Florida governor signs controversial ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill into law, public confrontations grow
First posted April 26, 2022 2:05pm EDT
Last updated August 19, 2022 1:00pm EDT
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- Legal Action
- Professional Consequences
- Protest Politics
- Social Media
Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, signed a bill prohibiting public schools from teaching young students about gender identity or sexual orientation. Supporters of the law have praised “parental rights” in education, but critics nicknamed it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, arguing it also targets and ostracizes LGBTQ children.
State Rep. Joe Harding (R) was elected to office in November 2020 and represents the 22nd District, in the northwest area of the Florida panhandle. A member of the education and employment committee, he introduced the bill to the legislature.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) of Florida, a close ally of (but sometime rival to) former President Donald Trump, was a strong supporter of the bill and a leading voice in the nationwide conservative movement to support the rights of parents to regulate what is taught to their children in public schools.
Christina Pushaw, press secretary for DeSantis, drew criticism after tweeting that the bill should be called the “Anti-Grooming” bill instead of “Don’t Say Gay.” Known for using Twitter to attack Democrats and the media, following an Orlando neo-Nazi demonstration in early 2022, Pushaw tweeted and later deleted a statement questioning whether the neo-Nazi demonstrators had been organized by Democratic staffers.
On Jan. 11, 2022, Harding introduced HB 1557, known as the Parental Rights in Education bill, which bans “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten through third grade. On Feb. 24, 2022, it passed in the Florida House of Representatives 69-47.
Immediately, the bill generated outrage. Critics expressed concern it would make life harder for LGBTQ youth if they were not allowed to speak about or affirm their gender identity at school, citing studies that say they face higher risks of suicide than straight or cisgender youth, NPR reported.
Tampa Bay Times reported that a House bill analysis noted multiple school districts have policies that “exclude” parents from discussions around “sensitive topics” as they relate to students. Some analysts believe the bill would force schools to disclose information they have about a student’s sexuality to parents, even if an LGBTQ student wanted their sexuality kept confidential.
Citing its broad language, opponents also claim the bill potentially allows parents to sue schools if they believe inappropriate instruction was given, even if a child is beyond third grade, Time reported. But supporters of the bill insist it would give parents the right to decide if, and when, their children should learn about sexuality and gender in school.
On March 4, 2022, Pushaw tweeted that the “bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” adding, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8-year-old children. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.”
Afterward, she was accused of bigotry, stoking homophobia, and anti-trans sentiments for seemingly comparing the LGBTQ community to pedophiles. Per NBC News, certain Republicans have increasingly used this language in attacks against Democrats. For instance, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has stated that “Democrats are the party of killing babies, grooming and transitioning children, and pro-pedophile politics.”
On March 7, at a news conference, DeSantis applauded the bill for making sure “parents are able to send their kids to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into their school curriculum,” CBS News reported.
On March 8, the bill passed the state Senate by a vote of 22-17, mostly along party lines. According to Florida Politics, Sens. Jeff Brandes (R) and Jennifer Bradley (R), were the only Republicans to vote against the bill. They represent much of the Pinellas peninsula and areas northwest of Gainesville, respectively.
From its introduction to its passing, both Democrats and Republicans tried to add 13 amendments, none of which made it into the final legislation. Hoping to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ students, some Democratic senators had attempted to revise the bill’s language, Newsweek reported.
State Sen. Janet Cruz (D), who represents a portion of Tampa Bay, attempted to add language making gender identity and sexual orientation protected categories. State Sen. Gary Farmer (D), who represents the east coast cities of Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood, proposed an amendment that would have changed the language of an existing policy, requiring schools to teach about the benefits of “monogamous” marriage instead of “heterosexual” marriage.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that a Republican amendment proposed by Harding would have forced school employees to disclose information about students’ sexuality to their parents within six weeks of learning about it.
Students organize mass walkouts and protests against the bill
Students around the state organized walkouts and other protests against the legislation.
On March 3, in northeast Florida, a walkout at Flagler Palm Coast High School led to disciplinary action against Jack Petocz, its student organizer, who was suspended for two days for handing out Pride flags, Flagler Live reported. Hundreds of students protested by walking around the school’s track, chanting, “Say gay! Say gay! Say gay!”
Five days later, after the bill passed the Senate, over 500 students staged a walkout at Winter Park High School near Orlando, chanting, “We say gay!” and holding signs that read, “Protect trans kids,” CNN reported.
Will Larkins, a high school junior who organized the Winter Park protest, told CNN, “We wanted to show our government that this isn’t going to stop. … If this passes, there will be protests everywhere. … The people are the ones in power and what they’re doing doesn’t represent us, especially marginalized groups.”
Disney suspends all Florida political donations
Senior creative leaders across Walt Disney studios had put pressure on CEO Bob Chapek to have the company rally against the bill, with some employees attempting to organize a walkout, CNBC reported.
On March 11,, Chapek sent an email to all employees apologizing for Disney’s muted response, promising to support advocacy groups fighting against the bill. Chapek also stated that all political donations from Disney to Florida lawmakers would pause, pending a review by the company.
Biden administration voices support for families
On March 18, 2022, Miguel Cardona and Rachel L. Levine, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and assistant secretary for health of the Department of Health and Human Services respectively, discussed the bill with LGBTQ students and parents from Florida, ABC News reported.
“Laws around the country, including in Florida, have targeted and sought to bully some of our most vulnerable students and families, and create division in our schools,” Cardona said, adding that he and Levine would “use our authorities to protect, support, and provide opportunities for LGBTQI+ students and all students.”
Cardona also noted, “Federal funding must follow federal civil rights law, including Title IX’s protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
DeSantis signs bill
On March 28, 2022, DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education legislation, The New York Times reported. “We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination,” said DeSantis at the signing cremony.
Unphased by the outrage against the law, DeSantis dismissed its critics. “If those are the types of people that are opposing us on parents’ rights, I wear that like a badge of honor,” he said. “I don’t care what corporate media outlets say, I don’t care what Hollywood says, I don’t care what big corporations say. Here I stand. I’m not backing down.”
The Florida governor further blasted critics by saying they “support having woke gender ideology in the first grade.” DeSantis had also accused Disney of trying to “impose a woke ideology on Florida.”
Disney denounces law, urges lawmakers to repeal it
Meanwhile, Disney released a statement that the bill “should never have passed and should never have been signed into law,” adding that the company would work with national and state organizations to help strike it down.
“Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts,” the statement read. “We are dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.”
On April 10, 2022, Charlee Corra, a member of the Disney family who publicly came out as transgender, condemned the law in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. At a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) dinner, Corra announced a $250,000 matching grant to the HRC.
Corra’s father, Roy P. Disney, the grandson of the company’s co-founder Roy O. Disney and great-nephew to Walt Disney himself, promised to match up to $500,000 in donations to the HRC.
“Equality matters deeply to us,” Roy wrote, “especially because our child, Charlee, is transgender and a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community.”
Multiple lawsuits aim to stop the bill
On March 31, 2022, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), a LGBTQ human rights non-profit, filed a federal lawsuit against DeSantis and other state officials, alleging that the law violates students’ First Amendment rights and that it will “stigmatize, silence, and erase LGBTQ people in Florida’s public schools.” NCLR filed the suit on behalf of several pro-LGBTQ non-profits, including Equality Florida and Family Equality.
Sixteen states filed an amicus brief on Aug. 3 in support of Equality Florida, stating that if students moved from Florida to another state as a result of the law, “Amici States will need to devote resources to mitigate and counteract the harm that the Act is causing to LGBTQ students and others in their States.”
The brief was filed by the District of Columbia; New Jersey; California; Colorado; Connecticut; Delaware; Hawaii; Illinois; Maine; Maryland; Massachusetts; Michigan; Minnesota; Nevada; New York; and Oregon.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said, “It’s my job to stand up for people who are harmed by discrimination — and what harms Florida kids, parents, and teachers harms every one of us,” Axios reported.
On July 25, a group of students and their families filed another federal lawsuit against several Florida school boards, claiming that the law “chills speech and expression that have any connection, however remote, to sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Will Larkins, a plaintiff and a senior at Winter Park High School in Orlando who identifies as LGBTQ, told NBC News that “this law will eviscerate any hope of healthy and important discussions about LGBTQ+ issues or historical events, which are already lacking in our schools.”
Other plaintiffs include the parents of three children who fear that the law will prevent their first and third-grade children from discussing their non-binary 12-year-old sibling without putting their teachers or school at risk of legal action, NBC News reported.