Tension, condemnation rises in LGBTQ community as 'Don’t say Gay' bill nears vote in GOP-led Senate
Students protesting at the Florida Capitol. Mar. 3, 2022. (Credit: Danielle J. Brown)

On Sunday, a day before the Florida Senate was scheduled to consider a nationally-watched piece of legislation referred to as “Don’t Say Gay,” the organization Equality Florida posted a statement condemning “homophobic, transphobic” remarks from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary.

Christina Pushaw tweeted Friday in support of the bill that would restrict certain conversations on LGBTQ issues in Florida’s public school classrooms. That led to a scathing statement from Equality Florida:

“Governor DeSantis’ spokesperson 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. He chose Pushaw to speak his mind to the public. He owns this unbridled hatred.”

It’s just the latest salvo in a battle over HB 1557, which has drawn nationwide attention and protests across the state, and is considered one of the main “culture war” bills to be considered in the 2022 legislative session in Florida.

The bill is officially called “Parental Rights in Education,” but opponents have been referring to it as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill due to its potential chilling effect in Florida classrooms regarding LGBTQ issues and students.

The state House has already approved the bill.

In the final days of the 2022 legislative session, the Senate will decide on Monday whether to heed the concerns of Florida’s LGBTQ youth and their allies, or stick to supporting parent rights to lead discussions on sexual orientation or LGBTQ concerns rather than teachers or other school personnel.

Many supporters of the bill says that it simply furthers protection for a parent’s right to direct the upbringing of his or her child, extending efforts from Florida’s new law called the “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

However, Pushaw’s tweet in particular on Friday didn’t highlight parents’ rights. Instead she tweeted:

“The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill.”

Her follow-up tweet says: “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat who represents part of Orange County and is gay, tweeted Sunday:

#DeSantis’ spokesperson openly accused opponents of #DontSayGay of being ‘groomers’— aka PEDOPHILES. Bigoted attacks like this against LGBTQ people are the worst of the worst. They’re disgusting and dangerous and have NO PLACE in the Guv’s office.”

Pushaw on Sunday said in an exchange from other Twitter users:

“A hit dog hollers.”

“Don’t say Gay” or “Parental rights?”

HB 1557 is sponsored by Rep. Joe Harding in the House. He represents Levy and part of Marion County. Sen. Dennis Baxley, the Senate sponsor, is a Republican representing counties in Central Florida.

The bill provides parents the opportunity to sue if a school district withholds certain information from them about their child’s well-being or if their child is exposed to instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity deemed not “age-appropriate.”

The required parental-access to information about a child’s welfare has fueled concern. The LGBTQ community, for example, is worried that students could be “outed” to an unsupportive family, potentially putting LGBTQ students in harm’s way.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has already signaled his support for HB 1557.

The governor said at a Friday press conference: “How many parents want their kindergarteners to have ‘transgenderism’ or something injected into classroom discussion?” DeSantis said. “I think those are very young kids. I think the Legislature’s basically trying to give parents assurance that… this stuff’s not going to be there.”

In addition: “It’s basically saying for our youngest students — four-year-olds, five-year-olds, six years and seven — do you really want them being taught about sexu—and this is any sexual stuff. But I think clearly right now, we’re seeing a lot of focus on the transgenderism, telling kids they may be able to pick genders and all that,” the governor said.

But that’s not quite what the legislation says.

The bill language actually says: “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”

The terms ‘gender identity’ and ‘sexual orientation’ target LGBTQ students, families, and teachers, according to bill opponents.

In fact, two bipartisan efforts to clarify the bill language to instead prohibit certain conversations about “sexual activity” and “human sexuality” were shot down at previous points in the legislative session.

The bill language is vague on what is “age-appropriate” in higher grades, and has been a sticking point for LGBTQ advocates and some lawmakers, and could potentially lead to a chilling effect in Florida classrooms.

“The thought that educators and students are talking about sexuality in an inappropriate manor is not true,” Rep. Michele Rayner told the Phoenix earlier during session. “I think that there so many intended — some people say ‘unintended’ but I think it is intended – consequences that come with this bill.”

Rayner is a Democrat in the Tampa Bay area and is a gay woman.

She said that parents have a right to know what their children are being taught in school but that the bill language alienates members of the LGBTQ community.

“You are alienating children who have parents that happen to be of the same gender, you are alienating teachers who happen to love someone of the same gender, you are alienating children who are identifying as trans,” Rayner told the Phoenix.

Backlash

Thursday, hundreds of high school students across the state organized protests against HB 1557, one of which took place inside the Florida Capitol building, where around a hundred students voiced their opposition to the bill and insulted DeSantis outside of the House and Senate chambers.

There will be more protests Monday morning, according to LGBTQ advocates.

Opponents also have concerns with what constitutes as “classroom instruction” and whether teachers having a discussion with students on matters regarding the LGBTQ community would be prohibited under the bill.

Emily Gray, a transgender woman who is with an advocacy group in Bay County, says that conversations around gender identity and sexual orientation should be a child-led discussion, meaning if a child wants to talk then a teacher should be able to engage in the discussion.

“Some children are more cognitive of their own being, and in this day-in-age they have the words,” she told the Phoenix last month. “I never had the words to understand the feelings that I had, so kids didn’t really talk about it. But kids these days do, and that’s what they’re (supporters of the bill) trying to prevent… I feel like they have the idea that if they don’t talk about it then their kids won’t know about it, and therefore they won’t become trans, or gay, or lesbian, or whatever.”

She continued: “I don’t think there should be a special teaching session at that age…but if a child identifies a certain way as child says ‘I like boys and I am a boy’ then a conversation should be had with them, to let them know that that its completely normal and okay…Their (a teacher’s) role should be what it is now, they shouldn’t talk about it unless the children talk about it. And if the children talk about it, they should be able to give a fact-based answer or discussion with the child if the child is trying to discuss it with them.”

National picture

The bill has garnered national attention. HB 1557 was dubbed a “hateful bill” by President Joe Biden on Twitter in early February.

The American Bar Association wrote on Feb. 17 that they oppose provisions in the bill because “they would undermine the well-being of LGBTQ students and chill beneficial faculty speech.”

Meanwhile, Log Cabin Republicans, an organization representing LGBTQ conservatives, are okay with the bill.

In a January 27 press release, Log Cabin Republicans President Charles Moran said about the bill: “All it does is reinforce the commonsense belief that teacher-led classroom discussions around sexual and gender identity do not belong in primary schools.”

HB 1557 would need to come to fruition before the end of the legislation session, which ends March 11.

Some senators have offered amendments addressing concerns about the bill, and the Senate will have the opportunity to approve or dismiss those changes.


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