Imagine for a moment that you’re a bright-eyed, joyful, innocent 5-year-old-girl who only knows the world as a loving place. You’re starting your first day of school, and you’re excited. You’re energetic. Probably a little nervous. Your new classmates are taking turns sharing about their summer vacations. One of your classmates talks about his mom and dad taking him to the Grand Canyon. The teacher responds, “Oh that sounds wonderful, what was your favorite part of the trip?”
Then your turn comes. You can barely contain yourself as you blurt out, “My daddies took me to Disney World!” The class goes silent. The teacher looks at you uncomfortably. After a long pause she says “Oh, well, let’s move on to the next student.” You’re confused. Everyone is looking at you. You don’t know why but you feel like you did something wrong, and for the first time the world suddenly seems a little darker.
We are a two-dad family living in Pasco County with our 4-year-old daughter, who will be entering Florida’s public school system next year as a kindergartner. Having lived in Florida as we gained the right to adopt children and, a short time later, to get married, we shouldn’t be astonished that a bill like House Bill 1557 and its Senate companion bill — more commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — is even before the Florida Legislature, yet we are. It breaks our hearts. This bill, which passed the House last week, is an affront to every parent who, like us, is raising a child who will be directly and negatively impacted. The state has no business telling our daughter that she cannot talk about her family at school.
First, let’s understand what we’re talking about: The “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis has already pledged to sign should it make it to his desk, will restrict rights of parents and children, not protect them. If it becomes law, this bill will take away the voice of parents and erase children and families who live in Florida’s communities and schools. It will hurt our straight neighbors and friends and their families by shutting down learning and free speech in our public schools. This Legislature and governor who speak of government staying out of our business are on track to destroy more rights this year than we can remember in the recent past — and we know something about it.
It’s not just Florida. According to a Feb. 19 article by The Hill, 15 other states have introduced similar legislation. It’s also not the only bill in our state aimed at eliminating conversations about our families and neighbors. At the same time that the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is moving through the legislature, the “Stop WOKE Act,” which could effectively censor conversations about racism, discrimination and injustice in classrooms and workplaces, is also moving forward. For a party that values freedom above all else, it’s peculiar to see so many bills placing restrictions on free speech.
HB 1557/SB 1834 leave so many open questions. What would this law mean for us — both legally recognized parents — at parent-teacher conferences, school events, and participation in our child’s school and education? How is a child like ours — who will be told from day one at school that she and her family are less than her friends and their families — supposed to learn and thrive in a school system that rejects an integral part of who she is?
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Growing up as members of the LGBTQ+ community we know all too well the pain that is caused when someone is ostracized and demonized simply for who they are. We can understand from personal experience why LGBTQ+ youth have a significantly higher rate of suicide than their peers. Thankfully, we both come from supportive families and have incredible networks of friends and colleagues.
But not every child has an accepting and loving home, and for those children, a trusted teacher or counselor may be their only lifeline during a very confusing and difficult time. This bill not only eliminates that support system but encourages stigma toward LGBTQ+ families (including our daughter) by officially and forever labeling them as “others” and making it taboo to even talk about. It sickens us to know that this is the culture that our daughter will grow up in.
As native Floridians, we are embarrassed to call this our home when this is how our legislators will treat an innocent 4-year-old girl. The damage from this bill will be irreversible for young Floridians, and for some, even fatal.
This great state and the great people who live in it deserve better. Our families deserve better. Our kids deserve better.
We need all our allies, neighbors and communities to fight back against these bills with us. Now that the House Bill has passed, it’s time to reach out to Florida senators and tell Gov. Ron DeSantis that our families matter. Florida is a state for all families and points of view, not just that of some.
Brandon and Michael Hensler are native South Floridians who live in Pasco County.