Earlier this month, the Florida state legislature passed a ban on certain classroom instruction about LGBTQ life. Critics have dubbed it a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, part of a class of anti-LGBTQ censorship legislation gaining steam across the country.
The bill would allow parents to sue a school district if they believe a teacher has taught children in third grade or younger about “sexual orientation or gender identity,” or taught older students about such topics “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” It would also force schools to notify parents if they begin providing support to queer or trans students who come out. Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill into law.
Leaders of LGBTQ advocacy groups maintain that the bill is vague and broad enough to create a chilling effect among teachers and school administrators, such that none will want to risk potentially ruinous lawsuits by even mentioning the existence of gay or trans people in classrooms.
But conservatives say Democrats and LGBTQ activists are making a big deal out of nothing. Republican officials and right-wing commentators deny that the bill is anti-gay and insist that it will neither discriminate against queer and trans students nor prohibit normal, age-appropriate discussion of LGBTQ culture and history. In a tweet this morning, Tim Carney, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, criticized “the media” for peddling a “false story” that the Florida bill “prohibits ‘discussion’ of sexual orientation.”
In fact, the very first page of the bill’s text states as its purpose: “prohibiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner.”
Carney has since deleted the tweet. But he’s in good company among conservatives falling all over themselves to declare that the bill will not do exactly what it was written to do. Fox News called claims that the bill will prevent teachers from discussing gay people a “media ‘disinformation’ narrative.” The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Joe Harding, proclaimed that the media is lying by saying “that we were banning the word, that we were banning people.” The National Review has published several pieces accusing media outlets of “intentionally misleading” Floridians and “deliberately distorting” the bill’s mandate. The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal ran an essay arguing that “the reaction to Florida’s law on parents and schools is overwrought” because the bill does not explicitly contain the phrase “don’t say gay.”
Even Gov. Ron DeSantis and his press secretary, Christina Pushaw, are trying to downplay the effects of this nonetheless apparently very important bill. “There is nothing in this bill preventing anyone from ‘saying gay’” Pushaw told Fox News.
When an AP reporter tweeted the “Don’t Say Gay” nickname for the bill, Pushaw pushed back. “Does it mention the word ‘gay’ or LGBT people at all?” she tweeted. And when a reporter asked DeSantis about his support for the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, he accused the journalist of “pushing false narratives.”
None of these people or institutions are confused about what the Florida legislation will do. Pushaw knows that it was not written to keep students from learning about straight people, traditional marriage, and heterosexual culture. DeSantis knows that it will prevent schools from providing counseling and support to trans kids who aren’t ready to come out to their parents. By taking a narrow, literal interpretation of the nickname critics have given this type of censorship legislation, they’re deliberately ignoring the actual content of the bill.
If you listen a little closer, it’s clear that everyone agrees on the bill’s intended effects. “Republicans aren’t trying to outlaw schools’ acknowledgment of gay people. They are trying to protect young children from ideological indoctrination and require school districts to be transparent with parents.” one National Review writer reassures us.
Another writes that the bill does not “ban teachers from referring to their gay family members or to their own spouses. It just restricts schools from addressing these weighty and sometimes explicit topics with young children as part of their classroom curricula.”
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board points out that sexual orientation and gender identity are not currently being taught, as such, in kindergarten through third grade in Florida. “If that’s the case, then why is everybody so riled up?” the board asks. (Indeed, one might ask, then why is anyone trying to pass a bill banning it?) And yet, the board concludes, “Parents have a right to ensure that the curriculum is age appropriate, and that it is focused on learning instead of promoting someone’s cultural agenda.”
“Ideological indoctrination.” “Weighty and sometimes explicit topics.” “Cultural agenda.” These are the euphemisms conservatives have apparently settled on to describe any acknowledgement in schools that LGBTQ people exist and are as deserving of respect and rights as anyone else.
Of course, if teaching those things constitutes ideological indoctrination, so does not teaching them. Educators who, fearing a lawsuit that takes a conservative view of what “age-appropriate” means, never mention the existence of trans people or important milestones in LGBTQ history are indoctrinating students by those omissions to believe that those identities are shameful, and that queer people deserve to live in the shadows—that our lives should only be discussed in furtive euphemisms.
In their attempts to deny that the legislation will have its precise intended effect, Republicans have insisted that it will merely protect children from lewd material and abuse. Critics of the bill are “in favor of injecting sexual instruction to 5-, 6- and 7-year-old kids,” DeSantis said. Pushaw has said the bill merely prohibits kids from being “exposed to sexually inappropriate content”; she accuses any opponent of being “a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” Dennis Baxley, who sponsored the bill in the state senate, has said that being queer or trans is a “trend” that teachers are encouraging through “social engineering” and “sexual-type discussions.”
Smearing LGBTQ people and allies as pedophiles (“groomers”) who become educators as part of an agenda to recruit young children into a particular sexual lifestyle is a demagogic tactic as old as homophobia itself. If Republicans had actually wanted to ban sexually explicit material from the classroom, the bill would prohibit that, instead of instruction on “sexual orientation or gender identity”—which, as conservatives well know, encompasses not just sex but love, self-image, legal issues, relationships, community, culture, and history.
And if Republicans were only worried about very young children—the ones they consistently invoke in their dismissals of critics’ concerns—they would not have included language that prohibits any student, including older teenagers, from being taught about the forbidden topics “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” This part of the legislation is intentionally vague, so as to create a chilling effect among teachers who know it will be nearly impossible to prove to an angry, lawsuit-wielding, DeSantis-voting parent that acknowledging the existence of trans people is “age-appropriate” for a high-schooler.
Republicans can shout all they want that the bill doesn’t really ban teachers from mentioning gay people. It doesn’t change the facts of the legislation. When parents can sue schools over any LGBTQ-related content they find objectionable, what exactly the bill bans is up to them.