Talking about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools could soon be illegal in Florida. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill making its way through the Florida Senate would ban the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools, allowing parents to sue teachers who discuss either in the classroom. The bill, concerning “parental rights in education,” would also force schools to out LGBTQ+ students to their families without consent. On Feb. 17, the bill advanced through the state legislature and passed the House Judiciary Committee in a 13-7 vote, and it is supported by conservative Gov. Ron DeSantis. Gender justice advocates and educators say the bill will disproportionately impact LGBTQ+ students of color, who face even greater barriers to being protected and feeling safe in the classrooms.
“Attempting to prevent students from knowing and feeling comfortable using words, histories, and experiences will not make those words, histories, and experiences disappear,” said David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a leading national Black LGBTQ+ civil rights organization based in Florida. “It will only make it easier for students to learn and perform the worst parts of ignorance and hate. Our students deserve better. Our country deserves better.”
According to a study by the National Black Justice Coalition, over half of Black LGBTQ+ students (51.6%) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, 40.2% because of their gender expression, and 30.6% because of their race or ethnicity. If this bill passes, Black queer and trans students in Florida will face even more dangerous circumstances in the classroom. Johns, who taught elementary school students for two years, says the policy will exacerbate what he already knows to be a lack of support for students who either identify as LGBTQ+ or who are assumed to be in some way.
“The sad reality is that our children often don’t have access to the language or the space to claim what feels good or to require people to acknowledge them in ways that are affirming to them,” Johns said.
Under these hostile learning conditions, heaped on top of a global pandemic, Johns has found that students either disengage, don’t attend school, or drop out altogether. According to a 2013 report by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Education Network (GLSEN), over half of the LGBTQ+ students who provided reasons for planning not to finish high school said that their decision was because of hostile or unsupportive school climates.
“Mental health complications come with showing up in spaces where your peers or your teachers or the institution itself doesn’t support you in thriving,” Johns said. “They’ve been told their whole life, ‘If you do good and go to school, you get to go to college and have a good job.’ All of that has been thrown out of the window.”
The “Don’t Say Gay” bill is part of a slate of bills that Johns’ colleagues at Equality Florida refer to as Gov. DeSantis’ attempt at creating a surveillance state. Oganizers say the legislation, together with the “Stop WOKE Act”, will give the government broad license to censor conversations about American history, the origins of racism and injustice, and the existence of LGBTQ+ people.
“Gov. DeSantis is pushing legislation to curb free speech, propagandize school curriculums, and monitor classroom conversations, private workplaces, and doctors’ offices—all in order to outflank Donald Trump to the right and build an onramp to run for president in 2024,” Nadine Smith, Equality Florida’s executive director, said in a statement responding to the bill.
The bill would potentially also bar students with same-sex, queer, and trans parents from sharing about their families. Johns says that teachers will likely feel the need to prevent those stories from being shared, ultimately leading to the child feeling shame and “ingesting the stigma.” Johns posits that if this bill passes, more educators will continue to leave the classroom in Florida, where there is already a teacher shortage. Beyond that, he believes students will also be forced to leave the classroom after having to endure the psychological, mental, and emotional forms of violence.
“This bill suggests that teachers can’t practice cultural competence and acknowledge that [LGBTQ+] identities have always existed,” Johns said.
Going forward, advocates at Equality Florida have created an email campaign to stop DeSantis’ censorship and surveillance state. Johns hopes that the bill is struck down and that children’s voices are taken into consideration when considering what reforms should look like.
“Children don’t ask to be born,” Johns said. “This bill signals that children who are assumed to be or who identify as LGBTQ+ are not worthy of the recognition of their full humanity.”