Floridians across the state are protesting the homophobic “Don’t Say Gay” bill after it passed the Florida Senate on March 8. Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill into law, which would go into effect July 1. The controversial legislation, which is officially called the Parental Rights in Education bill, bans teaching or any discussions surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity for students in kindergarten to third grade, and it also prohibits lessons in other grades up to 12th grade unless they are “age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate.” According to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida, a majority of respondents, or 57%, oppose the bill. The opposition can be seen in statewide protests led by high school students and even Disney workers who say the bill drastically threatens the LGBTQ+ community with erasure and harm.
Will Larkins, a junior at Winter Park High School in Winter Park, Florida, is the president and co-founder of their school’s Queer Student Union and one of the organizers of their recent “Say Gay Anyway” walkout of more than 500 students. Larkins testified about their experience as a nonbinary student on the Florida Senate floor on Feb. 28. Larkins said they may not be immediately impacted by the bill, since they will be graduating high school next year. But, they have a younger sibling who is gay and also nonbinary and whose friends will be impacted by a lack of discussion surrounding gender and sexual orientation.
“Knowing that there’s other people who fall out of the gender binary and don’t fit a heteronormative, cisgender ideal saves the lives of so many kids,” Larkins said. “I wish I had known that I wasn’t alone in the fourth grade. Kids aren’t born homophobic, they’re just not exposed to other people. If they see that it’s a normal thing, then it wouldn’t be as big of a deal.”
A second grade teacher at a Miami elementary school, who requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, says she will not be complying with the bill at all. She said she recently heard students use the term “gay” as a slur against each other. As a teacher, she said she is expected to address bullying, but now because the slur is “gay,” the bill would require her to remain quiet rather than intervene. The Florida Department of Education removed LGBTQ+ inclusive anti-bullying resources from its website in December 2021.
“Children are aware of gay individuals by the time they are in that bracket of kindergarten through third grade. Children are being raised in gay households,” she said. “What am I supposed to do, not address children who live in a household where they have two moms, they have two dads, they have queer parents? This bill is opening the door for bullying of queer children and queer families.”
According to a 2019 census report on same-sex couple households, Florida has a population that is above the national average of 1.5%. The report also specifies that two of Florida’s metropolitan areas—the Orlando, Kissimmee, Sanford area, and the Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach area—are home to some of the highest percentages of same-sex households in the country. Orlando comes in at fourth highest with 2.4% of its population in a same-sex household, and Miami comes in at sixth, with 2.2% of its population in a same-sex household.
Advocates have raised the alarm that this bill will lead to the erasure of queer identities in classroom, which have historically led to a high drop out and suicide rate among LGBTQ+ youth. 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. The Trevor Project estimates that at least one LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 13-24 attempts suicide every 45 seconds in the U.S. Bills like “Don’t Say Gay” only make matters worse.
“I’m not going to erase [queer children’s] existence or the existence of their parents,” the Miami elementary school teacher said. “The same politicians that were getting us back in the classroom because they allegedly care so much about children’s mental health are the same ones who are saying queer children are free to kill themselves.”
At the walkout at Larkins’ high school earlier this month, they said there were some counter protesters and one student who stole a pride flag, ripped it in half, stepped on it, and peed on it. Despite a few agitators, however, Larkins said there was mostly an outpouring of support for Florida’s LGBTQ+ community.
“I think Republicans are treading thin with us,” Larkins said. “I’m hoping they’ve gone too far and they’ve crossed the line. I hope they’ll be voted out and we’ll be able to undo the absolute mess they created.”
Criticism of the bill has come from corporations with ties to the state. On March 11, Disney CEO Bob Chapek announced that Disney was suspending its political donations in Florida due to the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and he apologized for the company’s previous silence on the issue. The comments have attracted the derision of DeSantis, who has now labeled Disney “woke” and “communist.” The Orlando Sentinel reported that Disney had previously given money to every single sponsor and co-sponsor of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani was one of the first Democrats to see the bill in committee.
“We started calling it the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill because that is exactly what it does, it censors the ability to identify the fact that LGBTQ+ people exist,” Eskamani said.
Eskamani, who has been transparent about not receiving any money from Disney, had been calling on the corporation to take accountability for their actions and support the LGBTQ+ community which Disney profits off of. In anticipation of the Disney shareholders meeting on March 9, Eskamani held a press conference with Unite Here and a student leader from Voters of Tomorrow calling on Disney to stop giving to the candidates who have supported the bill. Disney workers participated on the call and shared their concerns about the company’s failure to take a leadership role in fighting the bill despite profiting off of queer identity and stories.
“They’re making money off gay stories but not really allowing them to exist,” Eskamani said. “It’s huge kudos to the cast members who were brave in expressing their concerns to their managers. But a lot of folks are still frustrated because people feel like it’s too little, too late. [Disney] should have expressed this type of concern early on.”
The Miami teacher hopes other educators across the state reject the bill. She, Larkins, and Eskamani both hope the anger and frustration toward this bill mobilizes voters to head to the polls come midterm elections in November and vote out the conservative politicians who supported the bill.