States

Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law Continues to Spur More Extreme Versions Nationwide

By Eesha Pendharkar — February 28, 2023 4 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis displays the signed Parental Rights in Education, aka the Don't Say Gay bill, flanked by elementary school students during a news conference on Monday, March 28, 2022, at Classical Preparatory school in Shady Hills, Fla.
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Lawmakers across the country continue to try to restrict lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation this year, in newer, more severe ways.

That’s according to an analysis by PEN America, a nonprofit organization tracking censorship in education.

Many states have followed in Florida’s footsteps in aiming to limit classroom education about gender identity or sexual orientation by filing bills that mimic the language in the Sunshine State’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which was passed in 2022. Most of the newer bills propose expanding on the limitations that Florida put in place.

This is the third year in a row in which Republican lawmakers have increased their legislative efforts to restrict LGBTQ students’ rights and curtail lessons, books, and other materials about LGBTQ people.

“There certainly seems to be renewed energy around passing censorship legislation around LGBTQ identity, which is law really only in one state,” said Jeremy Young, the senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America.

“But that’s likely to increase dramatically this year.”

Since 2021, lawmakers in 22 states have introduced 42 bills with language and restrictions similar to those in the “Don’t Say Gay” measure, formally known as the Parental Rights in Education law. Since the start of this legislative session, 26 of those bills have been introduced in 14 states that use the same language as Florida’s law, with many imposing more severe restrictions compared with the original bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed in 2022.

Restrictions are getting more extreme in recently introduced bills

Florida’s law prohibits public schools from offering any “classroom instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity” to students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Children in grades 4 and older can receive education about those topics if it is “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

Ten bills introduced in other states propose to extend the ban on lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity to 5th or 6th grades. Seven bills propose upping the restriction to 8th grade, and another seven would ban this type of instruction completely from K-12, according to a database PEN America updates weekly.

The types of instruction these bills would outlaw if passed are also much broader compared with Florida’s law.

For example, Indiana’s HB 1608 would ban any lessons in elementary school about sexual orientation or gender identity, in addition to “gender fluidity,” “gender roles,” “gender stereotypes,” or “gender expression.” Meanwhile, South Carolina’s HB 3827 would prohibit “instruction, presentations, displays, performances, discussions, assignments,” related to “gender theory,” “gender identity,” “gender multiplicity,” or “gender expression.” And, according to New Hampshire’s HB 619, teachers in grades K-8 would be banned from teaching that “gender is a choice, optional or fluid and that there are more than 2 genders: male and female.”

Some of these bills could potentially force a school employee to reveal their student’s gender identity or sexual orientation to their parent or guardian, such as Missouri’s SB134. It says that nurses, counselors, teachers, and administrators can’t “discuss gender identity or sexual orientation with a minor student” unless that person is a licensed mental health care provider, and has permission from the student’s parent or legal guardian.

How Florida’s bill has impacted districts across the state

Florida became the first state to successfully limit lessons about gender and sexuality when it passed the controversial law last March.

Although the law, like some of the copycat bills, does not explicitly impose restrictions on LGBTQ students, topics, and discussion of identities, it has caused a chilling effect on teachers discussing LGBTQ identities or access to books about the same topics.

Of these 26 bills, none have been signed into law so far, although it is early in the legislative session. Most of these bills have been recently introduced, with some advancing through statehouses currently.

The law has been cited as a reason to challenge books about same-sex families in Florida schools. Teachers in one district have been warned to avoid wearing rainbow articles of clothing and to remove pictures of their same sex spouses from their desks and LGBTQ safe space stickers from classroom doors, according to NBC News. In another district, educators have been asked to review instructional material to flag any books with references to sexual orientation, gender identity, or race.

These bills are a subset of attacks on education about and inclusion of LGBTQ identities

These 42 bills are among hundreds of others proposed across the country that aim to restrict LGBTQ identities and lessons about them at school.

Lawmakers have introduced bills that limit transgender and nonbinary students from participating on the sports teams of their choice, prevent them from using restrooms of their choice and being referred to by their preferred pronouns, and block access to books about LGBTQ characters from school and classroom libraries.

Sometimes, these restrictions are imposed as statewide policies by conservative governors, such as Virginia’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s model policy that all districts are required to align to. It imposes all the restrictions noted above and even requires school employees to refer to students only by their legal name and sex assigned at birth unless a parent files a written petition to allow their child to change their pronouns. Even in that case, the legal name and sex “shall not be changed” on school records, the model policy says.

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