Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law Is Actually a ‘Don’t Be Gay’ Law

The pithy nickname of a new Florida law targeting queer youth conceals some of its most terrifying features.

Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law Is Actually a ‘Don’t Be Gay’ Law
Photo:Douglas R. Clifford (AP)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Act—better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—on Monday, and the highly restrictive legislation is sending shockwaves across the country. In response to the new law, which will severely constrain basic teaching on gender and sexuality, well-meaning advocates are attempting to take a stand by rolling out billboards that encourage people to “say gay.”

What’s getting lost in the dialogue about the law, particularly due to its pithy nickname, is that it entails more than merely banning students and educators from saying the word “gay,” nor can it be counteracted, unfortunately, by defiantly uttering the word. Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act builds upon a rich history of right-wing attempts to invoke supposed parental concerns as an excuse to hack away at young and marginalized people’s rights, and to impose the GOP’s political agenda in schools, sometimes under the guise of warped notions of objectivity.

Following Florida lawmakers’ logic, any curriculum alluding to queer identity or supports for queer students will automatically make more students gay. DeSantis’ staff has argued that such curriculum is tantamount to “grooming” because of the innate perversion of non-cis, hetero lifestyles. Thus, Florida’s new law will ban “instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity,” which could go as far as prohibiting books that so much as include queer characters or historical figures.

Even more concerning, the law contains measures that require schools to notify parents when their kids receive mental or physical health services and gives parents the unilateral power to opt their child out of these services. The only exception to this measure is if educators believe there could be a risk of “abuse, abandonment, or neglect” of the child—but some advocates fear it could still result in them being outed to their parents.

Florida’s law would primarily be enforced by allowing parents to sue schools for violating its vague, poorly written mandates, and already under-funded school districts would have to foot the bill for these lawsuits. Deputizing parents to enforce laws around education takes a page directly out of conservatives’ playbook on restricting curriculum on “critical race theory,” which they say entails any teaching about the existence of race and racism. In states like Virginia, for example, the government has called on students and parents to report educators who teach “critical race theory.” This feature of the Parental Rights in Education Act notably mirrors recent legislation in Texas and Idaho, which bans nearly all abortions by empowering citizens to file costly civil lawsuits against anyone who provides or helps someone access abortion.

We’re already seeing the consequences of Florida’s law beginning to unfold. Teachers in the state have expressed concern about everything from possibly violating the law by merely “having discussions about what their family looks like” to “being watched by Big Brother all the time.” One eighth grade teacher from Florida told NPR the law feels like “just a blatant attack on education” as a whole, and that “a lot of these bills are written by people that have never set foot in a public education classroom.” And one law professor told the Times that just as laws targeting so-called critical race theory have resulted in some schools “preemptively canceling events and removing reading materials from shelves in order to avoid expensive litigation,” Florida’s anti-LGBTQ bill could have a similar impact.

Florida’s law isn’t just about saying the word “gay” on campus—it’s about writing queer identity out of existence, and isolating and endangering queer youth. It would more accurately be called the “Don’t Be Gay” law, as it affects everything from students’ access to safe and confidential counseling services, to accurate and inclusive education, to teachers’ fundamental rights to free speech. And it’s been signed into law at a time when states across the country are doubling down on pushing trans youth out of sports, banning gender-affirming health care for minors, and even threatening to criminalize parents and doctors who support their trans kids.

Laws like this one transcend politics—they carry real, devastating impacts for LGBTQ and especially trans youth, many of whom already have few places to look for support. A 2021 survey from the Trevor Project found just one-third of youth respondents considered their home to be LGBTQ-affirming, compared with 50% who considered their school to be. Of those surveyed, 98% said they could identify at least one school staff member who was supportive of them.

LGBTQ+ youth and especially those of color already struggle with disproportionately high rates of suicide and mental health struggles, and face significantly greater risk of experiencing sexual abuse, homelessness, and poverty than their straight and cis peers. When laws like Florida’s take away what might be the one space that they feel safe and supported, these conditions will almost certainly get worse.

There’s only so much that repeatedly uttering the word “gay” in performative defiance of Florida’s law can meaningfully change, especially when the law’s nickname contributes to concealing some of its worst attributes. Queer and trans students deserve more than mere acknowledgement of their existence—they deserve education, health care, and all the supports they could possibly need to thrive. How can we fight for them when we’re not even clear about all of the rights they’ve lost?

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