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Florida’s ‘don’t say gay’ bill passed, headed to DeSantis amid student protests

Emotions ran high during discussions of the bill, which was even mentioned on “Saturday Night Live.”
Published Mar. 8|Updated Mar. 10

TALLAHASSEE — The chants of dozens of students from across Florida could be heard through the walls of the Senate chamber on Monday as lawmakers debated a contentious proposal to bar lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten to third grade.

“We say gay!”

“We say gay!”

“We say gay!”

A day later, an emotionally divided Senate voted 22 to 17 to pass the measure — dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill by opponents and the “parental rights in education” bill by Republican backers. Two Republicans, Sens. Jeff Brandes and Jennifer Bradley, voted against the measure with Democrats. The proposal now heads to the governor’s desk as part of a broader push by Republicans to prioritize parents in the state’s education. Democrats say it will harm LGBTQ students.

“It’s upsetting that we are failing (younger kids),” said Elizabeth Klamer, 18, a senior at Leon County High School who attended the student-led protests in Tallahassee, along with dozens of teens from other parts of the state, including Tampa and Miami-Dade. She was not optimistic that Republican lawmakers would be swayed by their protests.

Related: What’s ahead for Florida students, parents after passage of ‘don’t say gay’ bill?

Republican lawmakers say critics are mischaracterizing what the bill would do.

They say student-led discussions in the classroom that touch on sexual orientation or gender identity are allowed. For example, a student could bring up their LGBTQ parents in response to an assignment about their family tree. What’s not allowed are K-3 lesson plans explicitly based on those themes, which Republican backers noted is currently the practice in the state.

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

Schools are barred from teaching those subjects in other grades in ways that are not considered age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate. The state’s Department of Education would determine what constitutes an age- or developmentally inappropriate lesson if the bill becomes law.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the bill’s sponsor, said the bill would address “social engineering” in the classroom that he said could be leading to an increasing number of children coming out as gay or transgender in school.

“My question is simply, are we encouraging this, or illuminating it by putting emphasis on it?” Baxley said at the end of nearly four hours of questioning on the bill Monday. “We know there are social inputs to how people act and what they decide to do, so that’s part of our concern for the well-being of our kids.”

Democrats said Baxley’s concern about a school’s ability to influence a child’s identity is misguided.

“Do we really think that teachers are engineering students to become gay?” said Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton. “It’s preposterous.”

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Part of a national conservative agenda

The initiative in Florida to single out lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity is part of a broader national conservative push to target the rights of transgender kids. In Florida, it is a continuation from last year, when the Legislature barred transgender people from participating in women’s and girls’ scholastic sports.

Related: DeSantis signs controversial transgender athlete bill; legal challenges likely

DeSantis — who is seeking reelection — has backed the proposal. If he signs it into law, parents would be allowed to sue school districts or take their concerns to the State Board of Education if they believe their child’s school has violated the measure’s provisions.

“How many parents want their kindergartners to have transgenderism or something injected into classroom instruction? I think those are very young kids. I think the Legislature is basically trying to give parents assurance that they are going to be able to go and that stuff is not going to be there,” DeSantis told reporters in Jacksonville last week.

His press secretary, Christina Pushaw, went further and nicknamed the legislation the “anti-grooming” bill. She tweeted that opponents of the bill were “probably a groomer” because they want young kids to be taught about “sex.” “Grooming” refers to the process by which pedophiles lure children into trusting them so the predator can take advantage of the child sexually.

Republican senators on Monday tried to distance themselves from Pushaw’s comments, saying that the issue of “grooming” is not addressed in the bill. Democrats called on Pushaw to resign.

Instead, Republicans say the seven-page bill is about parental rights because it will force districts to adopt procedures that “reinforce the fundamental right of parents” to make decisions regarding the upbringing of their children. They voted down more than a dozen amendments Monday, including some that would have stopped the bill from targeting instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.

After the bill’s passage, a top Biden administration official put out a statement criticizing the Legislature for its actions.

“Parents across the country are looking to national, state, and district leaders to support our nation’s students, help them recover from the pandemic, and provide them the academic and mental health supports they need,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “Instead, leaders in Florida are prioritizing hateful bills that hurt some of the students most in need.”

Concern about well-being of conflicted students

The bill would require schools to notify parents about changes to a student’s services or monitoring of a student’s mental, emotional or physical well-being. Some in the LGBTQ community worry schools might be required to out gay or transgender kids to parents based on the information-sharing provision.

“I’m happy that parents want to be in the discussion with LGBTQ kids, but I also want to ensure that it’s done in a safe manner that’s not going to harm these kids,” said Samantha Stockley, an Orlando bartender who’s worked for three years as a peer counselor for Trans Lifeline, an organization that offers peer support for transgender people in crisis. “That’s the concern. It’s not that parents want to be involved.”

But Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, told senators on Monday that the bill would not require a counselor to contact a parent if a student comes to them to say “they are confused and they feel like they may be gay.”

If the counselor feels that the information will prompt a change in services for the student or if they have a concern about the student’s safety because they might be suicidal, Diaz said the bill’s provision would kick in.

“At that moment, they have to contact the parent,” Diaz said. “Unless in their professional judgment they feel that the student at home would be in danger from the reaction of the parent.”

To LGBTQ advocates and allies, the bill’s passage is the latest blow from leaders in Republican-dominated states. In Texas, for example, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered parents who seek gender-affirming care for their transgender children to be subjected to child-abuse investigations. That move has been roundly denounced by medical and psychiatric experts from that state who say gender-affirming care is health care.

“Maybe Florida is next,” said Alex Stanwood, an 18-year-old senior at SAIL High School in Leon County, who led a student protest in the Capitol.

The Legislature’s move to send the bill to the governor caps off weeks of protests from students across the state. In the past two weeks, hundreds of students flocked to Tallahassee to cheer, chant and wave signs such as, “Let’s get one thing straight. I’m not.” Thousands more staged walkout protests at schools. The push against the bill rose to the White House briefing room and the Weekend Update desk on “Saturday Night Live.”

To Democratic senators, the protest efforts did not go unnoticed. On Monday. Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, the chamber’s only openly gay lawmaker, shed tears on the Senate floor while describing his own journey coming out to his family. He said he struggled for 30 years with his identity before telling his parents he was gay. Parishioners left the church where his father is a reverend. He lost friends.

“I don’t think y’all understand how much courage it takes for these children to show up every day,” Jones said.

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