Briefing

Why Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill has caused a nationwide uproar

A controversial piece of legislation commonly known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill passed the Florida Senate on Tuesday after being approved by the House last month. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has signaled that he plans to sign the bill. Why is the bill getting so much national attention?

What's in the bill?

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The legislation, more officially titled the "Parental Rights in Education" bill, seeks to restrict the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity with public school children, especially from kindergarten to the third grade.

The text of the bill, which was filed on Jan. 11 by state Rep. Joe Harding (R), stipulates that "[c]lassroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate."

"If that language seems vague, it is," writes CNN. "But vague legislation can have massive consequences."

The bill also empowers parents to sue schools and teachers that violate this ban, enhancing the ability of Florida's parents to object to their children's curricula. 

Notably, the "Don't Say Gay" nickname was created and spread by activist opponents to the bill. The bill does not seek to prohibit the use of the word "gay" in schools, supporters note.

Will schools be forced to "out" LGBT students?

Maybe.

The final text of the bill requires schools to notify parents "if there is a change in the student's services or monitoring related to the student's mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being." A student coming out as transgender or non-binary would require changes to the student's "services and monitoring" — such as altering the student's sex in school records or stipulating the use of different pronouns in the classroom — and could therefore fall under this definition.

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The legislation does, however, include a carve-out that allows schools to "withhold such information from parents" when there is a risk of "abuse, abandonment, or neglect." So, for example, a transgender student who wears girls' clothes and uses a feminine name at school but lives as a boy at home because of parental threats would not have to be "outed."

An amendment Harding introduced in February would have required schools to "develop a plan … to disclose such information [to parents] within 6 weeks" even if "a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect," but Harding withdrew the amendment a few days later.

Is this bill the first of its kind?

No.

Laws placing some level of restriction on discussing LGBT issues in the context of sexual education have been repealed, overturned, or rendered obsolete in several states. Texas has a pair of 1991 statutes on the books requiring all sex-ed programs to teach that "homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense." Anti-sodomy laws in the state were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003.

In 2008, Tennessee State Rep. Stacey Campfield (R) introduced a bill prohibiting "the teaching of or furnishing of materials on human sexuality other than heterosexuality in public school grades K-8." The bill failed relatively quietly.

In 2011, Campfield — by then a state Senator — re-introduced the legislation, which also included language that could be interpreted as requiring educators to "out" gay students to their parents. This time, it attracted national and international attention, and critics quickly coined the phrase "Don't Say Gay" to describe it.

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After several years in legislative limbo, Campfield's bill passed the state Senate in 2015 but never became law.

How are people reacting?

Proponents of the bill tend to focus on the part of the bill that bans instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity "in kindergarten through grade 3."

"Ask any non-deranged parent if they want their six-year-old to talk about their sexuality with their teacher and they'll look at you like you're crazy," Alex Perez wrote at The Spectator World.

Harding said the bill is "designed to keep school districts from talking about these topics before kids are ready to process them."

Detractors meanwhile emphasize the phrase "in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate," arguing that such imprecise language could lead to lawsuits from parents who believe any discussion of LGBT identities is inappropriate at any grade level.

Amit Paley, CEO of the LGBT suicide prevention group The Trevor Project, wrote at CNN that the bill "would effectively erase entire chapters of history, literature, and critical health information" and "silence LGBTQ students and those with LGBTQ parents or family members." He added that, according to his organization's research, "LGBTQ students who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school were 23 percent less likely to attempt suicide in the past year."

LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida threatened to "lead legal action against the State of Florida" if "the vague language of this bill" is "interpreted in a way that causes harm to a single child, teacher, or family." Kara Gross of the ACLU's Florida branch told Time the bill could infringe on teachers' First Amendment rights.

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In his State of the Union speech, President Biden told "younger transgender Americans" he would "always have your back … so you can be yourself and reach your God-given potential."

Some of the bill's critics took its nickname literally. Occupy Democrats writer David Weissman falsely claimed Republicans had "banned the word gay in the state of Florida." Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D) shared a TikTok montage of various people saying "Gay" into their phone cameras in protest.

More than 500 students at one Florida high school walked out in protest of the bill before it passed the state Senate.

Why has the name of the bill been so controversial?

The bill's full name is almost 400 words long, so naturally, some sort of nickname had to be devised.

Supporters refer to it as the "Parental Rights in Education" bill, but so far, the bill's opponents are winning the PR battle. Google searches for "Don't say gay" vastly outnumber searches for "Parental rights in education." Media outlets including CBS, ABC, NBC, The Associated Press, and The Week have all referred to the legislation as "Don't Say Gay" in headlines.  

When a reporter for Tampa Bay's NBC affiliate used the nickname when asking Gov. DeSantis about the bill on Monday, DeSantis accused him of "pushing false narratives."

Christina Pushaw, the governor's press secretary, suggested on Twitter that the legislation ought to be called the "Anti-Grooming Bill."

According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network "grooming" refers to "manipulative behaviors" that a sexual "abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught." Florida state Rep. Carlos G. Smith (D), who is gay, blasted Pushaw for "openly accus[ing] opponents" of the bill of being "pedophiles."

What happens now?

DeSantis is expected to sign the bill into law. He has repeatedly expressed support for the legislation, though he hasn't explicitly said he will sign it if it reaches his desk, ABC News reports. If he does, however, the law would go into effect July 1. 

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