‘Don’t say gay’: Senate panel rejects Republican’s attempt to tone down bill

The measure now heads to the full Senate for a vote.
Sarah Williams and Todd Parke participate in a student-organized protest at Gaither High in Tampa against what critics call the “don’t say gay” bill on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022.
Sarah Williams and Todd Parke participate in a student-organized protest at Gaither High in Tampa against what critics call the “don’t say gay” bill on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 28, 2022|Updated Feb. 28, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — A Republican state senator offered an amendment to the so-called “don’t say gay” bill Monday in an attempt to reduce partisan tensions over one of the most controversial measures of the legislative session.

His GOP colleagues voted the idea down, then voted to move the bill to a full Senate vote.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, argued that his amendment would fix the most contentious portion of House Bill 1557, which would bar schools from teaching lessons on gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade — or in ways that are not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate in other grades.

Instead of restricting schools from teaching young kids about sexual orientation and gender identity, Brandes’ amendment would have stopped schools from conducting lessons on “human sexuality or sexual activity.”

“If the intent is not to marginalize anyone, let’s make sure we aren’t,” Brandes said. “Let’s be clear and clearly define and say that conversations about human sexuality or sexual activity that fall outside of state guidelines should not occur. We can do this.”

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the bill’s sponsor, argued the amendment would “gut” the bill, but he did not elaborate. It was voted down mostly along party lines.

Last week, Rep. Carlos Smith, D-Orlando, offered a similar amendment to the House bill. It was voted down in that chamber, as well. Smith, one of the few openly gay members of the Legislature, appeared at the Senate committee Monday hoping to testify on Brandes’ amendment, but he was not permitted to speak by committee chairperson Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

Related: Florida House Democrats, Republicans clash over CRT, 'don't say gay' bills

Supporters of the bill, which appears to be headed toward passage, say its provisions have been distorted by partisan messaging. They argue parents should have control over what students learn at school.

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

They support the measure because it would allow parents to be apprised of any major changes in a student’s health or well-being — including if they begin to express a sexual or gender identity they may not feel comfortable expressing at home.

Under the bill, schools are allowed to keep a student’s sexual or gender identity from parents if they suspect the disclosure could lead to “abuse, abandonment, or neglect.” A House proposal to alter that section was withdrawn from consideration last week following fierce pushback from Democrats and advocates.

Critics of the bill, including most Democrats, argue that it singles out sexual orientation and gender identity in classroom instruction. They argue the bill is vague and would have a chilling effect on teachers having honest discussions with students.

Under the bill, if a parent believes their child’s school has violated the measure’s provisions, they can sue their school district or take their concerns to the State Board of Education.

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At an emotional Senate committee hearing Monday, dozens of speakers — including several students and teachers — came to Tallahassee to weigh in on the bill.

Will Larkins, 17, the president of the queer student union at Winter Park High School, said they knew they were gay and gender non-binary since before kindergarten.

”I have heard different members of the Legislature say something along the lines of, ‘Parents know what’s best for their kids.’ When it comes to the queer community, that is not true,” Larkins said. “If parents know what’s best for their kids, why did my best friend get kicked out of his house and have to live with me?”

The debate over gender identity discussions in the classroom comes as a broader fight over transgender rights plays out in the conservative political arena.

More than a dozen other states are taking up measures limiting how schools can handle gender identity or sexual orientation in schools.

In Texas, Republican leaders have also opened the door for parents who provide gender-affirming care for their transgender children to be subjected to child abuse investigations. That policy has been roundly denounced by medical and psychiatric experts from that state who say gender-affirming care is health care.

Over the weekend, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando featured many speakers who questioned the existence of transgender people, saying that “gender confusion” is part of an insidious “woke” culture.

Those ideas were showcased in a panel discussion at the conference titled “Silly Doctor! Sex Changes Aren’t for Kids.” The conversation was led by Terry Schilling, president of American Principles Project — a group funded by anonymous donors that has pushed to ban transgender female athletes from participating in girls’ scholastic sports — and Kimberly Fletcher, the founder of Moms for America who has been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Schilling and Fletcher said parents and families need to lead the charge in any discussion pertaining to gender identity, an idea that has been echoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans as they push for the legislation expanding parental rights in schools.

“We are big fans of what he is doing,” Schilling said of DeSantis. “Politicians have shied away from this fight because of its controversial nature and because they see just how passionate people can get on both sides. But we look at what he is doing as critical to the future of the country.”

Schilling said he hopes the Florida Legislature will be “more bold” on issues related to transgender rights, including the bill they are considering this legislative session.

“Frankly, I think that bill can be a little bit more aggressive,” he said. “Ideally, it would be at least through primary school, so K-6.”

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