Florida’s Republican-dominated House of Representatives passed a pair of bills that opponents argue will chill classroom instruction on racism and injustice and stigmatize LGBT+ children and families by banning discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Legislation supported by Governor Ron DeSantis as the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees” Act, or “Stop WOKE” Act, would bar classroom discussions that could make students feel responsible for historic wrongs because of their race, color, sex or national origin, which critics argue could censor lessons on historic atrocities, from slavery to the Holocaust.
The “Individual Freedom” bill also applies to workplace diversity training sessions, which could be considered an unlawful employment practice subject to a lawsuit or civil rights violation.
Florida Republicans also ushered passage of the Parental Rights in Education bill, named “Don’t Say Gay” by its critics, which prohibits instruction of “sexual orientation or gender identity” through the third grade and any discussion “that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” in other grades.
As debate was underway in Florida on 24 February, Georgia senators approved a measure to block transgender athletes from playing on teams that match their gender identity.
The legislation also follows Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s letter to state health agencies to consider medical treatments provided to transgender youth to be classified as “child abuse” under state law.
Seven Republicans joined Democrats to oppose the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which passed by a vote of 69-47. The “Individual Freedom” bill passed by a vote of 74-41.
Florida’s “Individual Freedom” bill “is a thinly veiled political attempt to attack marginalized communities,” according to Cathryn M Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign. “Let’s be clear – the negative consequences of [the bill] will ripple across Florida. It will hurt the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, and women. Every historically marginalized population will be impacted by this legislation.”
Democratic legislators argued the legislation – which is set to clear the Florida Senate and be signed into law by the governor – amounts to unconstitutional restrictions on speech and an attempt to rewrite historical narratives to center white Americans.
“You don’t get the same liberty if you are an LGBTQ youth in our schools and you don’t get the same liberty if you are a member of an oppressed community of color. I’m tired of being gaslit,” said Florida Democratic Rep. Fentrice Driskell. “This bill didn’t manifest out of thin air. It’s in the context of a concerted effort to suppress stories of communities of color and to not teach our history which is also everyone’s history.”
Democratic State Rep Carlos Smith, the first openly LGBT+ Latino legislator in the state, said the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation “goes way beyond the text on the page.”
“It sends a terrible message to our youth that there is something so wrong, so inappropriate, so dangerous about this topic that we have to censor it from classroom instruction,” he said in emotional remarks on the House floor on 24 February.
He pointed to proponents of the measure looking to prohibit what he quoted them as calling “sexual things”, adding that sexual orientation and gender identity are “not an act, that’s not a thing, either”.
“We’re referring to an entire community of people,” he said.
The bill’s proponents have repeatedly argued that the legislation does not target LGBT+ students or families but gives parents more control over their children’s instruction.
Florida’s legislation joins a nationwide effort to put “parental rights” at the forefront of GOP campaigns in 2022 elections, from school board debates and legislation condemning Covid-19 protocols to perceived “critical race theory” curriculum in classrooms and in human resources initiatives.
LGBT+ advocacy organization Equality Florida warned that the passage of both measures “will turn Florida into a surveillance state and give the government broad license to censor conversations about American history, the origins of racism and injustice, and the existence” of LGBT+ people, the group said in a statement.
The group’s press secretary Brandon Wolf told The Independent that “Don’t Say Gay” supporters see it “as a vehicle to erase LGBTQ people from classrooms as well as society”.
“The truth is this,” he said. “Everybody wants parents to be more deeply involved in parents’ education. They want more parents in parent-teacher conferences. They want more parents being involved in helping a kid’s homework or doing a project. I think we can all agree when a kids education is best when it’s a community effort.
“The problem is this bill is not a parents rights bill. The bill censors speech about LGBTQ people in classrooms and ultimately serves to chill the kind of inclusive environments we’ve sought to create for LGBTQ young people.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.