Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill part of Republican drive to limit talk of sex and race in U.S. classrooms

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Discussions about sexual identity and race are being forced out of schools in states where conservatives argue cultural change has gone overboard.

This is a scene from a recent protest in Florida, which has become an epicentre of national fights about sexuality, gender and race, and what conversations should be allowed in classrooms.(Wilfredo Lee/AP)

America's culture warriors have massed on their latest battlefield: the classrooms of grade-school children.

Discussions about sexual identity and race are being forced out of schools in states where conservatives argue cultural change has gone overboard.

It's pitting them against liberals who decry these measures as bigotry cloaked in concern about children.

A focal point in this fight is a just-passed bill in Florida, HB 1557, which has so polarized the state and the country, people can't even agree on what to call it.

Parental Rights in Education: that's the official name. Don't Say Gay: that's critics' famous nickname for it. The Anti-Grooming bill — that's the counter-nickname given by supporters.

It symbolizes struggles taking place in Texas, Tennessee and a number of other states where similar measures are unfolding.

'It's going to cost lives'

Legislative hearings on bill HB 1557 earlier this year offered a window into the politics at play, which follow deep cultural fault lines.

Bill opponents wept at times as they shared personal stories and said it would stigmatize gay, lesbian and transgender youth, who already suffer frighteningly high rates of depression and suicide.

"I never cry on a bill," said one lawmaker, Fentrice Driskell, stifling tears as she recounted the story of a childhood friend whose death was believed to be self-inflicted.

Parents in non-traditional families testified the bill would intimidate kids from doing basic things like drawing their family in art class.

Students from Hillsborough High School protest Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill in Tampa earlier this month.(Octavio Jones/Reuters)

One parent, Kerry Gaudio, urged lawmakers to put themselves in the shoes of a kid being made to feel their family is illegitimate: "It's going to cost lives," said Gaudio.

Other speakers, meanwhile, asked what all the fuss was about.

What the bill actually says

Here's what's in the bill, which would take effect July 1 if, as expected, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs it into law.

Its main provisions:

  • Forbid lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity either a) before Grade 4 or b) in a manner that's not age-appropriate. Critics call that last part vague and ripe for abuse.
  • Require parents to be notified if a student has recently received school services related to mental or physical well-being, such as for eating disorders or bullying.
  • Let parents sue schools that ignore questions about their children's wellbeing.

"We don't want the school district to take on the role of being the parent. Because they're not," said Joe Harding, the Republican who introduced the bill.

The bill's critics contend LGBTQ kids are the target; Harding originally proposed an amendment, since withdrawn, that could have forced school officials to out students to their parents.

'Third grade is a very modest proposal'

Republican Mike Beltran lamented all the attention paid to a few controversial lines in the bill, which he called altogether reasonable.

"All [the bill] says is, 'We don't talk about [sexuality and gender] until the kids are out of third grade.' That's all it says. You can speak about it in fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth grade. … You can speak about it at home," Beltran said. "Third grade is a very modest proposal."

Demonstrators who oppose HB 1557 speak in front of the Florida State Capitol on March 7.(Wilfredo Lee/AP)

One mother who supports the bill testified that school officials cut her out of conversations about her non-binary 13-year-old child.

January Littlejohn sued a school district when she learned officials allegedly agreed to start calling the child a new name, offered a switch of washrooms and asked whether the child would prefer to room with boys or girls on field trips.

The mother suggested her child might have been swayed by a trend; she said three of her child's friends had declared they were transgender.

During her testimony in the legislative hearing, Littlejohn fumed that she and her husband weren't told. "This created a huge wedge between our daughter and us, because it sent the message that she needed to be protected from us. Not by us."

Of note: Parts of this bill wouldn't apply to Littlejohn's child, at least not the provisions about what can't be discussed before Grade 4.

And that speaks to a major criticism of the bill.

Democrats say bill singles out LGBTQ people

Florida Democrats say there is no sex ed at that age anyway. And that even for older kids, parents have the right to opt out of it.

That's why they say the don't-say-gay label is fair: as far as they're concerned, that's what this bill is really about.

Florida Democrat Anna Eskamani says her rivals are driven by national ambition, and seek attention on the backs of LGBTQ people. (Rick Wilson/AP)

"It is a direct attack on LGBTQ+ identity," state lawmaker Anna Eskamani told CBC News, speaking about her Republican opponents' bill. "They're not even being subtle about it. It's just so gross."

At one hearing, Eskamani asked whether kids could still ask teachers about a tragedy in her Orlando-area district: the 2016 massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub.

The bill's sponsor, Harding, said that was fine. He said the bill targets procedures, not on-the-spot discussions: "Children ask a lot of questions. Conversations are going to come up."

Public opinion polling is split on aspects of the bill.

I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community — especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill — to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are. I have your back, and my Administration will continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve. <a href="https://t.co/OcAIMeVpHL">https://t.co/OcAIMeVpHL</a>

&mdash;@POTUS

A Morning Consult survey for Politico found that Americans favoured bans on teaching sexual orientation and gender identity through third grade: 50 per cent supported it, 34 opposed it.

A smaller number supported letting parents sue over the policy: 41 per cent favoured that, while 43 per cent opposed it.

The national politics driving this

So what's happening nationally?

There are bills in several states, like one in Tennessee that would restrict books or teaching materials said to "normalize" LGBTQ "lifestyles."

The governor of Texas wants to punish parents of transitioning children. He's instructed child-protection services to open abuse investigations into parents who let children get treatments like puberty-blocking hormones, though the policy is currently blocked by a court.

Parental anger at school boards became a potent issue in conservative politics during the pandemic. Republican politicians are tapping into it. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The Texas move stems from a well-known divorce case there. A mother and father feuded over how to raise an eight-year-old transgender child. The court awarded custody to the transition-supporting mother, but forbade any treatments.

Eskamani's theory about what's driving the trend? Ambitious politicians wanting to build up their celebrity with right-wing voters.

The Texas governor, Greg Abbott, announced his child-protective measure a week before a Republican primary, which he won. Even the Texas father involved in the famous court case later ran, unsuccessfully, for the state legislature.

It's no accident, Eskamani says, that both the Florida and Texas governors are rumoured to have presidential ambitions.

Pandemic upended education politics

There's more at play than personal ambition, as these politicians are tapping into powerful existing currents within their party.

One factor is the pandemic. Conservative parents fumed at school systems, opposing mask mandates and demanding that schools reopen sooner, and protested at raucous board meetings.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is a budding star in the Republican Party. He's getting praise from conservatives for not backing down on the issue of sex and gender discussions in schools.(Marco Bello/Reuters)

They simultaneously rebelled against schools for teaching about racism, and all these themes combined turned bashing the education establishment into a central Republican message in state elections last year.

And Republicans won. In fact, they won big. Including in places they didn't expect to win, like Virginia. The parents' rebellion came to be seen as the reason for the Republican win there, although some analysis disputes that education made the difference in Virginia.

Florida and numerous other states have also forbidden teaching about racism in a way that causes discomfort, guilt or anguish on account of a student's race.

At a January hearing in Florida where lawmakers advanced the Don't Say Gay bill, they discussed another education reform: stripping school-board workers of their salaries and using those savings to hire government monitors who scrutinize the books in libraries.

Add a splash of QAnon

Then there's QAnon.

A person in costume holds a QAnon flag during a protest in December 2020 denying the results of the U.S. election.(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Defenders of Florida's 1557 bill keep referring to it as an anti-grooming bill, which links it to a term associated with pedophiles and a longstanding slur against gay people. Donald Trump Jr. used the reference, as did DeSantis's press secretary (though she apologized).

In Eskamani's view, that language is no accident. It's a tacit wink and a nod, she says, encouraging people who believe unhinged social-media-driven conspiracy theories about pedophiles secretly running governments.

"One hundred per cent," she said. "It all feeds into that same monster."

She anticipates that after DeSantis signs the bill into law, there will be lawsuits. There will also be pressure on companies to speak out, as Disney did, after facing pressure.

DeSantis told Disney to buzz off.

'Who started the culture wars?'

The governor's combative steak drew valuable praise. The conservative National Review called him the new voice of the Republican Party, a Trump-style fighter who never backs down, and dubbed him a 2024 presidential contender.

Some conservatives offer a gloomier take on why they're doing this: Because they're losing.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a threat to parents over transgender issues days before a recent Republican primary. ( Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

At one hearing on the Florida bill, Republican lawmaker Scott Plakon described his side as being on the defensive, trying to slow cultural change that's moved too far, too quickly. Plakon said bill supporters want to draw a line somewhere.

The Republican said he was elected the same year as Barack Obama, 2008, with the same position on same-sex marriage: they both opposed it.

Four years later, he noted, Obama had switched his position. Immediately after, Plakon said, bakers and florists risked punishment for not serving a same-sex wedding or a celebration of a gender transition.

"Here's a rhetorical question," Plakon asked at a January hearing. "Who started the culture wars?"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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