White House blasts Florida GOP's 'Don't Say Gay' school bill

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration sharply criticized Republicans in Florida on Tuesday for backing a measure that, if signed into law, would prevent discussions of gender and sexuality in the state’s schools.

“Every parent, as one myself too, hopes that our leaders will ensure their children's safety, protection and freedom, and today conservative politicians in Florida rejected those basic values,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a Tuesday briefing, escalating a feud with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has emerged as a favorite adversary. He is in support of the measure and is expected to sign it into law.

President Biden also weighed in shortly after the briefing, denouncing the legislation as “hateful.”

“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,” he tweeted.

Supporters gather for a Safe Schools South Florida rally
Supporters at a Safe Schools South Florida rally to oppose the "Don't Say Gay" bill. (Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images) (Sun Sentinel via Getty Images)

Detractors call the measure “Don’t Say Gay” because, they argue, it would discourage any substantive acknowledgment of gender fluidity or sexual difference. Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, recently said that the legislation would “kill kids” by shaming them into silence.

Conservatives maintain that such laws are necessary because they fear that children are being inculcated with values that discourage traditional gender expression. But there is no evidence of that happening to any significant degree in the nation’s schools, leading to questions about whether legislation such as Florida’s is addressing a legitimate need or stoking the increasingly heated culture wars.

A near-identical controversy is taking place over the teaching of racial injustice. On that front, too, Florida has taken up the cause, with DeSantis endorsing legislation that would prohibit schools and other institutions from causing people to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race,” an implicit reference to some white Americans’ anxiety about the racial reckoning now underway in many segments of society. Critics say it would be virtually impossible to teach history within such guidelines.

“Make no mistake, this is not an isolated action in Florida,” Psaki said on Tuesday, in more general reference to the debates about education that have become increasingly prominent in local and national politics. “Across the country, we’re seeing Republican leaders taking action to regulate what students can or cannot read, what they can or cannot learn, and most troubling, who they can or cannot be.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki
White House press secretary Jen Psaki. (Patrick Semansky/AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Psaki’s comments followed a statement from a White House official blasting the proposed legislation as “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.”

Both chambers of the Florida Legislature are advancing the measure, which is described as a parental-rights bill that reinforces “the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children” by allowing parents to sue school districts if those districts fail to make proper disclosures about their educational practices. “Parental rights” has become a rallying cry for conservatives, helping Glenn Youngkin win the Virginia governorship and potentially serving as a motivating issue in this fall’s midterm congressional elections.

The most controversial stipulation of the proposed legislation says that a “school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” The language is vague enough for broad interpretation, thus likely discouraging teachers from engaging in topics pertaining to sexuality.

Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images) (Joe Raedle via Getty Images)

Republicans control both chambers in Florida, which is often seen as a national bellwether, not to mention a crucible of presidential ambitions. And though DeSantis did not directly promise to sign the legislation, he signaled clear support for its mission. “Schools need to be teaching kids to read, to write. They need to teach them science, history. We need more civics and understanding of the U.S. Constitution, what makes our country unique, all those basic things," he said on Monday.

As states like Florida and Texas have advanced legislation to restrict abortion rights, ban vaccine mandates and restrict what teachers can teach, the White House has seen an opportunity to motivate progressives with opposition to such measures.

DeSantis has emerged as a favorite target. Last month, Psaki pivoted from a question about mask mandates in schools to criticize the governor on how he had handled federal education appropriations. DeSantis charged back that Psaki “lies through her teeth every single day.”

Earlier, the press secretary branded DeSantis’s insistence on COVID-19 treatments that are ineffective against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus “crazy.” Before that, during the fall’s Delta surge, she told him to “get out of the way” if he continued to oppose mask mandates in schools.