Florida officials are harming children in their bid to 'protect' them

Demonstrators protest against the legislation dubbed by opponents as the "Don't Say Gay" bill inside the Florida State Capitol on March 7, 2022, in Tallahassee.

Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book "OK Boomer, Let's Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind." Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)Florida Republicans claim that they want to protect the rights of parents. But they seem awfully eager to go out of their way to hurt kids.

The Florida state legislature has passed a law that has been dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill because, well, it more or less bars teachers from saying "gay." The law penalizes any educator who so much as mentions sexual orientation or gender identity to K-3 students (an odd choice, given that heterosexuality is a sexual orientation and "male" and "female" are gender identities, but one assumes that teachers aren't banned from reading fairytales or referring to students as girls and boys).
Jill Filipovic
It's a dystopian law, and a major incursion on free speech and expression -- rights that many conservatives have claimed to defend, but instead use their political power to undermine. It's also a direct attack on kids: Whatever your views on LGBTQ rights and gender identity, barring teachers from even recognizing that gay people exist forces them to lie to their students and breaks down trust between students and educators.
    After all, millions of students nationwide have gay parents, siblings, friends, aunts, uncles and on and on. They watch gay celebrities on television and in movies. Many will identify as LGBTQ themselves. Barring the mention of reality doesn't make reality cease to exist.
      At the same time as Florida legislators are trying to keep even the discussion of LGBTQ people trapped in the closet, Florida health officials (with the support of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis) are also working overtime to put kids at physical risk. Bucking guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida's controversial surgeon general says the state will recommend against healthy kids getting vaccinated for Covid-19 -- despite the fact that there is ample evidence showing that Covid-19 vaccination reduces potential harm if children contract the illness.
        So much of this is premised on the idea of "parents' rights": The argument that parents have near-universal authority over their children, including the right to put them in harm's way. This treatment of children as parental property rather than as human beings vested with their own rights has a long history in conservative movements in the United States.
        So does the conservative smearing of LGBTQ people and the use of children as pawns in the many culture wars over feminism, gender and LGBTQ rights. Anita Bryant, a vicious homophobe, spent much of the 1970s trying to get her state of Florida and others to repeal anti-discrimination ordinances and to actively discriminate against LGBTQ people, who she claimed were child molesters whose "way of life" was unacceptable.
          Those attacks were ugly back then. Luckily, in the ensuing years, Americans have radically shifted their views on gay rights. Same-sex marriage is legal across the country, and a large majority of Americans support it. Most Americans understand that LGBTQ people are our family members, neighbors, colleagues and friends; for millions of Americans, an LGBTQ person isn't someone they know or imagine; it's them. The closet door has swung wide open, and we are collectively better for it.
          Nearly 50 years after Anita Bryant's campaign of homophobia, though, Republicans in Florida are carrying her legacy forward, claiming to defend kids while actually putting them at risk.
          When children are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, they need to be able to turn to a trusted adult. That adult may not be a parent: Too many parents, after all, harm and abuse their children.
          Too many parents kick out their LGBTQ kids or put them into the kind of abusive therapy that tries to "convert" them to heterosexuality. Up to 40% of homeless youth in the United States identify as LGBTQ, according to the Center for American Progress.
          And it's not just LGBTQ kids whose lives may depend on being able to talk to a teacher or counselor. When children come from non-traditional families, they need to be seen and recognized, not treated as so weird and deviant that their parents' relationship is unspeakable in school. When all the adults in a place are modeling exclusion and discrimination, kids will too. The Florida "Don't Say Gay" bill creates the conditions for bullying and abuse.
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          There is no law attempting to bar parents from teaching their children whatever it is they believe about sexual orientation and gender identity. Parents are free to impart their morals and values to their children as they see fit. But Florida wants to go further than that: It wants to force every educator in the state into silence. It wants to give parents health guidance for their kids that is radically out of line with public health recommendations.
            Yes, parents should have the right to make many decisions for their minor children. But what many Republicans are pushing isn't a rational allocation of rights and responsibilities to parents in an effort to protect children and empower families. It's a dangerous far-right agenda that suppresses free speech and puts children at risk under the guise of parents' rights.
            It's the kind of law that no decent parent would support -- after all, no decent parent would want kids bullied, teachers silenced and vulnerable children put in harm's way. Which makes one wonder which parents, exactly, Florida Republicans are advocating for.