“Don’t Say Gay” is not progress

Anthony Lopez, Investigative News Editor

On Monday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed HB 1557, formerly known as the Parental Rights in Education Bill and colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The path towards the policy’s passage was one fraught with controversy and condemnation across the country, most notably from Florida students that staged walkouts, demonstrations and made efforts to pack committee rooms and statehouse halls – while chanting “We say gay!” 

Yet the efforts of dissenting voices were ultimately fruitless. The final version of the bill proclaims a prohibition on “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels.” An earlier iteration contained a significant amendment, stipulating that teachers were required to “out” LGBTQ students within six weeks.

Though such an amendment has been removed – and despite the insistence of some supporters that this is a reasonable measure to protect children – much of the rhetoric has been deeply concerning. DeSantis’ press secretary referred to the policy as an “Anti-Grooming Bill,” drawing a ludicrous connection between queerness and perversion. Such a title for the policy implies that educators seeking to teach students about the innate complexities found within gender and sexuality are actually seeking personal gratification out of the topics shared with younger students. This is toxic rhetoric that harkens back to 1970s dog-whistling tactics such as the “gays recruit” myth; the passage of legislation protecting the LGBTQ community is senselessly recast as protecting sexual predators or groomers from legal consequence. 

Such stances also imply that a growing understanding of the LGBTQ community will lead younger minds to distance themselves from their (likely-heteronormative) upbringing. But this sentiment betrays a gross misunderstanding of gender and sexuality, insisting that it is all simply a foolish choice rather than a realization of who one truly is. 

Yet, even if one were to mistakenly believe that LGBTQ identities are ones that a person can choose as simply as choosing to wear a coat to fit the weather, it is clear that many proponents of these restrictive bills find that this “choice” is the wrong one. 

It is also telling that the bill itself was once regarded as the Parental Rights in Education Bill, which brings the focus away from the students in need of a holistic education and instead onto parents that might be unwilling to allow their children to stray from more “traditional” perspectives and values. 

These “parental rights” bills, not dissimilar to those most prominently argued for in regards to the overblown uproar over critical race theory, often attempt to regress key educational advancements in favor of more comfortable and palatable traditional curricula. Just as parents wished to ensure that there were few to no race-based discussions within class, there is a deflating aversion to any conversation on the presence of the LGBTQ community. 

The truth is that the limitation of discussions on gender and sexuality cannot succeed in preventing some students from being who they innately are. But it will likely establish a more isolating experience on their potential path towards self-understanding, invariably stigmatizing anything outside of normative identities. There are perhaps no years more formative in a child’s education than their earliest grades; an environment that both acknowledges and accepts the reality of other genders and sexualities should not be perceived as abhorrent, but as an important step towards the broader celebration of the LGBTQ community. 

Though DeSantis has rejected the policy being referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, he criticized that name in its most literal sense, soon after acknowledging that it would ban any discussion on sexual orientation and gender discussion from kindergarten to the third grade. 

“We’re going to make sure that parents are able to send their kid to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into their school curriculum,” DeSantis said, insinuating that these types of conversations are arbitrarily forced into the conversation to the detriment of education. To ban these discussions is to prevent a possible “injection” of this ideology into the minds of younger students. 

When DeSantis says “We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination,” he is again employing dog-whistle tactics by arguing that an LGBTQ+ identity is taught instead of discovered for oneself. 

A greater understanding of identity goes far beyond the limited framework employed by proponents of the bill, but supporters have utilized bad-faith arguments to blemish potential discussions found within classrooms. The presence of LGBTQ discussions will not mean more, as DeSantis referred to it, “sexual instruction.” It speaks to the manner in which the bill’s proponents regard LGBTQ identities that they will conduct conversations on the subject through a “sexual” lens.

While some that support the bill, like DeSantis, might never go so far as to outwardly condemn the LGBTQ community – though plenty will blatantly vilify the marginalized community without compunction – bills such as the one passed in Florida make it more difficult for children to parse their identity and personhood.

While HB 1557 is among the most recent bills designed around LGBTQ restrictions, the past few years have presented numerous counterparts across the country. In 2018, Ohio lawmakers debated over a bill in which teachers would be forced to publicly identify their transgender students. This year in Arizona, a proposed bill prevented teachers from withholding information concerning the gender identities of students or their requests to transition to a gender other than their biological sex.

The efforts in Florida are not novel; it is part of a broader conservative effort to regress the slow strides of progress made across the country that have achieved greater inclusivity for marginalized groups. No, HB 1557 does not literally prevent people within schools from saying the word “gay.” But through the inhibition of potentially critical discussions, policies such as the one passed this week succeed only in placating parents fearful of moving beyond their limited and traditional worldviews – who think that discussions about identity are poisonous and infect young minds. 

This is not progress. It’s a course correction for those frustrated with a broader acceptance of marginalized persons they have chosen to not recognize as equally deserving of the same experience as those that adhere to normative identities. 

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