Does a teacher’s ability to mention sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom pose a threat to primary school students or further a well-rounded, inclusive educational experience? Americans are confronting the question as initiatives advance in several states that would muzzle public school teachers on LGBTQ-related topics.
In Florida, a state legislative panel recently approved the Parental Rights Education Bill, which has the backing of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. A portion of the bill that would ban discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in Florida’s public primary schools has been denounced by LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and/or queer) advocacy groups.
“The bill is cynical – political in nature, designed to help right-wing politicians rally their base before the next election,” said Brandon Wolf, spokesperson for Equality Florida, one of the groups fighting what some have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“But these political games have real-world consequences for young people, too,” he added. “Policies like this cause social isolation among LGBTQ students and can lead to bullying and violence. LGBTQ children are four times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide before graduating high school.”
The Florida bill would have to clear several more legislative votes before DeSantis could sign it into law. Supporters say the initiative is misunderstood by some and distorted by others.
“There are so many fake claims being made,” said Jay Richards, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank. “You have people saying the bill will outlaw conversations about homosexuality in school. That’s not true. It’s a prohibition on teachers bringing up highly sexualized – borderline pornographic – topics to young kids, and that prohibition is something I would hope we could all be behind.”
A summary of the bill posted on the Florida House of Representatives’ website states it “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels” with no indication that the ban is limited to highly sexualized topics.
A version of the bill before Florida’s Senate bars encouraging “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” The bill does not set forth what is or isn’t age-appropriate, but it would allow parents to sue schools if they believe teachers are violating the ban.
Primary school in the United States is broken into elementary (kindergarten through grades 4-7) and middle school (grades 4-7 though 8-9). It is unclear whether the Florida legislation would apply to all primary grade levels or only the earliest ones attended by the youngest children. A revised version of the bill that will go before the House more specifically addresses instruction in kindergarten through third grade.
But as written, House and Senate versions of the bill could conceivably prevent public school students from learning about LGBTQ topics in the classroom until high school, which most students enter around age 15.
LGBTQ activist Zack Ford at Washington’s Alliance for Justice said there is no reason to shield even the youngest students from the reality that sexual minorities exist.
“There are kindergartners who understand they are queer,” he said. “This bill could have the effect of censoring and isolating them, and that makes school less safe for them. There is no age too young to understand queer (LGBTQ) identities.”
Not only in Florida
According to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the U.S. states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas already have laws on the books banning or restricting discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools.
While recent years have seen the states of Alabama, Arizona, South Carolina and Utah repeal such statutes, Florida is among at least eight states moving in the opposite direction. Separately, some school districts in the U.S. have seen parent-led campaigns to rid school libraries of LGBTQ-themed books.
Wolf of Equality Florida says it’s not a coincidence that legislative efforts are popping up around the country at the same time.
“All of these anti-LGBTQ bills moving across the U.S. are birthed from the same bigoted place,” he said. “They’re concocted by anti-LGBTQ organizations outside of our states and then shipped to right-wing legislators in Florida and elsewhere.”
For Florida’s governor, it’s an issue of students being exposed to certain topics without their parents’ consent.
“To get into situations where you're hiding things from the parent, you’re injecting these concepts about choosing your gender – that is just inappropriate for our schools,” DeSantis said earlier this month. “The larger issue with all of this is parents must have a seat at the table when it comes to what’s going on in their schools.”
“What school doesn’t want parents involved?” Wolf countered. “But education is also a community effort. Teachers and administrators need to be able to share and lead open dialogue with their students to be most effective for them.”
President Joe Biden weighed in on Twitter, calling the Florida legislation a “hateful bill” and saying he wants LGTBQ youth to “know that you are loved and accepted just as you are.”
‘Teachers aren’t sex therapists’
Some Americans doubt the ability of teachers to properly handle sensitive topics of human sexuality at a delicate stage of students’ personal development.
“Teachers aren’t sex therapists or licensed mental healthcare workers,” Florida resident Hamlet Garcia told VOA. “I don’t want them teaching my kids about sexuality. I want them to teach English language, arts, math, science, social studies and other core courses.”
Opponents of the Florida bill argue its language is both sweeping and ambiguous.
“Can a queer teacher have a photo of their same-sex spouse on their desk?” wondered Ford of the Alliance for Justice. “Can they keep their jobs if they transition (from one gender to another)? Wouldn’t that encourage the kind of discussion that this bill would forbid?”
Wolf of Equality Florida echoed the concern.
“What if a school asks students to present about their families during a career day and a child has same-sex parents? Isn’t that encouraging classroom discussion?” he asked. “What I fear we will ultimately see happen is what we always see happen: schools will become more cautious for fear of being sued by a parent who feels any discussion is too far.”
For some, the issue is personal.
“I was the only openly gay student in my school in the 1990s,” recalled Marcus Hopkins, a health policy consultant who grew up in socially conservative West Virginia. “I was always on the defensive and felt like I had to develop a hard and combative exterior. But for students today, school has become a much safer environment. ... I’m worried the policies now being debated will reverse those gains.”
Some researchers echo the concern.
“LGBTQ young people face the unique mental health risks of forming a stigmatized identity in near-isolation,” explained John Pachankis, director of the LGBTQ Mental Health Initiative at the Yale School of Public Health. “Laws that make this isolation and lack of acceptance more likely will almost certainly also make LGBTQ youths’ odds of depression, anxiety and suicidality more likely.”
Backers of the Florida bill dispute any draconian intent or consequences arising from the legislation.
“These are complicated issues, and we aren’t trying to tell different communities where to draw the line on what is and isn’t appropriate,” said Richards of the Heritage Foundation. “We just want parents involved.”