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Florida's controversial "Don't Say Gay" school bill moves forward

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Florida is continuing to advance a pair of controversial bills that would bar school districts from encouraging classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity. The state's Senate and House have proposed the Parental Rights in Education bills — commonly referred to the "Don't Say Gay" bills by critics — which would apply to such topics in primary grade levels, as well as in cases where the discussions are deemed "not age-appropriate."

The bills would extend to student support services, including counseling, and would require school district personnel to give parents all information related to a student's "mental, emotional or physical health or well-being," unless it's believed that such disclosure would result in abuse. Parents would be able to sue districts that do not follow these requirements.

Their purpose, according to the text, is to "reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children."

The House's judiciary committee approved the bill on Thursday, advancing it to be presented to the House. Their version of the bill is almost the same as the Senate's, the only difference being that it specifies that the ban would be on "classroom instruction" for those from kindergarten through the third grade, "or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards." The House could vote on the bill as soon as Tuesday.

"I want folks that oppose the bill to be really clear on what they're actually opposing," the House bill's sponsor, Republican Joe Harding, told the Tampa Bay Times. "I want them to go on record to say it's OK for a six-year-old to have one identity in school and one at home because the school encourages that kind of behavior."

In the Senate, the bill was passed by the education committee on February 8, and must be considered by two more Florida Senate committees, which could make changes, before it can be presented to the full chamber. If Florida legislators pass the bill, it would go into effect on July 1, with all school district plans having to be updated by June 30, 2023.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who supports the bill, said at a roundtable in Miami on February 7 that he doesn't approve of "injecting these concepts about choosing your gender" at schools.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis / Credit: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis / Credit: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

"We've seen instances of students being told by different folks in school, 'Oh, don't worry. Don't pick your gender yet. Do all this other stuff.' They won't tell the parents about these discussions that are happening," DeSantis said. "That is entirely inappropriate. Schools need to be teaching kids to read, to write. They need to teach them science, history. We need more civics."

DeSantis said he doesn't think such conversations are "going on in large numbers," but that he wants "to make sure that our schools are really focusing on the basics."

"We don't want them to be engines to be putting things like the CRT [critical race theory] that we talked about, things that are divisive and are not accurate of course when you start talking about some of the stuff that they're teaching with it, and making sure that we're really focusing on the basics," he said.

For Delaney Ocock, a senior at Olympia High School in Orlando, the bill is an "unnecessary" barrier to LGBTQ students such as herself from having an essential support system at school.

"The bill is sending a message to LGBTQ youth that they have something to be ashamed about, that their identities are so taboo that they shouldn't even be talked about in classrooms," she told CBS News on Thursday. "In a world that already shames LGBTQ people enough, children who are learning and developing who they are don't need any more of that stigma."

Ocock, the president of her schools' Gay-Straight Alliance, said she first came out as lesbian when she was 11 years old, and that having support from her seventh grade English teacher at that time helped her become more vocal and open about her identity.

"If I hadn't had that experience of having a really awesome accepting middle school experience, I definitely wouldn't be as vocal about who I am in my identity today," she said. "Having that really normalized it for me and made me not afraid to speak about who I am."

She said the bill also incorrectly assumes that kids are able to openly have LGBTQ-centered discussions at home. For many of her classmates, she said, the response to the bill is that of fear.

"This is really a death sentence. ... they're trying to take a safe space away from children," she said. "And also requiring teachers to out students to their parents, that just really does not sit well with me because I have a lot of friends and I know a lot of kids in my own GSA that if they were in that situation, where their parents were contacted about who they are, it would be very dangerous for them both mentally and physically."

A 2019 survey from The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that the school climate in Florida is "not safe" for most LGBTQ students as it is.

The vast majority of LGBTQ youth who responded to the survey said they regularly heard anti-LGBTQ remarks in schools, and about a quarter had experienced physical harassment at school. But 98% of respondents could identify at least one school staff member who was supportive.

Supporters gather for a Safe Schools South Florida & Friends rally to push back against the so-called
Supporters gather for a Safe Schools South Florida & Friends rally to push back against the so-called

Studies have shown that nationally, schools serve as a vital support system for LGBTQ youth.

The Trevor Project's 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that of the more than 82,000 youth who responded, only one-third considered their home LGBTQ-affirming, while 50% considered their school to be so.

The organization released a statement on Tuesday condemning Florida's proposed bill, saying it would result in "erasing LGBTQ identity, history, and culture — as well as LGBTQ students themselves." The organization also said it would effectively allow schools to "out" students to their parents without their consent.

"Banning speech about sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida classrooms would not only ben an infringement on civil rights, it would erase entire chapters of history, classic literature, and critical health information from textbooks, to say nothing of erasing students themselves," Sam Ames, the Trevor Project's director of advocacy and government affairs, said in a statement.

The bill has drawn significant backlash, including from the White House.

"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," said a tweet from President Biden.

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. https://t.co/OcAIMeVpHL

— President Biden (@POTUS) February 8, 2022

"Every parent hopes that our leaders will ensure their children's safety, protection, and freedom," a White House spokesperson said in a statement reported by The Associated Press. "Today, conservative politicians in Florida rejected those basic values by advancing legislation that is designed to target and attack the kids who need support the most — LGBTQI+ students, who are already vulnerable to bullying and violence just for being themselves."

Students and LGBTQ advocates have been protesting the measure for days across the state.

"It's a radical roll back of the calendar," Scott Galvin, executive director of Safe Schools South Florida, told CBS Miami last week. "It will stop teachers and schools from talking to kids about LGBTQ issues and it will stop them from talking about gay issues among themselves."

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