After a national – and international – outcry, Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis has signed the state’s controversial ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill into law.
Formally titled ‘the Parental Rights in Education’ bill, the new legislation prohibits teachers from instructing on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten to third grade, roughly affecting children between the ages of five and nine. It states: “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade three or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
The bill has received widespread criticism across the US, from LGBTQ+ activists to Democrats, and the White House. It even brought DeSantis into conflict with Disney, which is a major economic force in Florida.
Before signing the bill, DeSantis said, “We will make sure parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination... Overwhelmingly, parents oppose injecting this kind of materials [sic] into their kids.” As you can see here, Republicans are insisting that the bill is about supporting the rights of parents to have a say in what their children are taught. For over a century, American conservatives have been using this exact argument to push back on progressive legislation in public schools. In the 1920s, it was a way to shut down teaching the theory of evolution; in the 1950s, it was used to justify the continuation of racial segregation, and today, it manifests in frenzied smear campaigns against critical race theory or ‘gender ideology.’ Historian Jill Lapore argues in The New Yorker that what’s really at stake here, beyond any of these individual issues, is political power: “Conservatives believe they can win midterm elections, and maybe even the Presidency, by whipping up a frenzy about ‘parents’ rights’.”
The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill may just amount to a form of cynical electioneering (DeSantis is a potential candidate in the 2024 election, and all of this media coverage certainly won’t hurt his chances). But the damage it threatens to inflict on young LGBTQ+ people is real. It will likely make it much harder for teachers to challenge homophobic bullying, and while its wording is unclear, it could also be used to target LGBTQ+ teachers who are out at work (who decides what’s ‘age-appropriate’? Might someone casually mentioning their own family be considered inappropriate?) More generally, the bill acts as a way of marginalising LGBTQ+ identities, something we know has a disastrous impact on mental health. Last month, secretary of transport Pete Buttigieg, a gay man, argued that the legislation risks contributing to the already high rate of suicides among LGBTQ+ young people.
Yesterday, Joe Biden tweeted in response to the news: “Our LGBTQI+ youth deserve to be affirmed and accepted just as they are. Every student deserves to feel safe and welcome in the classroom. Our LGBTQI+ youth deserve to be affirmed and accepted just as they are. My administration will continue to fight for dignity and opportunity for every student and family – in Florida and around the country.”