‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill draws Senate support amid battle over what’s taught in school

South Florida Sun Sentinel | By Brooke Baitinger | February 8, 2022

The so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill won initial support from lawmakers on Tuesday, and comes at a time when Florida lawmakers, and those in many other states, are introducing measures to limit what ideas schools can expose students to.

The initial support from both chambers could be a sign of the bill becoming a reality, which critics say could create a chilling effect over what is and isn’t allowed in schools.

Opponents have dubbed it the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, because it would prohibit teachers and school districts from encouraging discussion with students about gender and sexual orientation. The Senate measure focuses on grades K-3, when students are generally between the ages of 5 and 8, while the similar measure in the House extends to fifth grade, when students are generally 10.

Both the Senate and House measureswould allow parents to sue the school district if they suspect a violation, something that critics say would stifle the exchange of ideas in the classroom. The measures are gaining momentum in the legislature, despite fierce opposition from Democrats and LGBTQ+ advocates.

Governor DeSantis publicly signaled his support for the measure, officially called Parental Rights in Education, during a press event on Monday.

He said it was “entirely inappropriate” for teachers to have conversations with their students about gender identity, although he acknowledged he doesn’t think it’s happening often in Florida schools.

“Schools need to be teaching kids to read, to write,” he said. “They need to teach them science, history. We need more civics and understanding of the U.S. Constitution, what makes our country unique, all those basic things.”

Sen. Baxley, a Republican from Central Florida, sponsored the bill and argued that it would take some of the burden off teachers to incorporate social issues into their curriculum.

“We’ve put too much on our school systems,” he said. “We need to awaken this sense of parental rights. Parents are concerned about being ignored in the equation.”

Asked what teachers should tell curious children who ask why some of their classmates might have two moms or two dads, Baxley said with a chuckle: “You might ought to say, ‘ask your mother’.”

“I don’t think it’s the school teacher’s responsibility to address every single question,” he added.

DeSantis doubled down when pressed further by a reporter about Baxley’s suggestion that teachers should have to tell their students to ask their parents about any questions about sexual orientation. The reporter added that several people testified during the Senate hearing that their parents would have abused them or ostracized them for being LGBTQ+.

“Yes, unfortunately, in our society, not every parent does a great job,” DeSantis said. “But to keep parents out and keep them in the dark, I don’t think that’s something that works very well.”

January Littlejohn, who described herself as a licensed mental health counselor and a stay-at-home mom, spoke during the hearing about “violations” of parental rights occurring “all over our state.” Littlejohn sued the Leon County school district last year when educators had a meeting with her child about which name, pronouns, and bathroom they wanted to use, and kept Littlejohn out of the meeting. She said they formed a student support plan with her child “behind closed doors and without notifying me.”

Littlejohn said when she asked educators why she was kept out of the meeting, they told her that her teenager’s privacy was protected from her.

“Protected from me and not by me,” Littlejohn said.

Those who came to oppose the bill argued that often, LGBTQ+ children don’t have supportive home environments and fear coming out to their parents or guardians, which can put them at risk of taunting, conversion therapy, or in extreme cases, getting kicked out of their home.

Some 55 public speakers spoke about the bill, the vast majority of them against it. Many of them said it would further stigmatize LGBTQ+ youth and contribute to bullying and suicides, which already impacts LGBTQ+ youth at a disproportionate rate.

Laura Goodhue, who said she has two sons in Palm Beach County public schools, described how it’s been a tough school year because issues such as teacher shortage.

“You know what hasn’t been tough this school year? People discussing my son’s sexual orientation,” she said. She said her son told her he was gay last year, and that she couldn’t be more proud. Her testimony was cut short so other speakers would have the opportunity to comment as litigators rushed through public comment so they could vote by 11 a.m.

Jay Marie Bailey, an Orange County public school teacher, brought her transgender son up to the podium with her. She argued against the bill, saying it would erode trust between teachers and their students.

Before her testimony was cut off, she added that her son knew something was “different” at 7 years old, and how kids play “house” at ages 4, 5, and 6 and start getting curious about gender and sexual orientation from a young age.

Michael Womack, communications manager for Equality Florida, described how he couldn’t come out to his parents, and didn’t feel as though there was anyone he could trust because of it. But his school guidance counselor and history teacher supported him while he was in school, and helped him see the value in himself.

“There’s an epidemic of LGBTQ kids hurting themselves here,” he said as his time was cut short. “Don’t take away their reason not to.”

The bill will now go to two more Senate committees for potential revisions and approval, and votes on the House and Senate floors before it lands on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

Staff writer Steven Lemongello contributed to this report.

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