What to Know About Florida's Controversial New Bill Banning LGBTQ Topics in Schools

One state Republican who broke with her party and voted against the legislation said: "I love all of the children in the state of Florida, and I'm concerned about the message it sends"

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference at a drive-through coronavirus testing site in front of Hard Rock Stadium, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis doesn't want the people on the Holland America's Zandaam where four people died and others are sick to be treated in Florida, saying the state doesn't have the capacity to treat outsiders as the coronavirus outbreak spreads Virus Outbreak Florida, Miami Gardens, United States - 30 Mar 2020
Gov. Ron DeSantis. Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP/Shutterstock

Florida has again found itself in the cross-hairs of political controversy, as a new bill restricting LGBTQ topics in schools passes the state legislature and heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis' desk to be signed into law.

The Parental Rights in Education bill — widely denounced by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill — aims to limit how classrooms, particularly for lower grades, can teach children about topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

In addition to prohibiting class discussion on orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, the bill would also allow parents to sue school districts that fail to adhere to those rules.

Here's more about the bill, and why it's become so deeply divisive.

Where the legislation came from

The state Senate version of the bill was introduced in January by Republican Dennis Baxley, who argued his intent was "to give, really, some relief to the school staff that they're not responsible for every issue in every person's life."

But Baxley has been criticized for other comments he has made during debate about the legislation, such as when he claimed there was a trend in students "coming out" and suggested a law was needed in response.

"Why is everybody now all about coming out when you're in school? And there really is a dynamic of concern of how much of this are genuine type of experiences and how many of them are just kids trying on different kinds of things they hear about," he said, according to The Miami Herald.

"There's something wrong with how we're emphasizing this, and all of a sudden overnight they're a celebrity … I know parents are very concerned about the departure of the core belief systems and values," Baxley said.

The proposal is also related to two broader efforts around the country: one, to restrict children's access to LGBTQ resources such as preventing transgender kids from certain kinds of medical care; and two, to more closely regulate what teachers are allowed to say in their classrooms.

While the bill (and its counterpart in the state House of Representatives) had wide support from Republicans, some have broken away from their party to vote against it.

State Sen. Jennifer Bradley — a member of the GOP who voted against it — told Florida Politics that, as a mom herself, she was concerned about the bill's "message."

"I want to support parental rights in school but I'm also mindful of our Legislature's voice. I'm a mom to three children and I love all of the children in the state of Florida, and I'm concerned about the message it sends," Bradley said.

What the bill says

The proposal, if signed into law, will ban Florida teachers from talking to students in kindergarten through third grade about "about sexual orientation or gender identity." The bill text also bars those topics in classrooms "in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards."

The bill would require that the state Department of Education "review and update educator practices and professional conduct principles, and other standards by June 2023."

As the Herald reports, sexual orientation and gender identity are not currently taught in kindergarten through third grades in Florida.

What's more, the bill's critics say the language is overly vague and puts in restrictions beyond the lower grades.

The bill further mandates that school districts notify a parent if there is a change in a student's "services or monitoring related to the student's mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being and the school's ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student."

The measure prohibits schools from "encouraging a student to withhold" such information from a parent — something, advocates say, that will all but force students to reveal their orientation or gender identity even if it places them at risk.

The bill requires schools to respond to any parental concerns within seven calendar days and resolve them within 30 days. Parents who feel the issues have not been resolved are, as stipulated in the bill, then able sue the school district or request the state commissioner of education "appoint a special magistrate" (paid for by the school district) to mediate a solution.

The bill comes at a time when Republican-controlled legislatures around the country have passed measures targeting transgender youth, or banning books about sexual and racial identity.

The state's Republican Gov. DeSantis, 43, has expressed his support of the bill — which was passed by the legislature's Republican majority — but hasn't said whether he will sign it.

The bill would go into effect on July 1.

What the widespread backlash is about

LGBTQ activists and some state lawmakers have warned that the bill will explicitly marginalize gay and queer youth.

Democrat Shevrin Jones, the first openly gay Florida state senator, last week urged his fellow lawmakers to alter the bill's language, offering a tearful speech about his own personal experience as a gay child and young man.

"I don't think y'all understand how much courage it takes for these children to show up every day," he said.

Advocacy group Equality Florida has said that the bill "demonizes the LGBTQ community" and warned that if the "vague language [is] interpreted in any way that causes harm to a single child, teacher, or family, we will lead legal action against the State of Florida to challenge this bigoted legislation."

Advocates have also highlighted ways in which, they say, the legislation could have been modified to be more specifically about sexually explicit material rather than broad bans on LGBTQ issues.

The bill has spurred corporate boycotts, leading a large tech conference to pull out of the state.

Disney CEO Bob Chapek said in a recent shareholder meeting that he intended to meet with DeSantis to discuss the measure and that he had spoken with the governor to "express our disappointment and concern that if the legislation becomes law, it could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, nonbinary and transgender kids and families."

Chapek's comments came as the company faced backlash from some of its own employees for its failure to publicly denounce the bill.

In an email to Disney employees on Friday, obtained by Variety, Chapek thanked those "who have reached out to me sharing your pain, frustration and sadness over the company's response to the" bill. "You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry," he wrote.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has suggested the bill could lead to civil rights violations. In a statement issued last week in response to the bill's passage, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said, "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."

Cardona continued: "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."

The president himself has also waded into the debate, writing in a tweet that the bill was "hateful" and that he wanted "every member of the LGBTQI+ community ... to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are."

Some critics of the bill dispute the notion that it would somehow give more rights to parents over how their children are educated.

"Parental rights? Whose parental rights? Only parental rights if you're raising a child according to DeSantis?" South Florida mom Jennifer Soloman told NBC News. "DeSantis tries to paint this picture that every family is this 1950s mom and dad with two kids and a cat and dog. That is not what Florida looks like; that is not what the country looks like."

Some students have also criticized the measures, protesting the legislation with a large-scale classroom walkout in one county in a last-ditch effort to convince lawmakers to vote against it.

What the bill's defenders say

Speaking to reporters about the bill in February, DeSantis contended that he didn't want schools "to kind of be a playground for ideological disputes." He argued that the issue was political, not personal.

"At the end of the day, you know, my goal is to educate kids on the subjects — math, reading, science — all the things that are so important," DeSantis added, according to Tampa's local station WTSP.

The governor, who has been long rumored to be mulling a 2024 run for the presidency, has also dismissed criticism of the bill by claiming it's coming from "woke corporations."

"In the state of Florida, we are not going to allow them to inject transgenderism into kindergarten," the governor said. "First graders shouldn't hav a woke gender ideology imposed in their curriculums ... we're standing for the kids and we're standing for the parents."

DeSantis added that he wouldn't back down from his support simply because of "false media narratives or pressure from woke corporations."

DeSantis' spokeswoman Christina Pushaw also raised eyebrows with her incendiary response to the bill, including a tweet this month in which she suggested the measure could more accurately be described as an "Anti-Grooming Bill" rather than "Don't Say Gay."

Carlos Smith, a Democratic state representative, tweeted that Pushaw should resign for what he said was a homophobic suggestion that LGBTQ people are child predators.

In an email to PEOPLE, Pushaw disputed that she was referring to LGBTQ people and was instead talking about "groomers" of any orientation.

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