B. 1557 "would have a chilling effect on support for LGBTQ+ youth because it creates new costly liabilities for school districts. Under the bill, any parent who thinks that a classroom discussion was inappropriate or who is unsupportive of a district's policies would be given broad powers to sue for damages and attorneys' fees."
Jeffrey Sachs, a researcher at PEN America, recently noted that GOP lawmakers across the U.S. have introduced at least 137 bills that aim to limit the ability of teachers and students to discuss gender, racism, and other topics—including a growing number of proposals to establish so-called "tip lines" that would empower parents to discipline teachers.
In an opinion piece published Wednesday, Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent argued that this tidal wave of restrictive education bills has "an obvious purpose: to make teachers feel perpetually on thin ice, so they shy away from difficult discussions about our national past rather than risk breaking laws in ways they cannot themselves anticipate."
"But there's another, more pernicious goal driving these bills that might well succeed politically precisely because it remains largely unstated," Sargent continued. "The darker underlying premise here is that these bills are needed in the first place, because subversive elements lurk around every corner in schools, looking to pervert, indoctrinate, or psychologically torture your kids."
The "combination of... vagueness and punitive mechanisms such as rights of action and tip lines" is intentionally designed to promote self-censorship, wrote Sargent. "Precisely because teachers might fear that they can't anticipate how they might run afoul of the law—while also fearing punishment for such transgressions—they might skirt difficult subjects altogether."
Florida-based strategist Rick Wilson, who has broken with the GOP and knows from within how Republicans prosecute such culture wars, calls this a new "snitch culture" that's taking hold of his former party.
"They want teachers to be scared in the classroom," Wilson says. "We're going to see test cases... all over this country." As Wilson notes, the entire point is to put the base on high alert for "apostasy."
The roots of this run deep. As a great episode of the "Know Your Enemy" podcast details, calls for maximal parental choice and control in schools have been used by the right for decades as a smoke screen to sow fears and doubts about public education at its ideological foundations. The move from restricting race discourse to more "snitch" lines is perfectly in sync with that history.
Gross, meanwhile, said that the Florida bill "does nothing to help and support our youth." To the contrary, it "will have a real and devastating impact on LGBTQ+ youth, who already experience higher rates of bullying, homelessness, and suicide."
"Legislators," she added, "should oppose this bill and instead pass proposals that protect all students and truly address the challenges so many LGBTQ+ youth face in Florida schools."