Florida Expands Classroom ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Restrictions Up To 12th Grade

Orion Rummler

Originally published by The 19th

Florida’s Department of Education voted Wednesday to expand the state’s law banning classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity, extending the restrictions through 12th grade. The expansion makes real a warning that LGBTQ+ advocates had repeated since the inception of the original law — that older students could be affected too.

Shari Gawanter, a first grade teacher in Leon County, Florida, has taught for over two decades. She wants LGBTQ+ students to know that she doesn’t plan to go anywhere.

“I will be there for you, no matter what,” she said at a news conference held by the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Florida on Wednesday. For her and her colleagues, teaching in Florida means experiencing a new level of fear: about what books she reads, what conversations she has, what visitors are in her classroom and how she presents. Many of her colleagues feel like they are going to have to hide who they really are, she said.

“That will be detrimental to our children and the education of our children,” Gawanter said. “We are vilifying the LGBTQ+ community. We are vilifying teachers.”

The amendment that the board approved Wednesday prohibits instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for grades four through 12 unless such instruction is “expressly required by state academic standards.” If such instruction is part of a reproductive health course or health lesson that a student’s parent has consented to, then it is allowed. The expansion should take effect after a procedural period that lasts roughly a month, the AP reports, citing an education department spokesperson.

The original Parental Rights in Education Act, nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, went into effect in July and banned such instruction from kindergarten to third grade. Equality Florida and the National Center for Lesbian Rights led a legal challenge against the law — a challenge that was dismissed, not for the first time, by a federal judge in February.

The number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills seen in Florida this year— 22 — is the most ever seen in the state in a single legislative session, as far as Equality Florida has been tracking it, according to Joe Saunders, senior political director at the organization. Eighteen of those bills are currently advancing, he said Wednesday.

This week, multiple anti-LGBTQ+ bills advanced through Florida’s statehouse,  including one that restricts curriculums in colleges and universities.

That bill, to prohibit students at the state’s public colleges and universities from majoring or minoring in academic disciplines such as critical race and gender theory, queer theory, ethnic studies, and intersectionality, was considered in a state House education and employment committee hearing Wednesday.

Another proposed piece of legislation, which advocacy groups describe as an “anti-drag bill,” was read in the state House for a second time this week. The bill would allow fines in the thousands of dollars and the revocation of licenses from establishments that allow children to view “adult” live performances — those deemed sexual or offensive. That bill may end local LGBTQ+ Pride events, the organizer of Miami Beach Pride told a local news outlet earlier this month.

A bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors in the state advanced through the statehouse this week. That bill affects adults by preventing transgender people from updating their birth certificates, and it also appears to revoke health insurance coverage for gender-affirming care across the board. For trans youth who have not yet begun treatment, gender-affirming care is already blocked in Florida; the ban faces an ongoing lawsuit.

A bathroom ban passed through a final vote in Florida’s House on Wednesday. The bill requires transgender adults to use bathrooms and changing rooms according to their sex assigned at birth across various public facilities — and allows the attorney general to fine facilities up to $10,000 for not complying.

Last week, Equality Florida warned families and students, and anyone else traveling through Florida, that the state “may not be a safe place to visit or take up residence,” due to the passage of anti-LGBTQ laws and other efforts. Such policies have already led parents in Florida to consider moving, the advocacy group said — pointing to a study that found half of queer Florida parents have considered fleeing the state in the wake of the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Andrea Montanez, a trans woman and lead LGBTQ immigration organizer with Hope Community Center in Florida, said that Wednesday was “a nightmare” at the capitol in Tallahassee. It feels like transgender people are “public enemy number one” in Florida, she said — and it doesn’t feel safe in the state right now.

When she talks to friends outside of the trans community, Montanez said she tells them: “I don’t need your love right now, I need you to speak up for us.”

Samira Burnside, a 16-year-old transgender student activist from Tampa, said at Wednesday’s news conference that the local trans community has banded together and will continue to do so.

“This is a scary time, but it isn’t a lonesome time,” she said.

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