Mel Simon is a 20-year-old gender-fluid lesbian painter who is outraged by Florida’s recently passed legislation limiting discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, commonly termed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law.
“Not talking about someone’s identity isn’t going to stop them from being who they are,” said Simon. “You can’t stop your kid from being gay by not talking about it.”
The Florida’s Parental Rights to Education law, known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law by opponents, was signed March 29 by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and will take effect July 1. But voters are still strongly split on the measure. Teachers, who represent a substantial part of the electorate, feel particularly strongly and this could have a strong effect on the midterm election this fall.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist strongly oppose the bill, and are running against DeSantis in November. President Joe Biden called the law “hateful” in a tweet and said his administration will “continue to fight for the protections and safety [LGBTQI+ kids] deserve.”
Florida Senator Shervin Jones is the first openly-gay state senator and also opposes the Parental Rights in Education law.
“Discriminatory pieces of legislation like this fail to solve the critical issues impacting Floridians’ everyday lives,” said Jones in a press release after the bill was passed. “Instead, the Governor and his Republican allies in the legislature have shamefully attacked and endangered LGBTQ+ students who are just trying to get a quality education.”
Leading up to the law taking effect, opponents including The Walt Disney Company, criticized Florida legislators for passing the law. CEO Bob Chapek said in a statement that the firm anticipates the law will be abolished or repealed in court. His company said it would cease political donations in the state of Florida. Republicans fired back on April 21 pulling the designation of a special tax district that the firm had for 55 years. It takes effect June 2023.
The Parental Rights in Education law “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels” and “requires school districts to adopt procedures for notifying parents if there is a change in services from the school regarding a child’s mental, emotional or physical health or well-being,” according to a press release from DeSantis.
Teachers from schools all across the state of Florida are concerned about the negative effects this law may have on not just the well-being of their students and also the effect it will have on what they are permitted to say and teach in the classroom.
Casey Scott, a first-year art teacher at Trafalgar Middle School in Cape Coral, was fired on April 18 for “not following the state mandated curriculum” after answering students’ questions about her pansexuality and allowing LGBT+ students to create art expressing their sexualities.
In a letter to the Florida Department of Education in response to her termination, Scott stated she had not received any prior training that would have educated her on what she was permitted to say about her gender identity or sexual orientation in her classroom.
“Not once did anyone from my administration ever explain to me any topic that I was not allowed to discuss,” Scott wrote. “I just wanted to show these kids that it’s better to be open about ourselves than to hide it away.”
The National Center for Lesbian Rights, Equality Florida and Family Equality sued Gov. DeSantis and Florida’s Board of Education on March 31 claiming it violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. In a joint press release, they stated “As alleged in the complaint, HB 1557 would seek to erase for an entire generation of Florida public school students the fact that LGBTQ people exist and have equal dignity.”
However, according to a national survey by the Morning Consult in May 2022, 44% of parents oppose discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in K-12 schools.
Kesia Oliveros, a heterosexual FIU junior, supports the law and believes kids will eventually be introduced to these topics through socialization. The law is directed towards children in kindergarten through third grade but it may affect older students.
“I don’t think kids at that age range have the maturity to understand something as complex as gender and sexuality,” Oliveros said.
Sofia Hernandez is a 23-year-old heterosexual woman who lives in Doral. She is registered as independent and is an aide to Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz. Hernandez, who hopes to have children in the future, disagrees with the law.
“I feel like inclusivity is important, to help others understand familiar strangers and not feel like what they are hearing/seeing is ‘out of the norm,’” Hernandez said. “Although I may not have a child yet, I am speaking for the future children I may have and I hope that they will have the ability to learn even more than I and ask as many questions as they want.”
Carlos Molina is a gay FIU student and he generally agrees with the law.
“I agree that kindergarten through 3rd grade shouldn’t touch on subjects of gender or sexual identity, even though literally no school in Florida does,” said Molina. “However I do think the bill was mismanaged and another opportunity for DeSantis to thicken his resume for presidency.”
Starting July 1, the law will prohibit classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for students in kindergarten through third grade, and restricts how these topics are discussed in other grades if they’re classified as ‘age-appropriate’ in accordance with the state’s standards.
This law also stimulates that school personnel are required to notify parents of changes in their child’s mental, physical and emotional health. Opponents of the law believe this will virtually restrict the capability of school counselors and teachers to be an outlet for students.
An additional segment to the law includes the parent’s right to sue their child’s school for rectification for suspected abuse if they assume those topics have taken place.
Meanwhile, other states are taking inspiration and making their own versions of the law. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Ohio all have similar bills and proposals in the works.
Many Florida senators are running for reelection in August during the primaries. The Florida primaries are on August 23, and the general election is November 8. The deadline to register to vote for the primaries is July 25.
Voters on both sides of the law are passionate about the issue and want their voices heard.
“As a gay person, it saddens me to see such hateful rhetoric used against us on either side,” Molina said. “Even though I am not the biggest advocate of the bill’s passing, I am also not protesting against it.”
Responds Hernandez: “There is no benefit of leaving children that are ‘different’ behind and forcing children to close their minds.”
This story is part of series on the issues facing voters in upcoming midterm primary and general elections. To read the other stories in the series, click here.