Florida moved one step closer on Thursday to banning teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms for young students, with the state’s GOP-led House of Representatives approving a controversial bill that’s facing intense opposition from LGBTQ advocates and the White House.
HB 1557, titled the Parental Rights in Education bill, was passed by Florida’s House by a vote of 69-47. The legislation now heads to the state’s Republican-controlled Senate, where a similar bill is already under consideration. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has signaled his support for the legislation.
The bills have become a major flash point in conservatives’ nationwide push to give parents greater oversight over what students learn and discuss at school, but opponents have strongly denounced the legislation, saying they would have a harmful impact on LGBTQ youth. President Joe Biden has called the proposed ban “hateful.”
“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 age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards,” according to the proposal, which would also allow parents to bring civil suits against a school district for any potential violation of its rules.
In addition, the House bill would require districts to “adopt procedures for notifying a student’s parent if there is a change in the student’s services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being,” something LGBTQ advocates argue could lead to some students being outed to their parents without the student’s knowledge or consent. Advocates also fear the bill would restrict students’ ability to speak confidentially with school counselors – some of whom are a student’s sole resource for mental health services.
The bill’s co-sponsor, Republican state Rep. Joe Harding, stressed Thursday that the bill was about giving parents a greater say in the education of their children.
“We have a choice to empower parents in Florida or we have a choice to empower school districts. I’m asking you to side with the side of parents in Florida,” he said on the House floor just before lawmakers approved the bill.
Harding previously told CNN that the bill is meant to deter school staff from inquiring about a student’s gender identity or pronouns without including their parents in the conversation. He said the experience could be confusing for young children.
Harding said that he’d heard a few instances of parents complaining that school staff were discussing gender identity with their children without their input, though he didn’t get into specifics of where in the state these instances occurred. As to whether the bill would stop a teacher from answering students’ questions about gender identity or sexuality, Harding said the legislation is “not discouraging that,” adding that instructors “know when it’s time to engage the parent.”
LGBTQ advocates, however, warn the measure would lead to further stigmatization of gay, lesbian and transgender children, causing more bullying and suicides within an already marginalized community. They say the bill would eliminate LGBTQ history from the curriculum and prevent teachers from having discussions in their classrooms if questions about sexual orientation and gender identity came up.
“I haven’t heard the bill sponsor or anybody else give me examples as to what classroom instruction is and as to why … this bill has been brought up,” Democratic state Rep. Michele Rayner said Thursday as the bill was debated in the House. “I have not heard the bill sponsor tell me what example has happened in recent history that we have to have this bill.”
Another one of the bill’s opponents, Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani, said Thursday that the bill is “homophobic and transphobic, bigoted and discriminatory,” adding that “it feeds into a lie that kids become gay or trans from inclusive schools and that being LBGTQ+ is dangerous and or perverted.”
“This bill is dangerous. This bill tells kids and educators that if they are gay or come out or come from an LGBTQ+ family that they better not saying anything about it. They better not let anyone find out or we’ll out you and put you in harm’s way,” she said.
Opponents have pointed to research from the Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization that works on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth. Amit Paley, the group’s CEO & executive director, said last week that their “research has consistently found a strong link between access to LGBTQ-affirming schools and lower suicide risk.”
“LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year,” Paley said in a statement.
In a rare move earlier this month, Biden weighed in on the legislation via Twitter, writing: “I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community – especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill – to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are. I have your back, and my Administration will continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve.”
DeSantis said earlier this month that it was “entirely inappropriate” for teachers and school administrators to have conversations with students about their gender identity, though he also acknowledged, “I don’t think it’s happening here in large numbers.”
If approved by the Florida Senate and signed by DeSantis, HB 1557 would go into effect in July.