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Latest proposed change to Florida’s ‘don’t say gay’ bill riles Democrats

They say a new amendment would require schools to notify parents when LGBTQ students confide in school officials.
A Pride flag catches the morning sun on Feb. 14 as students at Tampa's Gaither High protest Florida's “don’t say gay” bills.
A Pride flag catches the morning sun on Feb. 14 as students at Tampa's Gaither High protest Florida's “don’t say gay” bills. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 21|Updated Feb. 23

Editor’s note: House bill sponsor Rep. Joe Harding withdrew this proposed amendment on Tuesday. More information can be found here.

An amendment to Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” bill is sending outrage over the measure to a new level ahead of a floor debate in the House set for Tuesday.

The proposal by bill sponsor Rep. Joe Harding would alter a section of the legislation that initially offered protections to students who confide personal information to school employees, and who might face “abuse, abandonment or neglect” if their parents were to find out.

He would add language requiring staff who withhold any such information from parents to disclose it within six weeks of that decision. Harding, R-Williston, did not respond to calls or text messages seeking comment.

State Rep. Joe Harding, R-Williston
State Rep. Joe Harding, R-Williston [ Florida House of Representatives ]

His amendment is one of many that will be debated when the bill (HB 1557) hits the House floor on Tuesday. House leadership has scheduled two hours for members to talk about the measure, and another three hours to review an equally controversial proposal (HB 7) relating to lessons about race and diversity in schools.

Organizations on both sides of the issue have been flooding their lawmakers’ email inboxes expressing their views on the topics, which have gained attention nationally. House Bill 1557 aims to prevent instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary schools, or at any grade level when a lesson is considered not age appropriate.

The bill does not define terms such as “age appropriate.” It would allow families to sue schools over perceived violations.

Opponents quickly attacked the latest recommended addition to HB 1557 over the weekend.

State Rep. Michael Grieco
State Rep. Michael Grieco [ Florida House of Representatives ]

“Listen, there’s no form of this bill where it’s a good bill,” said state Rep. Michael Grieco, a Miami Beach Democrat who calls himself a vocal straight ally of the LGBTQ community. “But it seems like every time I look at what’s going on, it gets worse.”

Grieco blistered the legislation as anti-gay when debating the measure in the House Judiciary Committee last week. Harding’s amendment, he said, is “patently offensive” in that it no longer attempts to hide its intent.

“This is another red meat pandering bill, and it has nothing to do with parental rights,” he said. “It is empowering mean people to be more mean.”

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat and outspoken LGBTQ activist, called it “horrifying” that the amendment would require schools to out children against their will, in instances when they could face severe repercussions as a result.

“It intentionally puts LGBTQ youth in harm’s way,” Smith said, noting he had to read the proposal several times to make sure he understood it correctly. “I just couldn’t believe how malicious it was.”

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Not only LGBTQ children would be at risk with the amendment provisions, he continued.

The way the amendment reads, he said, “This is about disclosure of anything a child shares with the school.”

Smith worried that if the concept becomes law, it would put some of Florida’s most at-risk teens into precarious situations where they feel more isolated and unable to talk to adults about their situations.

Democrats have filed about a dozen amendments of their own to HB 1557, including one by Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, that would allow a student to sue the state if a school reveals their sexual orientation to their parent and as a result they face “irreparable harm.”

“I’m just taking a page out of their playbook and making sure the child at the center of this has a cause for action,” Eskamani said.

She mentioned that the House Republican leadership has allotted 40 minutes for questions on the bill, and given the Democrats 40 minutes to debate. She suggested it’s because they don’t want too much time spent on a proposal they know is not popular.

“All eyes are on Florida right now,” Eskamani said. “We’re going to fight like hell and do everything we can.”

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Speaker pro tempore Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, did not return calls seeking comment.

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