Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “has damaged our state’s reputation as a welcoming and inclusive place for all families,” said one rights advocate. “Worse, he has made schools less safe for children.”
By Julia Conley. Published 3-28-2022 by Common Dreams
Rights advocates on Monday said they will continue to fight against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ attacks on LGBTQ+ families after the Republican governor signed the so-called Parental Rights in Education bill that’s come to be known as the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” proposal.
After DeSantis signed the bill Monday, standing at a podium with a sign reading, “Protect Children,” the law will go into effect July 1.
Equality Florida noted that DeSantis chose to hold the bill signing—where he claimed that public school libraries contain “clearly inappropriate, pornographic, mature materials”—at a charter school that will be exempt from the law, in what the group said was an attempt to escape “students who would protest his presence.”
Today @GovRonDeSantis signed the #DontSayGay bill in the most cowardly way possible. He hid his agenda from the media & the public until the last moment, skulking onto a charter school campus that is exempt from the law & away from students who would protest his presence. pic.twitter.com/He3fPh9Anf
— Equality Florida (@equalityfl) March 28, 2022
“DeSantis has damaged our state’s reputation as a welcoming and inclusive place for all families, he has made us a laughing stock and target of national derision. Worse, he has made schools less safe for children,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of the group. “Equality Florida will defend the rights of all students to have a healthy environment to learn and thrive and for all parents to know their families are included and respected. This law will not stand. We will work to see it removed either by the courts as unconstitutional or repealed by the legislature.”
Under the Parental Rights in Education Law, public school educators will be prohibited from leading classroom discussions or teaching lessons that pertain to gender identity and sexual orientation—at least if they relate to the LGBTQ+ community.
The law applies to classroom instruction in kindergarten through third grade as well as lessons given “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards”—amounting to what Slate senior writer Mark Joseph Stern said is “intentionally vague language to outlaw a huge amount of speech about LGBTQ people, families, and issues—not just sex—in every grade.”
The law also employs a vigilante enforcement scheme, similar to those used in the latest forced-pregnancy bills proposed in several Republican states. Parents will be empowered to sue a school district if they claim a teacher has violated the law, with the potential to win tens of thousands of dollars in court.
“Even if no parent ever sues under H.B. 1557, the threat of enforcement will hang over school districts,” wrote Stern.
Because of DeSantis and the Republican state lawmakers who pushed the proposal, said the ACLU of Florida, “teachers and students will be silenced from speaking and learning about LGBTQ+ siblings, family members, friends, neighbors, and icons.”
“This law is unconstitutional and dangerous,” said Amy Turkel, interim executive director of the group. “Students have a First Amendment right to receive information at school, free of political or partisan censorship. Banning talk about parents serves no legitimate educational purpose and in fact, is detrimental to students. Targeting LGBTQ+ youth and families is discriminatory, cruel, and an impediment to students’ and teachers’ rights to equal protection under the law. All young people deserve an inclusive and accurate education, free from censorship or discrimination.”
Smith and other advocates have expressed concern that young people from LGBTQ+ families will feel unable to talk about their households at school, while children whose family members are heterosexual and cisgender will doubtlessly be exempt from the law’s ban on discussions about “sexual orientation or gender identity.”
“If a child has two moms and the teacher says ‘Yeah, we’re not going to talk about that, that’s a conversation you need to have with your parents,’ everything changes,” Smith told The 19th Monday. “The message every child who hears that is, ‘There’s something wrong with my family here. Something sinister. I can’t even talk to my teacher.'”
DeSantis has claimed the law is necessary to stop LGBTQ+ educators from “grooming” children, or building relationships with them and targeting them for abuse. His press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said earlier this month that an opponent of the law is “probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of four-to-eight year old children.”
“There’s a long history of invoking the ugly stereotype,” Smith told The 19th. “In the 1970s and 1980s, it led to the passage of laws in Florida banning gay people from adopting their own children, children they were already raising… We can’t take it lightly when the governor’s office implies we’re pedophiles.”
The law is likely to have “a chilling effect on speech, frightening educators into silence,” wrote Stern at Slate. “A parent can ruin teachers’ lives by filing a complaint or a lawsuit; even if a teacher is ultimately exonerated, they will have suffered through an intrusive investigation and faced accusation of misconduct—or ‘grooming’—that will never fade away completely.”
DeSantis’ decision to sign the Parental Rights in Education law, also known as H.B. 1557, demonstrates that the governor and possible 2024 presidential candidate “is unfit to lead in Florida or anywhere,” said grassroots organization Florida Rising.
“You can’t govern on behalf of people whose existence you deny,” said executive director Andrea Cristina Mercado. “Instead of dealing with soaring housing costs or helping people get back on their feet after the pandemic, Florida’s GOP is attacking first graders, censoring teachers, and denying the existence of millions of Floridians.”