The Florida state legislature has advanced another bill that would censor gender and queer studies and eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion programs from public colleges and universities. House Bill 999, which would go into effect July 1, sets its sights on public colleges and universities as a companion legislation to last year’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and “Stop WOKE Act.” It is the latest in censorship and extreme conservative legislation that state Republicans have introduced and Gov. Ron DeSantis has backed, including a union-busting bill and an NRA-backed open carry bill. Some students and faculty have called DeSantis’ targeted legislation fascist and a deliberate attempt to erase LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC experiences.
If passed, HB 999 would ban and impact the instruction of women’s and gender studies, African diaspora studies, Asian studies, Latin American studies, and Caribbean studies, among others. In their place, the bill emphasizes “curriculum that promotes citizenship in a constitutional republic.” Student groups like Pride Student Union, Black Student Union, and the Office of Social Justice and Inclusion at Florida State University and Florida International University would also be impacted. The bill would defund any programs relating to these subjects. In January, the state university system reported spending $34.5 million on DEI initiatives and critical race theory on college campuses.
“We don’t have a right to govern which historical facts can and cannot be taught,” said Quanzelle Austrie, a senior at the University of South Florida. “The sole point is to create hostile environments for people who aren’t [cis, white, or heteronormative].”
Austrie initially enrolled at USF as an education major and hoped to be a teacher. But after seeing the disrespect and criminalization DeSantis has wrought on her peers, Austrie switched majors to political science.
“[These laws] are making a lot of educators more frustrated,” Austrie said. “There is a dim future for education and teachers in Florida, and that really scares me because if students aren’t learning, how are they going to be informed?”
Austrie said the erasure of culturally significant courses will undoubtedly impact the mental health of marginalized college students. For Austrie, who said she is African American, Caribbean, and queer, seeing her identities represented in her school’s campus culture and curriculum created a safe space for her.
“To think that students are growing up, and they’re hearing that they are not valid, that is 100% going to affect their idea of who they are,” Austrie said. “School was always a safe space for me. School was the safe place where I could be accepted by my peers and be accepted by my teachers. [These laws] are making students scared to even attend classes, and I think that’s their goal. Their goal is to silence people who are diverse, and that is unfair. Students deserve academic freedom, and they deserve the right to be taught the full picture of history.”
At Florida International University, a public university in Miami where 61% of students are Latinx and 15% are Black, a majority of the student body would not be allowed to take a course on their culture. Janessa Cruz, a sophomore at FIU and a board member of the Pride Student Union and Black Student Union, said the erasure is not new. Cruz grew up attending Title I institutions, which are predominantly Black and brown, and said there was a lack of standardization around teaching Florida history, especially as it relates to its Black and Indigenous history.
“One phrase that comes to mind is systematic racism,” Cruz said. “[My] two younger sisters who are Afro-Latinx women [are] not going to have the vocabulary to [understand] the oppression they will face in this country and in this world. I think, more than our post-secondary students and post-secondary educators, people who’ve already been through and had the opportunity to deal with that information and grapple with it for a little bit longer, I’m concerned for our youth who won’t even be able to put language to their experiences.”
Cruz said a coalition of organizations is organizing a trip to the state Capitol in Tallahassee on March 31, Trans Day of Visibility, to protest the bills. Free FIU, a coalition of students, faculty, campus workers, alumni, and parents, is leading a student walk-out April 13 to demand the freedom to teach and learn. Ivania Delgado, a former adjunct professor at FIU, recently held a teach-in on Feb. 23 and read from the youth-led political movement book “Assata Taught Me,” by Donna Murch.
“I’ve heard students actually use the word crisis, ‘we are in crisis,’” Delgado said. “When I hear them speaking, I hear this urgency, like what are we supposed to do in the face of this giant? … Part of what I felt was important is if we study what has happened before, and we see how these folks got together in the past and organized … and they relied on one another, and they created this network of relationships. They were able to not just overcome these barriers, but build solid lifelong relationships of care and support and empowerment.”
Delgado said lawmakers attempting to erase history is intentional because it relegates the history of protests and how communities fought against adversity to the past.
“Because folks have done this before, we can learn from them, and we can tap into that spirit when these times are feeling like a crisis,” Delgado said.
Brittany Frizzelle, a reproductive justice organizer with Power U Center for Social Change, has been canvassing with youth organizers across Miami to speak with community members about the issues they are most concerned about.
“Young people are feeling really confused,” Frizzelle said. “They’re feeling really confused and agitated by what’s going on. They feel attacked.”
On March 13, Power U youth organizers took to the streets as part of their weekly canvassing, knocking on doors and asking community members about the change they want to see reflected back to them. One adult organizer and graduate of FIU, Gabriel Perez-Ariza, cited a class on Marxism he took while at FIU as a defining reason for him to become an organizer. If HB 999 passes, the youth he’s organizing with won’t have the same opportunity to engage with that same philosophy.
“It really taught me how to look at things systemically,” Perez-Ariza said. “That’s going to be robbed from future students.”