The governor of the US state of Florida has signed a bill that forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, a policy that has drawn intense national scrutiny from critics who say it marginalises LGBTQ people.
Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, defended the legislation, which LGBTQ advocates, students and civil rights groups have denounced as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, when he signed it into law on Monday.
DeSantis and other Republicans have repeatedly said the measure is reasonable and that parents, not teachers, should be broaching subjects of sexual orientation and gender identity with their children.
“We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination,” DeSantis said to applause before signing the legislation.
The bill states: “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
Parents would be able to sue districts over violations.
Public backlash began almost immediately after the bill was introduced, with early criticism lobbed by Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of United States Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and condemnation from LGBTQ advocacy groups. Democratic President Joe Biden called it “hateful”.
As the bill moved through the legislature, celebrities mobilised against it on social media, and criticised it at this year’s Academy Awards.
Florida students staged walkouts and packed into committee rooms and statehouse halls to protest the measure, often with booming chants of “We say gay!”
The Walt Disney Company, a powerful player in Florida politics, suspended its political donations in the state, and LGBTQ advocates who work for the company criticised CEO Bob Chapek for what they said was his slow response in speaking out against the bill. Some walked off the job in protest.
After DeSantis signed the measure, the company released a statement saying, “Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that.”
“The bill’s intentionally vague language leaves teachers afraid to talk to their students and opens up school districts to costly and frivolous litigation from those seeking to exclude LGBTQ people from any grade level,” said state Representative Carlos G Smith, a Democrat who is gay.
“Even worse, #DontSayGay sends a hateful message to our most vulnerable youth who simply need our support.”
Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said the bill amounts to a political wedge issue for Republicans because elementary schools, especially in kindergarten through third grade, do not teach about these subjects and have state curriculum standards guiding classroom lessons.
“This bill is based on a falsehood, and that falsehood is that somehow we’re teaching kids inappropriate topics at an early age, and clearly we’re not,” Spar said.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Representative Joe Harding, has said it would not bar spontaneous discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity in schools but would prevent districts from integrating the subjects into the official curriculum.
During the bill’s early stages, Harding sought to require schools to inform parents if a student came out as LGBTQ to a teacher. He withdrew the amendment after it picked up attention online.
BREAKING: Florida Governor DeSantis signed the "Don't Say Gay" bill into law, banning schools from discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Critics say the bill will rob LGBTQ+ children of vital resources. At least 35 states have introduced anti-LGBTQ+ bills in 2022. pic.twitter.com/2JEMIheazH
— AJ+ (@ajplus) March 28, 2022
“Nothing in the amendment was about outing a student. Rather than battle misinformation related to the amendment, I decided to focus on the primary bill that empowers parents to be engaged in their children’s lives,” he said in a statement.
At the bill signing ceremony on Monday, several young children accompanied DeSantis and other politicians near the podium, with some holding signs bearing the governor’s “Protect Children/Support Parents” slogan.
The White House, which has sparred with the DeSantis administration over a range of policies, has issued statements against the bill.
US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona recently held a call with LGBTQ students in Florida and said in a statement issued Monday that his agency “will be monitoring this law upon implementation to evaluate whether it violates federal civil rights law”.
For teachers in Florida, the bill has caused some confusion over what is allowed in the classroom as well as concerns over frivolous lawsuits, said Michael Woods, a special education teacher in Palm Beach County with about three decades of experience.
“From the start, I thought it was a solution in search of a problem, and the sad part about it is, I think it’s going to have a chilling effect on making sure that young people, students have a safe learning environment,” he said.