Ohio Republicans introduce sweeping ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill that also targets ‘divisive’ teachings on race

Republican legislators in Ohio have introduced what opponents have called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, mirroring a Florida law that critics warn will have a chilling effect on LGBT+ students, teachers and their families.

Ohio’s House Bill 616 would ban schools from teaching, using or providing “any curriculum or instructional materials” on sexual orientation or gender identity in grades kindergarten through third grade, and similarly bans such materials in fourth through 12th grade considered “not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

The bill goes further to include school prohibitions against “divisive or inherently racist concepts” including “critical race theory” as well as “diversity, equity, and inclusion learning outcomes,” including professional development initiatives for teachers and school staff.

“Children deserve a quality education that is fair, unbiased and age appropriate,” Ohio state Rep Mike Loychik said in a statement. “This legislation promotes free and fair discussion.”

State Rep Jean Schmidt said the bill’s intent is to provide parents “with the tools to be able to see what their child is being taught.”

LGBT+ advocates in the state condemned the proposal as a “broad and vague” attempt to censor LGBT+ people and issues, “and is exceptionally cruel to community members, their families, and anyone who loves them,” according to a statement from Equality Ohio.

“Ohio’s Don’t Say Gay bill is yet another insidious attempt to chill and censor free speech in the classroom,” Equality Ohio’s executive director Alana Jochum said in a statement. “Lawmakers are effectively trying to erase LGBTQ+ people and skew history in their favor.”

Critics have argued that such broad prohibitions on discussions related to “sexual orientation and gender identity” could be weaponised to prevent students from talking about their LGBT+ family members, or themselves, or events related to LGBT+ issues and history, from US Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality to prominent LGBT+ figures.

Violations in the bill include revoking a teachers license, school funding, or “any other procedures that the department determines are necessary to enforce the prohibitions.”

Despite the bill’s scope across all grades, from kindergarten through senior year of high school, Rep Loychik said that “curriculum about gender identity and sexuality has no place in K-3 classrooms, period. That’s why I just introduced a bill to ban curriculum about sexuality and gender identity until 3rd grade in Ohio.”

Proponents of Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education Act” have incorrectly claimed that the state’s similarly worded legislative text applies only to kindergarten through third grade, despite the law applying to all grades.

The bill also specifically bans The 1619 Project, a long-form journalism project from The New York Times that has drawn the ire of conservatives by centering the legacy of slavery in the nation’s narrative.

Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro, a social studies teacher, said the union does not support the bill, which he has characterised among “cynical attempts to use race and now sexual orientation and gender identity as wedge issues to cause division and sow conflict and ultimately to score cheap political points.”

“This isn’t what our kids or educators need,” he said on Twitter.

Ohio’s House Democratic Minority Leader Allison Russo called the bill “disgusting” and said it “legitimises bigotry”.

“Any time we see pieces of legislation introduced, this to me speaks to the extremism that continues to run rampant in the state house, and we cannot continue to grow as a state economically and do right by our Ohio families if we don’t embrace our diversity and make sure this bill is inclusive for all Ohioans,” she said.

Dozens of bills targeting LGBT+ people – particularly transgender youth – have been introduced in state legislatures across the US.

Similar so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bills have also been filed in Georgia and Louisiana.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Freedom For All Americans have tracked more than 230 bills, while the Human Rights Campaign found more than 300 pieces of legislation considered harmful, with more than 130 of those measures targeting transgender people.

Roughly 75 proposals would restrict or censor classroom speech, school curriculum and library materials, while allowing parents or people unaffiliated with the school to sue districts for perceived violations of the legislative text.

“Attacks like these are a product of a small minority of people pushing their agenda to dismantle diversity at all costs – and in the process putting educators and families in jeopardy for political gain,” according to Equality Ohio.

In its 2019 national school survey, LGBT+ anti-discrimination organisation GLSEN found that a “vast majority” of LGBT+ students in Ohio “regularly” heard anti-LGBT+ remarks, while 33 per cent reported regularly hearing negative remarks from school staff about someone’s gender.

Seventy-three per cent experienced verbal harassment for their sexual orientation, and 62 percent were verbally harassed for their gender expression, the report found.

Only 27 per cent of LGBT+ students who reported incidents said their complaints results in effective staff intervention, according to the report.