The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida law limiting LGBTQ discussions takes effect — and rocks schools

White House urges challenges to the law

Marchers for the New York City Gay Men's Chorus perform while wearing T-shirts with "Say Gay" on the back, in opposition to Florida's law restricting LGBTQ discussions in schools, during the Pride March in New York last month. (Sarah Yenesel/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
5 min

(Update: adding comment from Florida Education Department and detail about the law)

Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Law, popularly known by critics as the “don’t say gay” bill, went into effect on Friday, restricting what teachers can say about gender and sexual orientation. The White House called it part of “a disturbing and dangerous nationwide trend” of targeting the LGBTQ community and encouraged Floridians to challenge it.

The law, signed March 28 by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), is the first of its kind in the country. It prevents teachers in kindergarten through third grade from discussing gender and sexual orientation in class and restricts what they can say in upper grades to what is developmentally appropriate, without saying what that is. Only the K-3 provision went into effect on Friday; the other part, according to the Florida Department of Education, will after rules or guidance on age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate instruction are developed.

The law also legally empowers parents to sue school districts as a way to advance their “parental rights.” It is part of a push by DeSantis to restrict what teachers can say — an effort that also includes topics in race, racism and U.S. history. More than a dozen other states have seen similar bills introduced in their legislatures. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said he wants to make such a law “a top priority” in the next legislative session.

Part of the impetus for the Florida law, supporters said, was reports that some schools were not telling parents about children’s sexual orientation. Critics say that the vaguely worded law will force LGBTQ students and teachers to hide their identities, and that the threat of being sued will lead teachers to keep quiet about issues that are important for students to learn.

In a statement, the White House said in part: “This is not an issue of ‘parents’ rights.’ This is discrimination, plain and simple. It’s part of a disturbing and dangerous nationwide trend of right-wing politicians cynically targeting LGBTQI+ students, educators, and individuals to score political points. It encourages bullying and threatens students’ mental health, physical safety, and well-being. It censors dedicated teachers and educators who want to do the right thing and support their students. And it must stop.”

Teen LGBTQ rights activist Will Larkins spoke to The Post about fighting this controversial bill less than a month after it was signed into law. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

How Florida Gov. DeSantis is trying to destroy public education

The White House encouraged any student or parent experiencing discrimination to file a complaint with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona also released a statement expressing deep concern about the effects the law will have on LGBTQ students and their families, saying in part: “I’ve spoken to parents and families in Florida numerous times, and they’ve consistently told me that this legislation doesn’t represent them or what they want for their children, and that it put Florida students in danger of bullying and worse mental health outcomes.”

The White House statement referenced a number of reports coming from Florida about schools and districts taking steps to comply with what they think the law prohibits.

It said: “Already, there have been reports that ‘Safe Space’ stickers are being taken down from classrooms. Teachers are being instructed not to wear rainbow clothing. LGBTQI+ teachers are being told to take down family photos of their husbands and wives—cherished family photos like the ones on my own desk. — and about.”

Alex Lanfranconi, communications director for the Florida Education Department said in an email, however, that many of the reports are “fake news” and he accused “activists and teachers’ unions” for "creating a false narrative to sow confusion among the public.” He said that the district had sent a memo to districts explaining the law (which you can see below), but the June 6 missive does not directly address some of the specific reports.

A new letter from the Orange County Public Schools’ legal department, sent to the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, provided some clarification and guidance, saying in part:

“The statute limits classroom instruction on “sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Nothing in that language “aims at sexual orientations and gender identities that differ from heterosexual and cisgender identities.” ECF 47 ¶ 15 (emphasis omitted). To the contrary, instruction on “the normalcy of opposite-sex attraction” would equally be “instruction on sexual orientation.” Id. ¶ 11. The statute is neutral on the proscribed subjects.” – page 17
“There is no merit, for example, to the suggestion that the statute restricts gay and transgender teachers from “put[ting] a family photo on their desk” or “ refer[ring] to themselves and their spouse (and their own children).” Id. ¶ 8. Those actions are not “instruction,” which is “the action, practice, or profession of teaching,” Instruction, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (last visited June 26, 2022).” – page 17
“For the same reason, the statute does not prohibit intervention against LGBTQ bullying, participation in extracurricular activities (such as “Gay-Straight Alliances” or books fairs), and even after-hours tutoring, ECF 47 ¶¶ 8, 118–19, 121, 184, among many other examples. That is not “classroom instruction” covered by the statute.”– page 18

Clinton McCracken, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, had tweeted that teachers in the district had been told that “they can’t wear rainbows.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday night, the Leon County School Board approved an “LGBTQ Inclusive School Guide.” It says all students should be able to attend overnight trips but that if any parent or student has concerns about rooming assignments “based on religious or privacy concerns,” they can request an accommodation.

In May, the openly gay valedictorian of a high school in Sarasota County was told by his principal not to mention the word “gay” in his graduation speech or say anything about his activism, which includes being the youngest plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the law. The Pine View Senior Class President Zander Moricz said he was told his microphone would be cut off if he did. So, instead, he communicated his message by using “curly hair” as a metaphor.

Told not to say ‘gay’ in graduation speech, he made his point anyway

“I used to hate my curls,” he said, after removing his graduation cap and running his hands through his hair. “I spent morning and night embarrassed of them trying to straighten this part of who I am, but the daily damage of trying to fix myself became too much to endure. So while having curly hair in Florida is difficult due to the humidity, I decided to be proud of who I was and started coming to school as my authentic self.”

Here’s the memo that the Florida Department of Education sent to school districts in June about the law: