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DeSantis-backed 'Dont Say Gay' bill sparks outrage

ABC News logo ABC News 2/23/2022
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A Florida bill that would limit classroom discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity and encourage parents to sue schools or teachers that engage in these topics continues to move through the state House and Senate.

It's being called a "Don't Say Gay" bill by LGBTQ advocates, who fear that if this bill is signed into law, it could act as a complete ban on the lessons on LGBTQ oppression, history and discussions about LGBTQ identities.

An amendment to the bill was proposed Friday that also would require school officials to disclose a student's sexual or gender identity to their parents within six weeks of finding out about the student's identity. State Rep. Joe Harding, the sponsor of the legislation, withdrew the amendment Tuesday afternoon before it was to be debated and voted on the House floor.

Harding said in a statement to the Tallahassee Democrat Tuesday that "nothing in the amendment was about outing a student," and that it was intended to "create procedures around how, when and how long information was withheld from parents so that there was a clear process and kids knew what to expect."

"Rather than battle misinformation related to the amendment, I decided to focus on the primary bill that empowers parents to be engaged in their children’s lives," the statement continued.

The Florida Senate Education Committee had moved the bill forward earlier this month, but it still has to be approved by other Senate committees and the state House.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signaled support for the bill at a recent public event.

The Biden administration has denounced the efforts as anti-LGBTQI+.

"Every parent hopes that our leaders will ensure their children’s safety, protection, and freedom," the White House said in a statement Feb. 8.

"Today, conservative politicians in Florida rejected those basic values by advancing legislation that is designed to target and attack the kids who need support the most – LGBTQI+ students, who are already vulnerable to bullying and violence just for being themselves," the statement said. "But make no mistake – this is not an isolated action. Across the country, we’re seeing Republican leaders take actions to regulate what students can or cannot read, what they can or cannot learn, and most troubling, who they can or cannot be."

President Joe Biden also weighed in on Twitter. "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," Biden said in the post.

Activists say that erasing LGBTQI+ presence from schools may imply to students that their gender identity or sexual orientation is something to be ashamed of or hidden.

"We have to create a learning environment where they feel safe and healthy, or it's not an effective learning environment," said Heather Wilkie of the Zebra Coalition, a Central Florida LGBTQ advocacy group.

"When you have laws like this, that directly attack our kids for who they are, it prevents them from learning," she said. "It prevents them from being able to be healthy."

In this Nov. 18, 2021 file photo Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters and members of the media after a bill signing in Brandon, Fla. © Chris Omeara/AP, FILE In this Nov. 18, 2021 file photo Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters and members of the media after a bill signing in Brandon, Fla.

The two bills in the state legislature, HB 1557 and SB 1834, state that a school district "may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students."

The House Education & Employment Committee moved another version of the bill forward in January, handing it off to the Judiciary Committee.

"This would erase LGBTQ+ history and culture from lesson plans and it sends a chilling message to LGBTQ+ young people and communities," said Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, the executive director of the national LGBTQ youth advocacy group GLSEN.

If the bill passes, it would go into effect on July 1.

It adds that parents who violate this rule can sue, seeking damages and reimbursement for attorney fees and court costs.

Rep. Harding hopes it will "reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding upbringing & control of their children," according to the bill's text.

Harding did not respond to ABC News' request for comment.

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Chasten Buttigieg, activist and husband of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, denounced Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state legislature for the efforts last month in a Twitter post.

LGBTQ advocacy organizations say these bills are reminiscent of the “no promo homo” laws of the 1990s that barred educators from discussing queer topics in schools, but with an added mandate on parent and family involvement.

"These mandates are harmful and risk carelessly outing LGBTQ+ young people to families who do not affirm their children’s identities," Willingham-Jaggers said.

In this photo taken on June 4, 2019, rainbow flags are seen at the Stonewall National Monument in New York. © Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images, FILE In this photo taken on June 4, 2019, rainbow flags are seen at the Stonewall National Monument in New York.

2021 was a record-breaking year for anti-LGBTQ legislation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. More than 250 of these bills were introduced and at least 17 were enacted into law.

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Several states, including Arizona, Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, New Hampshire and South Dakota, have already introduced anti-LGBTQ legislation in 2022.

This Florida legislation follows similar bills that restrict educators from teaching about oppression in the U.S.

Wilkie said that queer issues and access to supportive resources have been the priority against anti-LGBTQ attacks in recent years, and this has been a heightened effort since the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.

LGBTQ youth in the state, who have a higher risk for suicidal ideation, depression and anxiety, have been struggling, but Wilkie says advocacy groups will continue to fight these bills.

"We will fight," she said. "It's so disheartening to think that they would not be able to freely talk about themselves, or learn anything about their history."

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