In March, Florida passed a controversial new law which has been given the nickname the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. What does this new law do? Why is it controversial? And why did Florida pass such a controversial law now? Let’s discuss these questions and more on the Thinking in English podcast!
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At the end of March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 1557, officially the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, into Florida State Law. This bill, however, has another more common name – the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The “Don’t Say Gay Bill” has become a major news story, not just in Florida and the United States, but also all over the world. As many countries have become more progressive over LGBT rights in recent years – including decriminalising gay relationships and allowing gay marriage – it has surprised many people that a US State is introducing such a conservative law.
The “Don’t Say Gay” Bill has been criticised by President Joe Biden, other major politicians, and influential celebrities. But the discussion around the topic in the US has become very political and biased. Many people are instantly reaching a conclusion on the topic due to the nickname of the law (“Don’t Say Gay” Bill) without actually thinking critically about the issue or researching what is actually in the law!
So, in today’s episode I want to look at what is in the bill, why Florida has passed such a conservative policy in 2022, and think about a few of the consequences. I am a big supporter of LGBT rights, so my opinion on this law is probably quite obvious – however, as always, I am going to try and approach the topic critically and with evidence. I also understand a lot of my listeners may come from places or cultures in which LGBT rights are not respected or considered important, but even if this is your opinion I still want you to approach today’s topic with an open mind!
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What is the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill?
The “Parental Rights in Education” Bill was passed by the Florida State legislature in early March, and then signed into law on Monday 28th March. The law is designed to “reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children.” In other words, it aims to give parents more control over what their children learn and when they learn it.
The new law will force schools to share any information about children (such as health or mental well-being) with their parents, give families the opportunity to opt out of health care services in schools, and allow parents to sue if they believe a school is violating the law.
However, the most controversial element of the law is that it prohibits schools from “classroom instruction…on sexual orientation or gender ideology” from kindergarten to the end of third grade (or about until the age of 10). It also prohibits education of these topics “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate,” which means it could also stop schools teaching these topics to older grades as well.
The wording of the bill has created some confusion and potential for misunderstanding. The bill focuses on sexual orientation and gender ideology – which are two very different things despite being often associated together. It also doesn’t really define what “instruction” means in the context of the classroom – is “instruction” just scheduled teaching or does it cover every single thing said in the classroom?
The politicians who wrote the bill originally intended for the law to restrict formal lessons or curriculum to “instruct” or “teach” on topics of sexual orientation or gender identity. This would mean that a teacher couldn’t plan a whole lesson about “being gay” or “being transgender.” The supporters of the law believe it is parents, not schools, who should be responsible for educating or talking to their children in such areas.
But, the way the bill was worded meant that many people interpreted it as banning all discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. What if a child had gay parents? Would the teacher be able to talk about the child having two dads or mums in school? What would happen if a child mentioned these topics? Would parents be able to sue the school? Critics of the law fear that it is going to completely ban the discussion of LGBT people – hence the “Don’t Say Gay” nickname.
While Republicans in the State government have suggested that the law doesn’t ban spontaneous discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity, the way the law is worded still concerns Democrats and others worried about the implications of the law. Just to remind you of the literal words of the law, it prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity… in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”
In particular, the phrases “classroom instruction” and “age appropriate” have caused the most concern – if courts interpret this widely it could lead to many lawsuits and scare teachers away from talking about the topic completely. Teachers across the world have an important role in supporting and caring for children in ways that parents do not, or can not, do! Teachers are a responsible adult in the lives of their students, and students often talk to them about issues that they are embarrassed or scared to talk about with their parents.
Moreover, the fact that the law forces schools to share all information about children with their parents is seen as being a way of “outing” LGBT children. Some children are scared that their parents would react negatively if they are told about their sexual orientation or gender identity – but they may discuss such topics with teachers, school counsellors, or nurses instead!
On the other hand, the supporters of the debate argue that parents should have the right to be informed and make decisions about the education and treatment of their children. There are cases of schools putting children on special education plans or referring them to support services after they question their sexuality or gender identity in the classroom. The bill would give parents the decision over whether or not to take such action.
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Why has Florida Introduced the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill?
Why has Florida passed the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill? The answer to this question is largely political. Measures and laws against the so-called “culture wars” have proved incredibly popular with Republican party supporters throughout America. Over 12 other States have hopes of passing similar laws. And even more States are considering banning transgender athletes from participating in competitive sport (despite the issue not really being that widespread or important).
In simple terms, introducing conservative policies that aim to reduce the rights of LGBT people is popular with Republican voters. And as the first Governor to sign such a law, Florida governor Ron DeSantis has become an incredibly popular figure amongst right wing Americans. If Donald Trump chooses to not run for election in 2024, Mr DeSantis is considered to be the front-runner for the Republican Presidential nominations.
While politics is likely the major reason for the introduction of the law (if you look at the voting in the Florida state legislature it is largely divided down party lines), it is also connected to worries about talking to children about gender and sexuality. There is some evidence that talking about gender identity can increase the number of children identifying as transgender (although this evidence is limited and not widespread). Even some Democrats and progressive doctors have questioned the usefulness of encouraging very young children to think about their own gender. But, even if schools shouldn’t teach classes on these issues to young children, should teachers be prevented from talking about the topic completely?
What are the Potential Consequences of the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill?
So, what are some of the potential consequences of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill? I’ve already discussed the potential impact on schools and teachers. Educators may feel constrained in what they can teach and discuss in the classroom, especially as parents are given the right to sue over any violation of the law.
The curriculum delivered to young children generally avoids specific references to sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. However, it is the incidental, indirect references that could concern teachers. What happens if there is a gay character in a book read at school? What if there is a transgender student in the classroom? What if a student has two mums or two dads? These questions are still unclear.
In recent years, gay rights have been increasingly accepted and welcomed throughout the western world and in the US. After the US Supreme Court officially recognised gay marriage, even socially conservative parts of American society began to accept gay rights. When I was studying American politics 10 years ago, a book I read described the 3 main issues in US politics very succinctly – “guns, gays, and God.” But recently, gay rights have been generally accepted by both sides of the political spectrum.
There is a worry that the “Don’t Say Gay” bill could potentially harm LGBT Americans and their families. Even if it doesn’t have much of a direct impact, the indirect effects of passing a law aimed at restricting public conversation of these issues are a cause for concern.
On the other side, however, Republicans and supporters of the bill believe it will allow parents to have greater control over the education of their children. But, is this a good thing? Parents will obviously say yes – and I’m sure all the parents who listen to this will agree that they want to be included in the decisions made for their children. The reality, however, is that sometimes parents’ desires do not actually match up with what is best for their children.
On this episode of Thinking in English I have tried to introduce and explain Florida’s new “Parental Rights in Education” law which has been given the nickname the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. I talked about what the law actually contains, why a lot of people are concerned about the potential impact of the bill, and why the bill was passed. I also introduced you all to some legal, political, and LGBT inspired vocabulary!
Are you concerned about the impact of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill? Why do you think this law was introduced now? How about in your country? Are LGBT rights recognised or accepted in your country?
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