Jurisprudence

How the War on Critical Race Theory Revived Anti-Gay Activism in Schools

Ron DeSantis holds up his hand, looking annoyed.
Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has expressed support for his state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For decades, anti-gay activists have pushed their agenda by masking their homophobia in a concern for children’s innocence. But as gay Americans have demanded equal rights and gained greater visibility, these anti-gay sentiments have fallen out of favor in polite society. As a result, the bigots began cloaking their hatred of homosexuality in terms of religious liberty and “natural law.” Now, the anti-gay lobby has found a tantalizing new opportunity to continue their crusade: The right’s war against critical race theory. Suddenly, Republican lawmakers are establishing speech codes for public schools, censoring students and teachers, and banning diverse educational materials. Homophobic activists have piggybacked off this campaign by reframing LGBTQ-related school speech as dangerous liberal propaganda.

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In multiple states run by Republicans, the anti-gay crusaders are on the brink of success, reviving a pernicious strain of hate that seemed to be fading just a few years ago.

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The most notorious of these anti-gay gag orders is Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” measure. The bill, H.B. 1557, has already passed the state House of Representatives and is on the brink of passage in the state Senate; Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has signaled that he’ll sign it. H.B. 1557 outlaws “classroom instruction” about “sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade, then bans such “instruction” in grades 4-12 if it “is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

These terms are not clearly defined, and this ambiguity is by design. As my colleague Christina Cauterucci explained, their intent is “to create a chilling effect, such that teachers and school administrators are too afraid to teach LGBTQ history, discuss relevant current events, or offer support to queer and trans students, lest they run afoul of a vaguely written law.” H.B. 1557 empowers parents to file a lawsuit against schools that don’t comply and win damages—that is, a cash payout—as well as attorneys’ fees if they prevail. Like Texas’ abortion ban, it creates a vigilante enforcement scheme, relying on the threat of ruinous lawsuits to bring its targets into line.

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Florida is not alone in silencing LGBTQ-related speech. There are at least 15 similar bills in eight states, and several go far beyond H.B. 1557. Oklahoma’s S.B. 1654 bans schools from using books that “make as their primary subject the study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender issues.” Tennessee’s H.B. 800 would proscribe classroom materials “that promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.” Kansas’ H.B. 2662 forbids any material that “depicts” homosexuality—not gay sex, but the mere existence of same-sex couples. Any teacher who violates the law could be fined and jailed.

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Many of these anti-LGBTQ bills are framed as “parents’ rights” or “curriculum transparency” measures. The reason is obvious. As PEN America has reported, such measures represent “a convergence between two distinct but related sets of actors: First, anti-LGBTQ+ activists, well-established but with limited success in penetrating public schools; and second, the ‘anti-Critical Race Theory’ movement.” This anti-CRT campaign “has primed the public to support sweeping censorship of classroom speech. For anti-LGBTQ+ activists, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, a chance to ram through bills that are far more restrictive than anything the public would normally accept.”

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The groups pushing these bills view speech about race and LGBTQ people as part of the same broader evil. Heritage Foundation, the conservative D.C. think tank, lobbies against both CRT (defined as virtually any discussion of race) and LGBTQ acceptance (which it labels “sexual orientation and gender identity ideology”) in schools. Family Policy Alliance, the lobbying arm of Focus on the Family, advocates against education about race and LGBTQ identities under the umbrella of protecting “parental rights.” So does its Florida chapter, which has mobilized in support of Florida’s gag rule.

One registered lobbyist for H.B. 1557, Moms for Liberty, formed just two years ago. The group’s trajectory illustrates how these causes have melted together. Moms for Liberty first came on the scene to lobby against mask mandates in school in 2020. It quickly morphed into a “parents’ rights” organization and set its sights on educational censorship, demanding that schools ban books depicting interracial marriage, Martin Luther King, Jr., and civil rights protests (allegedly for depicting police in a negative light). Naturally, the group then took aim at LGBTQ-themed books, equating sensitive depictions of gay youth with pornography. It even objected to a book about seahorses because it explained that males carry the eggs.

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The interests of anti-LGBTQ activists and anti-CRT activists overlap where it matters: Both groups want to control what information their children are exposed to at school by gagging educators and students. Our current moral panic is rooted in the fear—carefully cultivated by Republican lawmakers and conservative media—that schools are indoctrinating students with a dangerous, un-American “ideology.” They seize on ambient parental concerns that cultural currents are drawing their children further out to sea and away from the shores of traditional morality. Just as some parents don’t want their kids to learn about same-sex marriage, others don’t want them to discover structural racism, Jim Crow, and slavery. Already, this movement is shifting toward the censorship of all ideas that offend them, including the existence of communism, sexism, and atheism. (You can read an index of these bills here.)

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On a podcast supporting H.B. 1557, Ben Shapiro declared that he would always “passionately defend protecting small children from the predations of adults who wish to talk about controversial social issues with children.” This word—“predations,” which Shapiro deployed repeatedly—is the skeleton key to this entire debate. It reflects an angst that gay people who do not conceal their sexuality are attempting to brainwash and molest children.

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This outlandish and bigoted notion has deep roots. You see this assumption in the infamous 1961 short film Boys Beware, which warned schoolchildren against predatory homosexuals and was produced in part by (of course) a school district. You see it in the failed 1978 campaign to ban gay teachers from California schools. You see it in Board of Education v. National Gay Task Force, a 1985 case in which the Supreme Court struck down an Oklahoma law barring teachers from “encouraging or promoting” homosexuality. (The state cited a need to protect “student morality” and “traditional cultural values,” worrying about student “imitation” of gay teachers.) You see it in many ads supporting Proposition 8, which asserted that legal same-sex marriage would force educators to indoctrinate kids. (Tagline: “It has everything to do with schools.”) Now we see it in Florida, Tennessee, Kansas, Oklahoma—it’s a safe bet that a “Don’t Say Gay” bill will gain traction in every state legislature controlled by Republicans.

Whenever there is a moral panic involving children, homophobes see an opportunity. The CRT fracas presented them with a chance to shoehorn their cause into a much larger and more successful movement, giving it a huge boost of attention, money, and political support. But there is nothing new about its underlying demands, or the bigotry that motivates them. We are still trapped in the same argument over the humanity of gay people. And as usual, it is the youngest and most vulnerable among us who will pay the greatest price.

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