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Pronouns in school would have to align with sex at birth, proposal says

One bill was slated to get its first committee hearing Friday but was pulled temporarily for changes.
 
Student activist Kaylee Sandell speaks at a news conference at the Florida Capitol, hosted by Equality Florida, AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the Human Rights Campaign on Feb. 15, 2022, in Tallahassee.
Student activist Kaylee Sandell speaks at a news conference at the Florida Capitol, hosted by Equality Florida, AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the Human Rights Campaign on Feb. 15, 2022, in Tallahassee. [ RICK WILSON | AP ]
Published March 10, 2023|Updated March 10, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — Republican lawmakers are preparing to further restrict how Florida schools teach about sex education and transgender issues to school-aged kids, a continuation of the state’s yearslong effort to impose greater control over curriculum and local classroom decisions.

So far, Republican legislative leaders have signaled support for at least two legislative proposals introduced for this year’s legislative session that would build on last year’s Parental Rights in Education law — which critics called “Don’t Say Gay.”

The bills, among other things, would bar educators and school staff from referring to students with pronouns that differ from those assigned at birth, give the state more control over sexual education instructional materials, and would expand a prohibition on lessons about gender and sexual orientation through middle school.

None of the measures have been heard in committee, but if approved, they would set statewide standards for what kind of language can be used in classrooms regarding gender and sexual orientation.

On Friday, one of the measures, House Bill 1069, was scheduled for a hearing, but was pulled from consideration at the last minute for reasons that Republican leaders did not disclose.

“There were a few changes we needed to make,” House Education Quality Subcommittee chairperson Dana Trabulsy, R-Fort Pierce, told the Times/Herald after the meeting. When asked to elaborate on what needed to be changed, Trabulsy said she couldn’t talk about it.

GOP eyes pronoun use in schools

The bill, as currently written, would require students in grades 6 through 12 be taught that “sex is determined by biology and reproductive function at birth,” and that those reproductive roles are “binary, stable, and unchangeable.”

In the Senate, a separate bill would go further, and bar educators and school staff from referring to students using pronouns that do not “correspond to his or her sex.” School employees would also be prevented from asking students about their pronouns under the proposal.

More specifically, the bill would make it the policy of every public K-12 school in Florida that “a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.”

The Endocrine Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health have endorsed treatments for kids and adults that include counseling and allowing children to socially transition — identify and dress in the gender with which they identify.

The Florida Department of Health, however, recommended against socially transitioning in 2022 guidance.

Related: Florida advises no social, hormonal treatment of transgender children

Zen Nelson, a 14-year-old genderqueer student at the Terra Environmental Research Institute in Miami-Dade County, said the provisions that take aim at students’ pronouns are “the worst part.”

“It’s the scariest,” said Nelson, who uses they/them pronouns. “By being deprived of agency or a voice in how I am perceived or recognized, my sense of self is stolen from me. Being robbed of self-identification is a way of being robbed of self.”

An estimated 16,200 Florida teenagers — roughly 1.32% of children aged 13 through 17 — identify as transgender, according to a report by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA’s School of Law. The report uses data from Florida’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Across the U.S., as many as 300,000 teens identify as transgender, the report found.

Under the Senate and House proposals, the state Department of Education — not Florida’s elected school board members — would be responsible for approving any materials used in K-12 schools to teach about reproductive health.

Education battles reemerge

The push for these measures comes as Republican legislative lawmakers have indicated that this year’s legislative session will be guided by the priorities of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has amplified culture wars in education as he paves the way for a potential 2024 presidential campaign later this year.

Related: 10 times Ron DeSantis changed Florida education

While DeSantis fully supported last year’s Parental Rights in Education law, he has yet to endorse the proposals introduced in the Legislature this year. In a statement, his office said they would let the public know when the governor has “any official position on a bill.”

“As you know of any draft legislation, it is still subject to the legislative process, and thus varying iterations,” DeSantis’ press secretary, Bryan Griffin, said in an email to the Times/Herald.

In South Florida, however, some LGBTQ students and community members are already expressing that the Republican-sponsored bills may create an environment of even greater uncertainty and fear for the trans and queer community in Florida.

“The fear is widespread. I’m really scared for a lot of my friends, family members, community members and teachers,” Nelson, the Miami-Dade student, said. “Existing is already deeply hostile. I’m basically as privileged as you can get as a queer person, and I still endure immense bigotry, misunderstanding and disdain as this fervor of anti-trans hatred has heated up.”

Florida’s education policies have drawn national attention for over a year now, following the passage of last year’s Parental Rights in Education law. Supporters said the law was meant to reinforce the “fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children,” but critics saw it as an attack on the LGBTQ community.

Related: What's in a name: 'don't say gay' vs. 'parental rights'

The law — which bars classroom instruction and discussions about gender and sexual education from kindergarten through third grade, and in upper grades when they are deemed not “age appropriate” — has already had far-reaching effects in Florida.

In Miami-Dade County, home to the state’s largest school district, the school board cited the law as reason to reject an effort to recognize October as LGBTQ History month, and the law’s vague text has left some teachers confused about what is or isn’t appropriate. In some cases, some have been afraid to sponsor student clubs such as the Genders & Sexualities Alliances, or GSA, North Miami City Council member and Safe Schools South Florida Executive Director Scott Galvin told the Times/Herald.

In other districts, like Pasco, the law has meant more paperwork for parents as school officials try to make sure that they have parental consent before providing education services to children.

In the Senate, a Republican lawmaker is seeking to expand the Parental Rights in Education law. Senate Bill 1223 would extend the restrictions through middle school.

“These bills are shaming kids”

Natasha Poulopoulos, a pediatric psychologist in Miami, said students and young people have seen an increased amount of harassment and bullying since the law went into effect.

“They’re being dead-named and misgendered at school and they feel like they’re not allowed to be who they are. It’s leading to a sense of trauma, hopelessness and helplessness,” Poulopoulos said. As a psychologist in Florida, she said, she is “beyond concerned. These bills are shaming kids in the classroom.”

Providing an affirming and safe school environment protects kids and improves psychological and academic outcomes, while government officials are harming kids by passing these bills, Poulopoulos said.

Pauline Green, the executive director at The Alliance for LBGTQ Youth, shared similar sentiments and called the attack on people’s pronouns “cruel.”

“To have elected officials legislate and use precious time and resources to legislate the use of (students’) pronouns is sad and shocking. There’s so many more issues impacting our young people in our school system,” such as bullying, nutrition and the mental health and wellness of students, Green said.

Requiring students to “roll back and use pronouns that are not their own” would be incredibly harmful, she said.

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.

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