In the wake of Florida’s law, other states are trying to limit certain LGBTQ discussions in schools


Bills similar to Florida’s controversial legislation banning certain instructions about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools are being considered in at least 15 states, data collated by the American Civil Liberties Union and reviewed by CNN shows.

Some bills go beyond Florida’s law, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, which sparked a furious nationwide debate over LGBTQ rights, education policies, and parental involvement in the classroom.

The debate reflects the sensitive forces of LGBTQ rights that are becoming increasingly important at a time when some parents are seeking more input into their children’s education, especially in the wake of the uproar caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Republicans, who argue that discussions of gender identity and sexuality are inappropriate for young children, have used the banner of “parental rights” to push for a curtailment of such conversations in schools, even though opinions differ widely between parents. LGBTQ rights advocates see a conscious decision to stigmatize a vulnerable segment of American society and a potentially chilling effect on what they say are urgently needed discussions.

“These accounts are based on the belief that queer identities are a contagion, while heterosexual, cisgender identities are somehow purer or more correct,” Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist for the ACLU, told CNN. “Essentially, every student has the right to see their own life stories, and every student benefits from stories that serve as a window into the lives of people who are different from them. No one benefits from censorship and homogeneity, while all students are denied an equal opportunity to learn, grow and thrive.”

The ACLU has followed a total of 61 bills in 26 states, though efforts in several states, including Mississippi and Montana, have already failed. Earlier this month, Arkansas passed restrictions against such discussions through fourth grade.

Ultimately, it’s unclear how many of the bills will pass. A Human Rights Campaign report released in January said that of 315 bills they deemed anti-LGBTQ that were passed nationwide last year, only 29 — less than 10% — became law.

Florida law, titled the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate is for students in line with state standards.” It also requires districts to notify a student’s parents if there is a significant change in their mental or emotional well-being, which LGBTQ rights advocates say could lead to some students being taken out to their parents without the knowledge or consent of the student.

“We will continue to recognize that parents in the state of Florida play a fundamental role in their children’s education, health care and well-being. We can’t get rid of that,” said Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, when he signed the bill into law in March 2022.

According to the Movement Advancement Project, a non-profit think tank that advocates for LGBTQ rights, among other things, Florida’s law was the catalyst for bills currently pending in other states, including:

  • An Iowa bill that passed the state House last week would ban instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation from kindergarten through sixth grade.
  • An Oregon bill prohibiting any discussion of sexual identity for kindergarten through third grade classes without parental notice and consent.
  • Alaska law requiring parental notice two weeks prior to “any activity, class, or program containing content related to gender identity, human reproduction, or sexual matters is provided to a child.”
  • Multiple Florida bills attempting to double down on last year’s legislation, including one requiring that “sex be determined by biology and reproductive function at birth” and another prohibiting employees from using pronouns that don’t match a person’s gender student .

A recurring theme in the legislation is a requirement that school staff notify a parent if a child expresses a desire to be addressed with a pronoun that matches their gender identity if it differs from the pronoun assigned at birth.

“We’re not saying you can’t do this,” Washington State Sen. Phil Fortunato, who introduced legislation that would limit instruction on gender and sexual identity for kindergarten through third grade, told CNN. “I mean, I don’t agree, but you know, if the parents and the child agree, that’s their decision. But they shouldn’t do it behind their parents’ backs when their child goes to school. And that is the point of the bill.”

Missouri’s bill is uniquely far-reaching: No public or charter school employee should “encourage a student under the age of eighteen to adopt a gender identity or sexual orientation,” although what the law means by “encourage” is not explained. School officials should notify parents immediately if their child confides in them “discomfort or confusion” about their “official identity” and teachers should not refer to a student by their preferred pronouns without first obtaining a parent’s approval.

The bill specifically calls for whistleblower protection for school employees who report violators, who would then face “charges to suspend or revoke a teacher’s license to teach based on allegations of incompetence, immorality or dereliction of duty.” “.

In a blog post titled “Permitted Evil on Our Children,” Missouri GOP state Senator Mike Moon, who sponsored the legislation, called it a “lie that boys can be turned into girls and girls can be turned into boys.”

“One thing we must agree on, however, is that parents are responsible for the education of their children,” he continued. “To this end, parents must be involved in the education of their children.”

The measures are likely to face legal challenge soon if passed, though at least two attempts to block the Florida law have so far failed to get it off the books. One such lawsuit, brought by a group of students, parents and teachers in Florida, was dismissed last month by U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, a Trump appointee, who said the challengers could not prove they had been harmed by the law.

“Plaintiffs have shown clear disagreement with the new law, and they have presented alleged facts showing that its existence causes them deep pain and disappointment,” Winsor wrote in his order. “But to invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court, they have to argue more. Failure to do so will require dismissal.”

At the heart of opponents’ concerns is the vagueness in the written language of the laws. LGBTQ issues are generally not a formal part of public school curricula, they point out, leaving educators with the prospect of determining where legal fault lines are drawn with nothing less than their careers on the line.

“What counts as class discussion? Like classroom instruction? Does it only contain the curriculum for the classroom?” asked Alice O’Brien, Alice O’Brien’s general counsel, in an interview with CNN. “For example, does it include teachers’ lesson plans, or is it broad enough to include classroom discussions? A teacher answering a student’s question, a teacher perhaps intervening in an incident where a student bullies another student because of that student’s prestige, sexual orientation or gender identity? It is very unclear what is and what is not prohibited.”

There are other concerns. Naomi G. Goldberg, MAP’s deputy director, is concerned about a “chilling effect on teachers themselves in terms of their ability to support students in the classroom as well as the students themselves in the classroom.”

A similar point was made last year in a CNN op-ed by Claire McCully, a trans mom outraged by Florida’s law.

“Like any parent, I expect my family to be welcomed and accepted by others at the school,” McCully wrote. “And of course, this acceptance may be more likely if some of the childhood stories read in classrooms feature two fathers, two mothers, or even a trans mother.”

Cathryn Oakley, the state’s legislative director and senior adviser to the Human Rights Campaign, told CNN that using a student’s favorite pronouns is harmless to other students, but very meaningful to trans children themselves. She urged a cautious approach that recognizes the need for schools to be a safe place for vulnerable children, especially where there is a risk that letting a child out before they are ready could lead to “family rejection or even violence”.

“No one is suggesting that this is information that is irrelevant to parents,” she said. “But what we’re saying is that young people should be able to have this conversation with their parents on their own terms and not have a third party forced to mediate a conversation that could put that child at risk.”

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