Republicans made changes to ‘don’t say gay’ bill. LGBTQ advocates aren’t buying it.

“It’s very clear that the proponents of this bill believe in anti-gay rhetoric,” one Democratic representative said.
Student activist Kaylee Sandell speaks at a news conference hosted by Equality Florida, AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the Human Rights Campaign in opposition of the so-called "don't say gay" bill on Tuesday in Tallahassee.
Student activist Kaylee Sandell speaks at a news conference hosted by Equality Florida, AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the Human Rights Campaign in opposition of the so-called "don't say gay" bill on Tuesday in Tallahassee. [ RICK WILSON | AP ]
Published Feb. 17, 2022|Updated Feb. 18, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — One of the most controversial bills of the 2022 legislative session looked a little different on Thursday.

But critics, who call the measure the “don’t say gay” bill, still aren’t on board. Far from it.

When it was first filed, the bill said school districts may not “encourage classroom discussion” about gender identity or sexuality in a way that is not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joe Harding, R-Williston, said he understood how some might find the word “encourage” to be vague. So on Thursday, a House committee took up — and passed — a new version of House Bill 1557 he hoped would be more specific.

Now, the bill’s language prohibits “classroom instruction” on sexual orientation or gender identity for kindergarten through third grade, and in older grades in a way that is not appropriate for students. It ties the definition of “age-appropriate” and “developmentally appropriate” to state standards.

“I want folks that oppose the bill to be really clear on what they’re actually opposing,” Harding said. “I want them to go on record to say it’s OK for a six-year-old to have one identity in school and one at home because the school encourages that kind of behavior.”

The full House could vote on the bill as soon as next week.

LGBTQ advocates still aren’t happy with the bill, saying it will harm queer students and their families.

“It’s Tallahassee at its best,” Elizabeth Smock, a University of Central Florida administrator from Kissimmee who has a 12-year-old transgender son, said sarcastically. “Can we just obfuscate a little bit so we can pretend we’re being good to people?”

Supporters say the measure would give parents more control over decisions related to kids’ well-being at school. If a school district violates the standards, the bill would allow parents to sue.

Dalaina May, whose son, Moses, organized a rally against the bill outside Gaither High this week, said she appreciated lawmakers’ attempt to hear what the critics have said about the legislation.

She did not see the changes as making a huge difference, though. The language that tells schools not to discuss LGBTQ issues remains in there, May said.

”You said primary grades ... now it says K-3,” May said. “What’s the difference?”

Harding’s bill and its companion, Senate Bill 1834, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, have caused a political firestorm. Earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Joe Biden’s White House each weighed in on the Senate version of the bill. The measure has drawn headlines from around the world.

Related: Florida's 'don't say gay' bills, explained

At Thursday’s committee hearing, Democrats contended the bill would allow parents to sue schools if teachers talk about gender identity or sexuality — subjects some socially conservative parents find controversial — at any grade level.

“It’s very clear that the proponents of this bill believe in anti-gay rhetoric,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, to the apparent shock of some supporters of the bill in the committee room.

Opponents of the bill asked Harding several hypothetical scenarios. Could third graders read a book with gay characters in it? Straight characters? Could schools assign children to talk to the class about their family if they have two same-sex parents?

Harding said the bill would not apply to one-off classroom conversations. It would instead apply to lesson plans.

“The idea that we would ban a specific conversation a child is having about their parent is impossible,” Harding said.

He said in an interview the bill is aimed at striking down existing policies in places like Hillsborough, Broward and Palm Beach that discourage schools from revealing a child’s sexual or gender identity to parents without the child’s consent. The bill would allow schools to keep some information from parents if a “reasonably prudent person” might suspect telling the parent could result in abuse or neglect.

Republican proponents of the bill say it’s drawn so much attention because of false reporting in the media on what the bills would do.

“This is not a hard concept,” said House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor. “If a first-grader walked into school and they started talking about sex education, I think all of the people in this room would agree that’s not appropriate for a six-year-old to learn about. Our bill is very reasonable. To the extent that it’s been controversial, it’s only because of the misreporting that has happened.”

But Smock said the bill’s language is vague and might discourage honest conversations at school, which could add barriers for kids trying to navigate their identities like her son, Ashton, she said.

Nadine Smith, executive director of the LGBTQ rights advocacy group Equality Florida, noted that the Department of Education would be empowered to establish the standard for age or developmentally appropriate sexual education under the bill. That gives advocates like Smith pause, she said, because of the department’s recent move to take down a webpage with anti-bullying resources that directed some visitors to LGBTQ advocacy groups.

Jared Ochs, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said in a statement it is a “ridiculous insinuation” to imply the department couldn’t responsibly create these standards.

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

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