Writer: Harry Zhao
Editor: Adelyne Koe
Graphic Designer: Maulina Gheananta
On March 28 2022, Florida's Governor Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Bill, HB 1557, into law. This new bill sparked immense controversy over the topic of LGBTQ+ -inclusive education, and has been referred to by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" Bill. It has large, serious implications regarding LGBTQ+ rights in law and education in not just Florida, but a number of other states, as well as worrying effects in the tense culture war between conservatives and LGBTQ+ advocates. Consequently, this raises concerns for LGBTQ+ children in schools.
History of US Homophobic Legislation:
The "Don't Say Gay" Bill is part of a larger picture of a long history of homophobic legislation in the USA. Since the 17th century, citizens have faced punishment for LGBTQ+ relationships under the crime of "sodomy", a term used to target sexual minorities without explicitly saying so. In 1950, the US congress issued a report entitled "Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sexual Perverts in Government", which discriminated against LGBTQ+ individuals working for the government, and labelled homosexuality as a psychological illness.
However, advocacy to change and repeal these legislations has grown in the past decades; in 2010, the government repealed the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy in the military, allowing LGBTQ+ individuals to serve in the military while openly expressing their sexualities; the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act granted further protection for the LGBTQ+ community against hate crimes and discrimination; in the 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court created a landmark ruling that deemed criminal punishment for "sodomy" as unconstitutional, setting a precedent for protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ relationships. The Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage and recognised it as a fundamental, constitutional right in 2015.
Despite the progress being made, homophobia still hinders and undermines the efforts of bringing about change. For example, although the Congress introduced numerous bills seeking to officially recognise Pride Month, none were successful due to opposition. In Kansas, the HB 2009 bill was introduced to remove the state law that criminalises "sodomy", but it has yet to be passed into action. Currently, the "Don't Say Gay" Bill stands as another attempt to sabotage the progress of LGBTQ+ legal advocacy in the heat of the US culture war.
The Terms of the "Don't Say Gay" Bill
The "Don't Say Gay" Bill places limitations on classroom discussions about sexual and gender identities for young children in Florida, simultaneously outlining the rights of parents and the responsibilities of schools in children's education. Although not explicitly stated, the terms of the bill clearly aim to exclude LGBTQ+ topics in education, disguised using a neutral and vague language.
Firstly, it bans discussions of sexual identities for children up to the third grade, and mandates that, for older children, discussions must be "developmentally appropriate". Secondly, it allows parents to sue the school district if they do not agree with its teachings, and the district would have to recompense for it. Thirdly, it requires schools to inform parents about physical and mental health services, conducts questionnaires and health screenings that are provided for children, and allows parents to decline them.
Although it may not be apparent from the bill's use of language, the terms of the bill lead to a severe restriction in LGBTQ+ inclusive education. Firstly, the terms of the bills exacerbate a problem in Florida's sex education, which has been banned for children up to fifth grade. By denying young children the right to have discussions about different sexual orientations, the bill could cause developmental problems for children who are understand and discover their sexual and gender identities. Secondly, as schools begin to preemptively remove LGBTQ+ related books and teaching material in fear of being sued, LGBTQ+ children lose the support and visibility that schools could offer. Heterosexuality is instead reinforced as the status quo, and homophobia could be spread to young children. Thirdly, the requirement for schools to inform parents about services and questionnaires provided to children takes away the ability of schools to be a safe haven for LGBTQ+ children coming from unsupportive families. For example, non-cisgender children may no longer feel comfortable using their preferred pronouns, gender identity or name as they fear being outed to their families.
Reactions Towards the Bill:
The bill has drawn heated controversy around the topic of parental and LGBTQ+ rights, gathering significant support, with proponents arguing that parents should be in control of their children's education, using a similar reasoning to Florida's banning of discussions about race and "critical race theory" in school. To a more extreme degree, they have even accused critics of "grooming" or sexually harassing young children. They seek to vilify LGBTQ+ Americans and educators in the public eye for "corrupting" children, and to use schools as the first step in undoing LGBTQ+ expression and advocacy. The "anti-grooming" movement is the right-wing's desperate attempt to change public attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community by creating a morally-corrupt yet untrue image of them, at a time when more and more people are becoming supportive of the community.
In opposition to the bill, gay and trans rights activists have voiced their criticism; some gay rights groups have sued Florida over the law on the grounds that it violates freedom of speech and equal protection; over 600 students gathered in New York in a "We Say Gay" rally to protest against the law; Disney even made a public statement in opposition of the bill due to internal pressure from its employees, which drew backlash from the right-wing for spreading "woke" left-wing "indoctrination". In response, Florida threatened to revoke Disney's self-government status.
Impact on Other States:
Following the passing of the "Don't Say Gay" Bill in Florida, other states have followed suit in introducing similar homophobic bills. In Alabama, two transphobic bills were signed into law: one classifies gender-affirming healthcare as a felony, while the other forces students to use bathrooms for the sex they were assigned at birth. Similar bills have been officialised in Ohio and Louisiana, while one is currently being proposed in Tennessee, which would severely restrict LGBTQ+ inclusive education in those states. In Texas, the lieutenant governor has considered introducing a similar bill to be a "top priority" in the next session. In all, over a dozen US states are trying to introduce or have already introduced bills that would likewise ban or crack down on sexual education and discussions about LGBTQ+ topics in schools.
Conclusion, and How to Help:
As conservative politicians try to restrict safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ discussions in schools, we must choose to play an active role in defending the progress that LGBTQ+ rights activists have made. Through raising the voices against homophobia in protests and spreading awareness of the realities faced by LGBTQ+ children, we can help overturn these laws and once again make schools a safe place for LGBTQ+ inclusive education.