South Florida Sun Sentinel | By Skyler Swisher | March 8, 2022
TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers approved legislation known as the “don’t say gay” bill Tuesday, ignoring statewide protests and sending the contentious measure limiting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis has signaled that he will sign the bill into law, saying he thinks it will shield elementary-age children from inappropriate lessons about sex.
The legislation — titled Parental Rights in Education but dubbed by opponents the “don’t say gay” bill — bans classroom instruction on “sexual orientation and gender identity” in grades kindergarten through three.
It also prohibits lessons on those topics that are not “age appropriate” and seeks to ensure parents have access to information about their children’s “mental, emotional. or physical health or well-being.”
Parents could sue districts over violations under the measure that would take effect July 1.
In a mostly party-line vote, senators voted 22-17 for the bill. Two GOP senators — Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Jennifer Bradley of Fleming Island — broke ranks and voted no.
Supporters said the changes are needed to ensure parents are in control of what children learn about sex. Opponents argue the bill distracts from more pressing issues facing Floridians and singles out the LGBTQ community.
“It sends a message that they don’t matter, that they need to be hidden, that it shouldn’t be talked about and that there should be shame,” said Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton.
State academic standards, which public schools follow, already do not include sexual orientation and gender identity as topics for students in grades kindergarten through three.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, who sponsored the bill, said more children are coming out as gay and “experimenting” with their sexual identity.
“I think 75% of people I see polled on this bill — they agree with me that there’s something wrong with how we’re emphasizing this and how, all of a sudden, overnight, they’re a celebrity when they felt like a nobody,” said Baxley, R-Ocala.
The bill (HB 1557) has been one of the most contentious of the 2022 legislative session. Students walked out of classrooms in protest. Demonstrators filled the Capitol Rotunda and shouted “we say gay.” Saturday Night Live lampooned the legislation. President Joe Biden denounced it as “hateful.”
DeSantis’ spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, sparked outrage when she suggested on Twitter that people against the bill support pedophilia. She called the legislation the “anti-grooming” bill.
DeSantis hasn’t said if he’ll sign the bill, but he’s voiced his support and accused the news media of creating a “false narrative” about the legislation’s intent.
“We’re going to make sure that parents are able to send their kid to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into their school curriculum,” he said.
Sen. Shevrin Jones, Florida’s first openly gay state senator, said schools aren’t teaching elementary school children about sex, and the legislation is instead geared at scoring political points under the guise of “parental rights.”
“This will be another stain on the history of Florida. … You can put whatever title behind it all you want. It hurts people,” said Jones, D-Miami Gardens.
Republicans countered that parents want to be more involved in what their children are learning in school.
The language in the bill that has stirred the most controversy reads, “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
The bill’s passage drew an immediate rebuke from U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who criticized Florida lawmakers for “prioritizing hateful bills that hurt some of the students most in need.”
“The Department of Education has made clear that all schools receiving federal funding must follow federal civil rights law, including Title IX’s protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We stand with our LGBTQ+ students in Florida and across the country and urge Florida leaders to make sure all their students are protected and supported,” Cardona said in a statement.
The Florida House approved the sexual orientation bill in a mostly party-line vote last month. Seven GOP representatives voted against the legislation.
Culture war issues have taken center stage in the legislative session, which is scheduled o wrap up Friday. Florida lawmakers also approved a 15-week abortion ban, which DeSantis is expected to sign into law.
Staff writer Leslie Postal and News Service of Florida contributed to this report.