LGBTQ advocates and lawmakers speak out against HB 1557. March 7, 2022. Credit: Danielle J. Brown
In a bitter, emotional atmosphere that rose to a national level, the Florida Senate in the final days of the legislative session approved a bill that limits certain conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida’s public school classrooms.
HB 1557, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, passed in the Senate 22 to 17 on Tuesday, with two Republicans joining Democratic senators voting against the bill. The legislation now goes to the governor’s desk for consideration.
The bill provides parents the opportunity to sue if a school district withholds certain information from them about their child’s well-being or if their child is exposed to instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity deemed not “age-appropriate.” That could mean everything from the very early grades to high school.
HB 1557 has drawn nationwide attention and protests across the state, and is considered one of the main “culture war” bills in the 2022 legislative session in Florida.
LGBTQ advocates exhausted every effort to kill the bill, but they couldn’t block it at the legislative level.
Equality Florida, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, threatened potential legal challenges in a written statement Tuesday.
“Let us be clear: should the vague language of this bill be interpreted in any way that causes harm to a single child, teacher, or family, we will lead legal action against the State of Florida to challenge this bigoted legislation. We will not sit by and allow the governor’s office to call us pedophiles,” the statement reads. That’s a reference to tweets sent out by the governor’s press secretary over the weekend.
“We will not allow this bill to harm LGBTQ Floridians. We will not permit any school to enforce this in a way that endangers the safety of children. We stand ready to fight for Floridians in court and hold lawmakers who supported this bill accountable at the ballot box,” the statement reads.
Last month, President Joe Biden called it a “hateful bill.”
And Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, with the U.S. Department of Education, released this statement following the vote:
“Parents across the country are looking to national, state, and district leaders to support our nation’s students, help them recover from the pandemic, and provide them the academic and mental health supports they need. Instead, leaders in Florida are prioritizing hateful bills that hurt some of the students most in need.
“The Department of Education has made clear that all schools receiving federal funding must follow federal civil rights law, including Title IX’s protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We stand with our LGBTQ+ students in Florida and across the country, and urge Florida leaders to make sure all their students are protected and supported.”
The Senate sponsor of the bill, Sen. Dennis Baxley, said that the legislation works to empower parents, continuing the philosophy of Florida’s new Parents’ Bill of Rights law that parents have a right to direct the upbringing and education of their child.
“I want to encourage parents across Florida to own it. They’re your kids,” Baxley said Tuesday, defending the bill. He is a Republican who represents counties in Central Florida.
“You always feel liable for it. You are to blame for however your kids turn out…and I want you to be empowered. I want you to be empowered to say that you’re the parents. You have to take charge. You are in charge of the destiny of these kids.”
Supporters of the bill argue that the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” do not target LGBTQ people; the bill does not mention the word ‘gay,’ and certain conversations are best had at home.
However, when the full Senate first discussed the bill on Monday, Baxley said that one of his concerns that inspired the legislation is a “big wave” of students “experimenting” with different identities.
Baxley’s comments were criticized before the final Senate vote Tuesday.
Sen. Shevrin Jones, an out member of the LGBTQ community, read part of Baxley’s previous remarks and responded to them in the Senate Tuesday.
“Later in the debate, Sen. Baxley said ‘some of this is just the confusion that kids are going through.’ So let’s be clear — the bill sponsor…made it clear that this bill is about one thing… sexual orientation and gender identity,” Jones said Tuesday. He is a Democrat who represents part of Broward and Miami-Dade County in South Florida.
“But the take I got was…’it is not geared towards LGBT community. So you say — you can’t say that ‘it’s not’ but the bill sponsor says that ‘it is.'”
National free speech advocacy group PEN America said in a written statement Tuesday that the legislation “sends a disturbing message to young people that some voices should be silenced, some people erased.”
The statement continued: “This legislation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It forms part of a wave of intrusive bills and laws that forcibly insert politics and ideology into realms that belong in the hands of educators, parents and children. Educators are experts at how to tailor complex subjects in age-appropriate ways, and students have every right to see a breadth of voices and identities–including those that may reflect or be different from their own–in what they learn and read.”
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