Anna Lee ‘24
For a country that touts free expression, there’s a surprising amount of intolerance for open discussions and progressive education. When it comes to people who do not fit into the curated American mold—whether that be on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or appearance—many American lawmakers fight to silence them. While I could be talking about any issue from either side of the political aisle, I’m referring to Florida’s House Bill 1557, dubbed “Parental Rights in Education,” but more well-known by its media name, the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill.
On Tuesday, March 8, the Florida State Senate approved House Bill 1557 (HB 1557) on a 22-17 vote (Florida House of Representatives). While HB 1557 states helpful revisions like “notifying a student’s parent if there is a change in the student’s services or monitoring,” it has prompted a fierce debate over the following subpoint: “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 appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards” (Section 1.1, 1.3).
To get some better insight into the reasoning behind the bill, I read some articles in favor of HB 1557 and the comments below them (Seminara, Chasmar, Showalter, Hayes, Daugherty). Among the tired arguments about LGBTQ+ indoctrination and grooming (as Governor Ron DeSantis’s Press Secretary Christina Pushaw dubs it), a particularly interesting argument was that this is not an attack on people of varying sexual orientations or gender identities at all. Instead, advocates of the bill argue that this motion is to protect younger kids, particularly those in kindergarten from grade 3, from sex education and confronting tough questions about sexuality. At a surface level, it’s difficult to disagree with this premise. But as it’s based on inherent assumptions about the LGBTQ+ community and the capacities of young children, this argument has two major flaws.
First, the argument rests on the sexualization of members of the LGBTQ+ community, who can (and should) be understood without discussions about the act of sex. Poking around in the private lives of queer people has always been an inappropriate habit and has remained an issue in recent years. For example, a 2019 article from “The Fenwick Review” states quite overtly, “a homosexual act is a sexual act” and same-sex marriage should not exist because “a gay couple cannot reproduce” (The Fenwick Review). So even members of educational institutions, who try to “help” by offering unwarranted advice, reveal their harmful tendencies to otherize and degrade their queer counterparts down to their sex relations (emphasizing just how far education on gender and sexual orientation has to go).
Second, the crucial years of kindergarten to third grade may determine a culture of acceptance or intolerance for years to come. If the learned social etiquette requires repression of gender identity and sexual orientation discussions, students may perpetuate this social norm through bullying, vicitmization, or internalizing their sexuality if they realize they do not fit into a “conventional” norm. As transgender advocate Andrew Triolo puts it, “If I would have had the language to express my gender at a younger age, it would’ve saved me a lot of internal struggle and depression” (CBS Mornings). Might I add, LGBTQ+ people (and especially youth) do not suffer from disproportionate mental health issues and suicide attempts because they are queer—they suffer in response to social conceptions that queerness, gender expression, and different sexual orientations are “wrong” (Trevor News, The Trevor Project).
Returning to the issue at hand, the only person standing between HB 1557’s finalization is Governor Ron DeSantis, who expressed his support in a recent interview: “We want to make sure schools are focusing on the basics. We don’t want them to be engines for things like (critical race theory), things that are divisive and not accurate” (Gancarski). But Gov. DeSantis forgets that schools are hubs of growth and learning: to deprive any student of transformative education is to fail them. Queerness, gender identity, and sexual orientation are always dragged into divisive political attempts to spark hostility between “the left” and “the right.” But at its very core, none of these identities are political—they encompass basic human rights and maintain their value in educational practice. This bill has the potential to backpedal years of progress, send LGBTQ+ youth spiraling into even worse suicide rates than the ones plaguing the community now, and deface the promises of liberty and free speech that American lawmakers say they uphold.