Controversial Florida Educational Bills Prevent LGBTQ+ Discussion in the Classroom

By Brandon Leonard

Florida bills HB 1557 and SB 1834 are a set of controversial bills that have been proposed by Representative Joe Harding. The bills fundamentally challenge how topics regarding sexual orientation and gender identity would be approached in a Florida education environment.

Officially, the bills are known as the “Parental Rights in Education” bills. Both have gained the infamous nickname of the “Don’t Say Gay” bills. Both bills have only very minor differences.

Both Senate and House versions would ban faculty in Florida primary schools from speaking about LGBTQ+ topics not considered “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” according to the bills themselves.

Furthermore, they would allow parents to sue schools if found to be in violation of the bill. Although the bill specifies grades K-3 in its amendments, “age appropriate” is left ambiguous and could likely affect all grade levels.

Under the bills, parents are also allowed to have the schools themselves alert the parents “if there is a change in the 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.”

More parental-oriented parts of the bill include being able to withhold consent for any healthcare services schools may offer alongside schools needing to obtain permission from parents prior to questioning students about their well-being or performing a health screening.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the bill was an amendment which would have effectively forced schools to expose students questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity to their parents. Fortunately, this amendment was withdrawn by Representative Harding but the ones previously mentioned remained untouched.

Joe Harding has said that it wouldn’t prevent students from discussing their sexual orientation or gender identity to their parents, nor discussions about LGBTQ+ history—including more recent events such as the infamous Orlando Pulse Nightclub Shooting.

Representative Ana Eskamani included an amendment of her own into the bill, allowing students to sue the Florida Department of Education for damages on top of attorney fees if harmed by revealing their sexual orientation.

According to Theoni Soublis, professor of education at The University of Tampa, and Brandie Waid, UT alumna, the vagueness of the bill is an intentional element. They say that by generalizing discussions of gender orientation and sexual identity, Republican politicians “have been learning from legal battles that laws that directly target individual groups are discriminatory and thus likely to be struck down.”

Soublis and Waid emphasize that discussions of sex and gender in the classroom need to “not shame LGBTQ+ youth into seeing themselves as deviant.” 

Support for the bill has primarily come from Florida Republicans, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis voicing vague support for the bill. President Joe Biden has spoken out against the bill, as has U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten Buttigieg.

Currently, the House bill has been passed through the Florida House of Representatives by a vote of 69 to 47, with seven of those against it notably being Republicans themselves while a single Democrat voted in favor of it. It is likely to reach Governor DeSantis by July 1 where it could be signed into law.

Meanwhile, the Senate bill was passed by the education committee on Feb. 8, though has two more committees to get through before it can be presented to the full Senate chamber. If passed, it would go into effect at the same time as the House version and all schools in Florida would need to update their plans by June 30, 2023.

According to Dr. Waid, the proper way to create an environment friendly to students who may be questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation is that “Students should know that they are not alone and there is nothing wrong with them. Who they are is beautiful.”

Photo Courtesy of The Student Life

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