Student pronoun restrictions in Florida schools gets OK from Senate committee

The bill does not offer exemptions for parents who want their children to use different pronouns.
The Florida Capitol Complex is viewed, Tuesday, March 29, 2022, in Tallahassee.
The Florida Capitol Complex is viewed, Tuesday, March 29, 2022, in Tallahassee. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published March 20|Updated March 20

TALLAHASSEE — Republican lawmakers say Florida school employees should not be allowed to call students by pronouns that differ from those given to them at birth — even in cases when a parent is OK with it.

The idea is moving forward in proposed legislation that would also require every public K-12 school to have a policy that says it is “false” to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to their assigned sex, which under the law would be defined as an “immutable, or unchanging, biological trait.”

It is the latest salvo in the state’s ongoing battle over transgender rights in schools and society at large, as Gov. Ron DeSantis makes cultural issues a cornerstone of an expected presidential bid later this year.

Republican Sen. Clay Yarborough of Jacksonville said the goal of his proposed legislation (SB 1320) — which cleared the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee on Monday — is to build on last year’s Parental Rights in Education law.

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

The law, which critics dubbed Don’t Say Gay, currently bars classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in early elementary school grades as a means to protect the “fundamental rights of parents.”

Yarborough wants to expand the prohibition through middle school and include the additional element that would bar educators and school employees from referring to students with pronouns that differ from those assigned to them at birth. The bill, which Yarborough said would further protect parental rights, does not offer exemptions for parents who want their kids to use different pronouns.

“While the scenario could be brought up about a particular student’s mom and dad being OK with them using a pronoun,” Yarborough said, “you might have 19, 20 or 24 other kids in a classroom whose parents may not be OK with them being introduced to that.”

Democratic lawmakers and opponents of the bill argued the proposal disregards the rights of parents who support their transgender children’s social transition — changing their name or pronoun to affirm their gender identity.

An estimated 16,200 Florida teens — roughly 1.32% of children aged 13 through 17 — identify as transgender, according to data from Florida’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

“Which parents are right? Is it only the parents of the child who is straight? What about the parent that has an LGBTQ son or daughter or a transgender son and daughter?” said Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park.

Kaylee Sandell, a junior at Leon County High School, raised concerns about the impacts the bill would have on her peers. She said she believes the bill will isolate and hurt LGBTQ youth because it will make them feel as though “there’s something wrong with them.”

“I believe there is a better way that can create a more kind, compassionate and successful environment for students,” Sandell said.

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Republican lawmakers, however, defended the proposal, arguing that restrictions on pronouns and instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity are appropriate because certain cultural issues should not be part of a school setting.

Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, said she supports the bill because she is worried that, as a society, “we are pushing adult issues and themes down on children at a record pace.”

Related: Florida undercover agents reported no ‘lewd acts’ at drag show targeted by DeSantis

The proposal would also impact adults. As written, no school employee or contractor would be allowed to “provide to students his or her preferred personal title or pronouns” unless they correspond to their assigned sex.

Outside of the classroom, Yarborough said, children can learn about different topics or issues that parents may want to talk to them about. But the goal is to prevent “burdening” teachers with those social issues.

House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Harbor, told reporters last week that cultural issues are a distraction.

“We have global competition, and frankly global adversaries, and so we need to make sure all of our time, all of our attention is really focused on education excellence and not some left-wing wish list of what kids should learn in school — or right-wing wish list,” Renner said.

DeSantis, who has yet to endorse the proposed legislation, has prominently backed the themes of the proposal as he says that children should focus on “the basics of academics,” not “things like gender ideology.”

But during the hourlong discussion of the bill Monday, some argued that sheltering children from these issues will not fix their concerns.

“My oldest is transgender, but nobody would ever know that because he’s 6 feet tall and is a big hairy man. How confusing would it be for a child to have to address him as a she?” said Noelle Rivers, a Seminole County woman.

“Most of this will result in far more confusing conversations with children than if we just left transgender people alone,” Rivers said.

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