‘Don’t say gay’ is having a moment. Messaging matters in Florida politics.

Florida Democrats celebrate taking a page from the Republican playbook.
Gaither High student Moses May uses a megaphone during a Feb. 14 demonstration against the "don't say gay" bill in front of his school in Tampa.
Gaither High student Moses May uses a megaphone during a Feb. 14 demonstration against the "don't say gay" bill in front of his school in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 28, 2022

As Florida’s legislative session opened in January, Republican lawmakers quickly made clear their plans to advance “parental rights in education.”

They used that phrase to label two bills (SB 1834 and HB 1557) they said would build upon the Parents’ Bill of Rights law they enacted last year.

Their messaging lasted for about a week before a new angle took hold, seemingly out of nowhere. And it came from an unlikely source.

”Don’t say gay.”

In the days after the Senate and House held their first hearings on the bills, that three-word phrase surfaced as critics steered the focus away from parental rights.

Local activists weren’t the only ones using it. National magazines and political figures adopted the tag as they attempted to reframe the debate around a section of the bill that aimed to prohibit classroom discussion about gender orientation and sexual identity.

That’s exactly what Kevin Cate, the strategist who helped Equality Florida devise its strategy, was aiming for.

Catchy labeling “matters when the conversation starts to go a mile outside the Capitol,” Cate said. “It’s an easy way for people to grasp what is happening.”

It’s not anything new in political campaigning. Florida Republicans have successfully branded several education-related concepts to favor their positions for years.

They gave the name “best and brightest” to a teacher pay bonus that many teachers hated. When voting for vouchers that steer public money to private schools, they called them “empowerment scholarships.” They took ideas that schools long have valued, such as diversity, and wrapped them into the term “critical race theory,” giving conservatives a rallying cry across the state.

”We live in a moment in time where you live and die by the sound bites,” said Christian Ziegler, vice chairperson of the state Republican Party, who also works as a campaign consultant. “Obviously, you need to have facts to support your message. But you want to have a good topline headline.... You want people to stop scrolling.”

That’s what “don’t say gay” has done.

As its popularity has grown, the phrase has made headlines across the nation, including on a story from The Hill on how other states have “don’t say gay” bills just like Florida’s. In the hours before the bill arrived on the House floor last week, #DontSayGay was among the top trending tags on Twitter.

The phrase itself wasn’t invented by the LGBTQ advocacy group that launched it at a news conference condemning the legislation. It came from a little-noticed Tennessee bill of a decade earlier, Equality Florida executive director Nadine Smith said.

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Back then, Facebook was the only social media platform with more than 16 percent of internet users, according to the Pew Research Center. The opportunity for a message to gain steam online was limited.

In 2022, strategist Cate said, it has become easier to wage and win a battle online.

Not that Florida Democrats have experienced much success in that arena. When they held their annual leadership conference in December, party leaders lamented that messaging was among their biggest deficits.

Their other attempts to rename contentious education legislation have fallen short, too. Few people, for example, are calling the House “Individual Freedoms” bill (HB 7) the “Erase History” bill, one of a few alternatives tested by the opponents.

So they’ve celebrated the ability to rebrand the parental rights bill and raised hopes they can do it again.

Sen. Shevrin Jones
Sen. Shevrin Jones [ MICHAEL MURPHY | Florida Senate ]

”I think it was brilliant that they did it,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Broward County Democrat who is vice chairperson of the Senate Education Committee. “They’re doing exactly what the Republicans do, how they message things so it’s easy for people to understand.”

Not that everyone is happy about the “don’t say gay” moniker.

A Moms for Liberty local chapter leader grumbled on Facebook that it’s misleading, claiming “nowhere in the bill does it say that.” A conservative Pinellas County blogger complained that news reports using the tag are little more than inflammatory clickbait.

Many articles continued to carry the wording as the bill won final approval on the House floor last week. It next heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday.

Rep. Joe Harding
Rep. Joe Harding [ Florida House of Representatives ]

State Rep. Joe Harding, the Williston Republican sponsoring the legislation in the House, told his colleagues during committee debate that he wanted to “come back to what we are actually talking about.” Afterward, he bristled about Equality Florida’s online ad blasting the bill, saying “Our bill doesn’t force a buzzer in a classroom to go off” when students or teachers say certain words.

Still, even those who don’t like the way “don’t say gay” has taken off acknowledged that they try to do the same thing in their realms.

”This time it could be the Democrats winning it. Next week, it could be the Republicans using the very same strategy,” Republican political consultant Shawn Foster said. “It depends on which fight and what words stir the electorate. They all have a base they have to get stirred, and they all have a message they want to get out.”

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