By Kelly Schmitz & Emily Krause
This past Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into effect.
The official name of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is called “The Parental Rights in Education legislation,” and it bans public school districts from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade. The bill states that classrooms may also not talk about such topics “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” There was a further commentary to state that this ban, once signed, may extend to higher grade levels as well.
There is much speculation about how the bill may harm students’ mental health in the long run. Some pediatric psychologists say the law stigmatizes being gay or transgender and could harm the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth, who are already more likely to face bullying and attempt suicide than children who are cisgender and straight.
A 2019 report from GLSEN, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, found that two-thirds of LGBTQ+ youth respondents had not been exposed to representations of LGBTQ+ people, history, or events in lessons at school. At schools that did have an LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum, 59% of respondents said they often or frequently heard the word “gay” used in a negative way, compared with almost 80% of students at schools that did not have an inclusive curriculum.
Jonathan MacDonald, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, stated, “The Don’t Say Gay bill is a prime example of us hypersexualizing anything that isn’t cis-gendered and heterosexual to the degree that regular people can’t just live their lives. Everyone in the queer community was once a kid, and our lives were hard enough, having to navigate a hetero world without having to be policed.” Many members of the LGBTQ+ community have voiced similar concerns, stating the world is hard enough to navigate as a member of the queer community. Jonathan went on to comment that this bill “almost feels like it was made to punish people for wanting to genuinely help youths, and then punish youths for wanting to be true to themselves, even at a young age.”
Morgan Christensen, a junior at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, commented, “This is a crucial stage in children’s lives, so what if a child of that age has gay loved ones or sees something online that makes them curious about it? The only safe place they have to discuss anything LGBTQ+ is home, and not all homes are welcoming.”
Although Florida is the only state in the US to currently have a bill like this enacted, there is already talk of other states adopting a bill similar to this one in nature. Currently, Ohio is looking to adopt a nearly identical bill but with an additional component. The Ohio bill includes the added feature of prohibiting teachers of fourth- to 12th-grade students from discussing “sexual orientation or gender identity in any manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” Furthermore, the Ohio bill goes on to place a ban on all materials discussing “critical race theory,” “intersectional theory,” and “inherited racial guilt.” The bill went on to add a catchall clause that forbids any educational discussion on any “concept that the state board of education defines as divisive or inherently racist.”
The passing of this bill requires teachers in kindergarten to third grade to consistently regulate their words and actions if a student may bring up any topic in relation to the bill. With the ambiguous wording of both the enacted Florida and potential Ohio bill, teachers are put in an impractical bind. If a teacher is found to have engaged in “forbidden” topics, they may face license suspension or cuts in school funding.
This bill has also caught the attention of Floridian celebrities such as Charlee Disney, the heir to the Disney fortune. Coming out as trans 3 years ago, he went on to explain that he had very few openly gay role models and no openly trans role models. Mark Ruffalo, best known for his role as The Incredible Hulk, also went on to comment how “the bill is cruel and traumatizing for children and stigmatizes gay youth.”
Although the passing of this bill has only placed restrictions on the educational environment in Florida, this bill is beginning to pave the way for other states, in addition to Ohio, to enact similar legislation. It is unclear as to what effect this will have on the educational system and mental health of those in the LGBTQ+ community.