The Parental Rights in Education or “don’t say gay” bill is on the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis, and there’s been a great deal of attention and debate about what it does and does not do. His spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, thinks people should just read the bill because it “just says no sexuality instruction in grades VPK-3.” Is that accurate?
The bill says that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” Sexual education is not taught in Florida public schools in kindergarten through third grade, and it already requires that instruction be “appropriate for the grade and age of the student.” So, what is this bill trying to accomplish and what does “sexual orientation or gender identity” mean in a classroom context?
One way that we can find out is by looking at the debate record in the Florida Senate that includes all the potential amendments to the bill. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, proposed to make the bill about human sexuality in general; it failed. Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, proposed that discussing same-sex families, history, bullying, questions asked by students, etc., would be permitted; it failed. Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, proposed an amendment that clarified sexual orientation and gender identity to include heterosexuality and cisgender identity (gender identity and sex assigned at birth are the same); it failed.
If the bill is about limiting sexuality instruction, as the governor’s spokesperson suggests, then why was there opposition to any amendment that sought to link heterosexual marriage and families to homosexual marriage and families?
That’s because health education instruction in K-12 schools already marginalizes same-sex marriage by specifically calling for the teaching of “the benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage” despite the U.S. Supreme Court, in Obergefell v Hodges in 2015, proclaiming that same-sex marriage is a fundamental and constitutionally protected right. The U.S. Supreme Court, recently — in June 2020 — affirmed that sexual orientation and sexual identity protects employees against discrimination.
Groups like Equality Florida believe that the language used in the bill will be used to marginalize LGBTQ+ students and their families. Several Florida legislators, Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, and Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, offered amendments to the bill to ensure that children of same-sex parents would, in fact, be able to share that they had “two moms or dads”, and that these arrangements would be considered normal and be able to be explained by a teacher if there were any questions.
Even Disney CEO Bob Chapek said that the bill “could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, non-binary and transgender kids and families.” That’s the point, after all: to make children of same-sex couples feel different. This bill isn’t solving a problem; it’s creating one. The state of Florida has a constitutional obligation to protect its citizens no matter their sexual orientation or sexual identity. The governor should do just that by vetoing this bill.
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William M. Myers is associate professor of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Tampa and is a board member of the American Constitution Society, Tampa Lawyer Chapter.