Photo by AP
Two days ago, on Thursday, February 24th, the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill by a 69-47 vote aiming to limit discussions of sexuality and gender identity in classrooms. The official name of the bill is HB 1577, the Parental Rights in Education bill, but it has been nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill because of its content. All it needs now to be signed into law is to pass in the State Senate. The bill could theoretically be vetoed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), but he has already voiced his strong support for the bill in a recent Miami roundtable.
The bill “prohibit[s] classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels,” specifically in kindergarten to third grade. At first glance, this measure may seem appropriate given how young children are in these grades, but plenty of queer people are aware of their identities at that age or younger; the only thing that this enforced silence will accomplish is to make queer children feel like something is wrong with them. Without any sort of knowledge or vocabulary to identify their feelings, young queer kids will grow up feeling alienated and alone.
However, this bill does not just impact queer children — involving all children in discussion of queer identities broadens their minds and perspectives, which could have numerous benefits for their development. Aside from reducing homophobia and bigotry later in life, helping children understand that there are people different from them also builds a foundation for children developing into open-minded individuals that are able to productively and respectfully interact with a wider range of people as they grow up.
The rhetoric of the Parental Rights in Education bill is this: parents should have the right to make decisions about their child’s well-being, even when they are on school grounds. However, the bill in question only serves to keep kids in the dark about LGBTQ+ identities and ultimately contradicts the fundamental purpose of public education: to ensure that everyone in the country is educated enough to be a functioning member of society. Queer people exist in America; that is a fact. Failing to educate children on queer identities is a failure to properly prepare them for functioning in the world as adolescents and adults. It is very possible to discuss queer identities without involving sex education (which should still be taught to children at some point) and without causing cisgender, heterosexual children discomfort in their identiies. Simply stating that identities other than cisgender and heterosexual exist could be enough to provide children the opportunity to understand their own feelings better, but this bill attempts to prevent even the possiblity of understanding for children at or below these ages.
Another impending issue with this bill is the implication that it holds: queer identities themselves are taboo and inherently sexual, and, therefore, not appropriate for children to be exposed to. These are all sentiments that Governor DeSantis appeared to support in the Miami roundtable about the bill, where he stated that discussions of LGBTQ+ identities were not “age-appropriate” for young children. The idea that kids should not be “exposed” to queer identities has contributed to a reality that too many queer kids have to grow up with, one where they only ever see themselves represented in media targeted toward adults (that they actively have to seek out in the first place); moreover, sometimes they only find representation in a hypersexualized form with little focus on the actual characters or the deeper aspects of their relationships with each other. This reduction of queer identities down to sex and eroticism is inherently dehumanizing — it prevents cisgender and heterosexual people (and sometimes even queer people themselves) from seeing queer people as whole human beings. This dangerous misrepresentation combined with purity culture — a byproduct of evangelical Christianity that centers on abstinence from sex until marriage — ultimately demonizes queer people, figuratively and literally. If queer people are viewed only through their connection to sex, then it is easy to view them as bad influences and as something for children to be sheltered or ushered away from.
This bill also brings to mind the hush-hush attitude applied towards queer identities in the United States government. After all, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which allowed gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans to serve in the U.S. military as long as they stayed closeted, was only repealed in 2011. The bill mirrors this sentiment: kids may be gay, but it is inappropriate to talk about it or even to acknowledge their existence as queer.
Governor DeSantis stated that schools should teach “science, history,…more civics and understanding of the U.S. Constitution, what makes our country unique, all those basic stuff.” I personally resent the idea that the U.S. Constitution, or any other infrastructural element of the U.S. government, is what makes this country unique. What makes America unique is the broad range of people, from differing backgrounds and countries of origin, that make this country home, whether it accepts them willingly or not. Queer people from all walks of life are part of what makes this country what it is, and it is absurd to attempt to wipe their existence from the classrooms that teach these children how to live within it.