The ‘don’t say gay’ bill DeSantis just signed, explained

Three things to know about one of the 2022 legislative session’s most controversial measures, officially called the “Parental Rights in Education” bill.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks moments before signing the Parental Rights in Education bill during a news conference on Monday, March 28, 2022, at Classical Preparatory School in Spring Hill.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks moments before signing the Parental Rights in Education bill during a news conference on Monday, March 28, 2022, at Classical Preparatory School in Spring Hill. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published March 29, 2022|Updated March 31, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 1557, officially named the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, into law on Monday.

Critics of the measure, dubbed by opponents as the “don’t say gay” bill, range from state Democrats to Hollywood celebrities to President Joe Biden. It’s been mentioned on news broadcasts all over the world, in the White House press briefing room and, most recently, on the stage of the Academy Awards.

While the effects of the bill, and some of the details, are still unknown, here are three things to know.

1. What does the bill do?

According to its text, House Bill 1557 is an attempt to “reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children.“

The new law prohibits schools from enacting policies that prevent the disclosure to parents of “critical decisions affecting a student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.” Schools could still withhold certain information if they believe the disclosure would result in abuse, neglect or abandonment.

Another key provision in the measure prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade. And it could prohibit the teaching of those topics in higher grades “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” according to state standards.

The seven-page bill, which will take effect July 1, also:

  • Sets a deadline of June 30, 2023, for the state to come up with updated standards that could decide what “age-appropriate” instruction looks like.
  • Requires schools to notify parents of any health care services being offered to children, and give the opportunity for families to opt out of them.
  • Requires schools to get the permission of a parent before administering any “well-being questionnaire or health screening” to a child in kindergarten through third grade.
  • Allows parents to sue in court if they believe a school violates the new law, or request the Commissioner of Education to appoint a “special magistrate” to get to the bottom of a complaint. (School districts would pay for the magistrate.)

2. Why do some people call the bill ‘don’t say gay’?

The bill as originally filed prohibited school districts from encouraging “classroom discussion” about sexual orientation or gender identity in “primary grade levels.” Opponents of the bill interpreted that provision to be a ban on speaking about LGBTQ topics in classrooms and started using the “don’t say gay” moniker.

The bill’s sponsors, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and Rep. Joe Harding, R-Williston, amended the bill in the hopes of making it clear it would only be restricting lessons related to those subjects. Conversations between students and teachers about, for example, a child’s two mothers, would still be allowed under the bill, the sponsors said.

But the nickname stuck. And opponents of the legislation continued to express concerns about the effects of the bill, for three main reasons.

First, opponents say a broad restriction particularly aimed at sexual orientation and gender identity will have a chilling effect on teachers — making educators question what kind of dialogue students can have with trusted adults in the classroom.

“Legislators are trying to knock out the supports that LGBTQ youth have,” said Cathryn Oakley, the state legislative director at the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

Second, advocates worry the bill targets policies aimed at keeping LGBTQ youth from being outed to their parents by school districts.

According to a House bill analysis from February, some school districts — Broward and Palm Beach for example — had policies that prohibited schools from disclosing a student’s sexual orientation without their consent. The new law could preempt such policies.

Finally, there’s the general climate around LGBTQ youth issues in America. In at least 12 Republican-led states, including Florida, policymakers have passed laws restricting the rights of transgender females to participate in scholastic sports. In Texas, the Republican attorney general and governor are calling on parents who give transgender kids gender-affirming care to be subject to child abuse investigations.

Critics of the Florida bill point to those measures and say HB 1557 is another blow to vulnerable children.

Supporters of the bill say Florida schools have a genuine problem when it comes to keeping parents up to speed on changes to student services.

January Littlejohn, who spoke at Monday’s bill signing, spoke about how a Leon County school put her 13-year-old child on a “student support plan” without parental notification after the younger Littlejohn raised the possibility of being nonbinary, according to a lawsuit filed by the family.

“When parents are excluded from critical decisions ... it sends the message to children that their parents’ input and authority are no longer important,” January Littlejohn said.

3. What are the politics around the bills?

When listening to an opponent and a proponent talk about the bill, it’s sometimes hard to believe they’re discussing the same legislation.

Perhaps due in part to the different talking points, polls of public sentiment have been somewhat mixed. For instance, a Morning Consult poll of 2005 registered voters from earlier this month found that 50 percent of voters support banning instruction on gender identity and sexual identity in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. About 34 percent of voters oppose that ban, according to the poll.

A survey from ABC and Ipsos of 622 adults found that 37 percent support banning “classroom lessons about sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary school,” and 62 percent oppose such a ban.

Both opponents and proponents say they’re fighting for what’s right and say public sentiment is on their side.

Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, one of the few queer state lawmakers, called DeSantis a “coward” on Monday for signing the bill at a charter school, as opposed to a more publicly accessible place.

“He knows there are more against him than with him,” Rayner said.

DeSantis, for his part, said the bill is a common-sense measure.

“I don’t care what corporate media outlets say. I don’t care what Hollywood says. I don’t care what big corporations say. Here I stand,” DeSantis said Monday. “I’m not backing down.”