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Expanded 'Don't Say Gay' law remains contentious as new school year begins

Demonstrators gathered last year on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol in March in Tallahassee, Fla, protesting what opponents call the "Don't Say Gay" bill. It became law and was expanded this year by the Florida Legislature.
Wilfredo Lee
Demonstrators gathered last year on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol in March in Tallahassee, Fla, protesting what opponents call the "Don't Say Gay" bill. It became law and was expanded this year by the Florida Legislature.

As teachers and students return this month to school, the expanded law critics call “Don’t Say Gay” and the new Florida Board of Education rules — from limits on discussion of gender and sexual orientation and use of preferred pronouns — continue raising concerns about its potential harm to the public education system while winning praise among its proponents, including Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The new education board rules stem from HB 1069, which became law on July 1. It bans gender and sexual identity discussion from pre-K through eighth grade. The previous year lawmakers in the Republican-majority Legislature had banned those kinds of discussions through third grade.

It also prohibits school staffers or students from being required to refer to people by pronouns that don’t correspond to the person’s sex and dictates that teachers and students must use the bathroom which corresponds to their assigned sex at birth.

The original law, passed last year, has been challenged in federal court by three LGBTQ students and 11 parents and teachers from several Florida counties including its biggest, Miami-Dade and Broward, along with the LGBTQ-advocacy group Family Equality.

According to the lawsuit, one Broward teacher, Scott Berg, who is gay, “no longer asks students to draw their families, out of concern that he might violate the law if students talk about their LGBT families or ask Berg about his own.”

“He no longer speaks out against discriminatory comments in class (for example, when a student derisively calls another’s artwork ‘gay’); he does not keep a picture of him and his husband on his desk,” the lawsuit states.

READ MORE: AP psychology gets green light, but South Florida schools remain cautious

The plaintiffs argue that the law has violated free speech rights and led to discrimination. They also contend that the federal judge overseeing the case erred when he dismissed the challenge to what Republican legislators call the “Parental Rights in Education” law — the same opponents label as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. An appeal, filed last month, is pending in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gina, a nonbinary student in Broward public schools, who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told WLRN that she had been testing her new identity and pronouns at school.

“Our safe place is essentially at school with our friends, places like drama club and things like that,” they said. “That’s where we spend the most time being accepting of each other because it's hard to do it really anywhere else.”

Gina asked WLRN not to use their last name to protect their identity.

Proponents of the new law, including HB 1069 sponsor Republican state Senator Clay Yarborough, said gender identity and sexual orientation are not issues that should never be discussed in schools.

“Teachers should be able to spend their time focusing on skills that help a child succeed in life, not delving into every social issue or being forced to use language that would violate their personal convictions,” he said.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who launched his presidential campaign earlier this year, defended HB 1069 in May when he signed the bill into law.

“As the world goes mad, Florida represents a refuge of sanity and a citadel of normalcy,” DeSantis said.

Rates of suicidal thoughts 'trend upward'

The latest nationwide poll of LGBTQ young peopleby The Trevor Project show rates of suicidal thoughts have “trended upward” over the last three years and that those LGBTQ youth who found their school to be LGBTQ-affirming reported lower rates of attempting suicide.

“When they are getting the message that who they are is wrong, who they are is invalid, that school is an unsafe place for them it’s going to perpetuate really horrible mental health statistics that we already are really concerned about,” said Dr. Natasha Poulopoulos, a pediatric psychiatrist in Miami who works with LGBTQ+ youth.

One recent survey of more than 100 LGBTQ parents in Florida found more than half were thinking about leaving the state because of the original “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The survey of 113 queer parents, conducted by Clark University and the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, found 56% of LGBTQ parents were considering leaving Florida in the wake of the law — and 17% had already taken steps to move.

“Research has established that anti-LGBTQ legislation has both direct and indirect effects on LGBTQ+ parents and their mental health, in part via its effects on social climate, including community, neighborhood, and school climate,” according to the survey authors.

If you or someone you know experiences a mental health emergency, help is available by calling or texting 988 – the suicide prevention and crisis lifeline.

Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Arianna Otero