Florida politicians plan to expand the controversial bill that prohibits the discussion of sexuality and gender identity in public schools.
The “Parental Rights in Education” bill, dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, effectively banned discussions about LGBTQIA+ issues from kindergarten through third grade when it was signed into law in March 2022. Gov. Ron DeSantis is now proposing that the bill expand to include fourth through 12th grades.
The state Education Department introduced the expanded law on March 22. It does not require legislative approval, and the state’s conservative Board of Education is expected to pass the proposal during a vote in April.
According to 2017 data in a report by the Black LGBTQIA+ civil rights organization the National Black Justice Coalition, 51.6% of Black LGBTQIA+ students 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 the new proposal passes, young queer and trans people in Florida may face even more dangerous circumstances as hate crimes against LGBTQIA+ communities are on the rise nationally.
A Miami middle school civics teacher said she is particularly concerned for her students who are being bullied by other children because they are assumed to be gay. According to Marsha, who is using a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation, one of her students exhibits signs of self-harming behavior. Under the new proposal, Marsha could not discuss gender or sexuality in the classroom in a way that would affirm the student.
“I’m not teaching kids about gender identity, but I’m a lesbian, and that’s part of my life,” said Marsha. “Could my wife come pick me up from school? If the kids asked, ‘Who is this lady?’ What am I supposed to say? It shouldn’t be a thing I have to think about.”
According to Marsha, who has been teaching since 2008, her colleagues were just beginning to get comfortable with LGBTQIA+ people on campus—and then “Don’t Say Gay” passed. She said she now feels like she has to “shut up,” think about what she says, or hide things altogether.
“When I felt like I could be out to the kids, I was someone whom [LGBTQIA+ students] could talk to, and now I feel like I can’t say anything,” Marsha said. “I don’t know if I will lose my job.”
According to a 2013 report by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Education Network, over half of the LGBTQIA+ students who did not plan to finish school cited hostile or unsupportive school climates as a barrier. In a recent study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law and Clark University, 88% of 113 LGBTQIA+ parents surveyed said they were “very or somewhat concerned” about the effects of “Don’t Say Gay” on their children and families. Thirteen percent said their LGBTQIA+ children expressed fears about the future related to living in Florida.
Marsha said she hopes the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and its potential expansion get overturned and that a more open environment returns to the classrooms. However, she has no intentions of violating the law out of fear of being criminalized.
“I’m too scared,” she said. “I’m trying to figure out how to leave Florida at this point because it just seems like it’s going to get worse.”
A social studies high school teacher in Miami-Dade County, who does not identify as LGBTQIA+ and has been teaching for four years, said he has every intention of disobeying the expanded proposal if it passes. The teacher, who requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, said it is important to continue teaching the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and maintain LGBTQIA+ representation in the classroom.
“I teach in an underprivileged community with a lot of immigrants from Central America, where there’s widespread homophobia,” he said. “I think it’s important to try to nip that in the bud as soon as possible and expose kids to other identities.”
Both teachers who spoke to Prism said they want to see protests from community members against these bills and against censorship.