The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida’s LGBTQ law is ‘intentionally vague,’ says group challenging it

Imani Rupert-Gordon is the executive director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. (Nikki Kahn/For The Washington Post)
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Imani Rupert-Gordon, 43, is executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), which, along with Kaplan Hecker & Fink, filed a lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and other state officials to challenge Florida’s recent Parental Rights in Education legislation, also decried as the “don’t say gay” bill. Rupert-Gordon lives in Oakland, Calif., with her wife.

What led NCLR to file a lawsuit challenging Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” legislation?

We challenged this “don’t say LGBTQ” law because it’s discriminatory; it’s as bad as we think it is. This very intentionally vague law will shame and stigmatize not only LGBTQ students but students with LGBTQ parents and family members, as well as any student that rightfully believes and understands that LGBTQ people are valued members of society. And not only is it going to stigmatize students, it’s also going to make it possible to bury not only the history but the existence of LGBTQ people — and in a space where young LGBTQ people believe that they are receiving a thorough and complete history and explanation of how the world works and their place in it.

The legislation was drafted in very broad and deliberately vague terms. And this was intentional. The curriculum doesn’t include talking about sexual education in the ways that we’re hearing our opponents talk about it — that’s not part of the K through 3 curriculum. So that’s not solving a problem that exists. But students drawing pictures of their family could be considered part of the curriculum. If a teacher decides to use more inclusive language other than “mother” and “father,” that could be considered part of the curriculum. A student telling a story that mentions their two mothers could be considered part of the curriculum. The actual language of the bill will have a very negative impact for folks.

Were you surprised at how broad it is?

I would say I’m disappointed with how broad it is. There’s something to be said about having a difference of opinion. But being so broad is really concerning because it doesn’t feel as clear to everyone about how and why this discriminates against people. That is the part that’s concerning. Because the way that our opponents talk about this, they say it is for the protection of parents. But the parents that I hear from, this is not helping at all; this is actually hurting the parents that we work with. They’re saying that this would keep us from discussing any sexual orientation or any gender identity, any mention of it at all. But that’s not true. Because it’s not like we’re not going to tell stories like “Romeo and Juliet.” That is not on the table. When teachers are taking posters off the wall, they’re not taking posters of everyone off the wall. They’re taking posters exclusively of LGBTQ people. And so it’s not that there is no mention of gender. It’s not that there’s no mention of sexual orientation. There’d be no place where someone would say that a man couldn’t talk about his wife. You know, no one would ever expect that. And no one should.

And so, are we talking about equality here? Are we talking about protecting everyone? Or are we actually talking about marginalizing people? And it feels like it’s closer to that. And that part is incredibly alarming. What it does is scare people about talking about who they are.

I know you worked with LGBTQ teens previously. With LGBTQ teens more than four times more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to attempt suicide, what kind of effect do you think that this bill could have on people? Is that something you worry about?

That is absolutely something that I worry about. Because we’re talking about the most underrepresented folks. We’re talking about the people experiencing the highest levels of marginalization and, often, not as much support. You know, we’re hoping that these young people have support in their parents and the people that they live with. But we also know that LGBTQ young people are 124 percent more likely to experience homelessness than their straight, cisgender counterparts. And it’s because, very often, when they divulge their LGBTQ identity, they’re kicked out of their house.

We know that the thing that makes a difference in a young person’s life is just one adult that trusts them, believes them, can be there for them. And this law is actually taking away options here. Because in early versions of it, if a teacher found out that someone identified as LGBTQ, they would have to go and tell their parents. And now it’s just written where they can tell their parents. But that also is really scary. Because that could keep a young person from maybe sharing something with a teacher that they feel close to.

Something that’s really alarming for me is teachers already being afraid. Teachers are taking down posters in their classrooms that support LGBTQ people because they want to make sure that they are not in violation and to avoid being sued. They don’t want to lose their jobs. They don’t want to do something that would be considered illegal. And they’re going to end up hurting the people that need the most support. We also know that the state of Florida is taking down anything from the website that has to do with LGBT bullying. And we know that LGBTQ people are much more likely to experience bullying. So we’re already seeing the results of this law before it’s even enacted. We have a value on freedom and equality in this country. And that is not what’s showing up right now.

Do you see this as part of a broader trend where we’re seeing books banned from school libraries, charges of critical race theory in teaching Black history, and abortion laws in Texas where people can go after individuals — the same type of thing teachers in Florida are afraid of.

Making that link is really, really important. I’m glad that more and more people are doing it. Because there’s a connection there. And it is around education — whose history is taught and how it’s taught. You know, when we hear about the same historical figures over and over again, when we hear about the same life-changing events, that reinforces to us their importance and their impact in helping to shape this country. That’s how we learn things, and that’s important. But it works the other way as well. And when we don’t share about the history and the contributions of others, it’s not neutral. It’s not just putting it off and learning later. It means that young students learn very early on that either this history doesn’t exist or LGBTQ people don’t exist, or that the things that they haven’t done aren’t worthwhile, and that is damaging.

We’re seeing this move to ban books because of LGBTQ content, but also books that center the stories of Black people and communities of color. Laws like the Stop WOKE Act, that’s also in Florida. Or limits to how we talk about the history of race and slavery in this country. All of those things are linked, and when we intentionally work to keep identities out of school — and also, again, to be clear, it’s not all identities. It’s the identities of LGBTQ people. It’s the identities of people of color. It’s the identities of people who have immigrated to this country. If these folks don’t see themselves woven into the fabric that’s made this country, they don’t see how our contributions have been incredible and enormous, you know?

I’m a Black woman. And when I look back on my childhood, I realize that much of my understanding about Black history, about the contributions of Black people, happened not only outside of school with my parents, but then also later when I went to college, taking electives, not even the required classes. That meant that my education happened outside and without the White people that were in my class — the White people that were my friends in my literal neighborhood, in my actual community. And that was different than all of my other education.

Iris Marion Young uses this metaphor about a bird cage that I just love. And it talks about when there’s one single wire, or one part, or one aspect of oppression or disadvantage, it’s difficult to understand how that one wire can limit a bird. But when you step back, and when you see how these wires work together, how they’re connected, then it’s easier for us to see how these things related together, they keep the bird trapped in a cage. And it’s all these things working together.

And with this metaphor, it doesn’t actually matter if these things are intentional or not. Now I will say that I do believe they are intentional, but that’s not the part that matters. The part that matters is that intentional or not, all of these things happening together; the interplay between them is actually working to marginalize the most underrepresented people.

Setting aside cynical political opportunism, what do you say to those parents, those folks who see this issue as a parental consent issue and worry that school is or could be coming between them and their child on issues of great importance to that child’s health, well-being, long-term consequences?

Honestly, I would ask: Is that something that’s really happening now? Because between the K through third grade, that’s not actually part of the curriculum. I think everyone is on the side of having very hard conversations happen at home. I don’t think anyone disagrees there. I think that what is happening is that there’s an overreach because what this bill is actually doing is shaming and stigmatizing LGBTQ students and students that have LGBTQ families.

I was watching a news conference with Gov. DeSantis, and there was a parent testifying that their school would not even bring her into conversations with her child around these issues. How do you think about that?

I think everyone would want parents to have wonderful conversations with their children, these hard conversations. And many people would even say that those things best happen at home. I’m not aware of times that guidance counselors have these conversations and keep parents from speaking to their children. There’s a benefit for a kid being able to talk to someone else as necessary. We have to also recognize that guidance counselors are not seeking children out to have difficult conversations. It’s often that kids are coming to guidance counselor and supportive adults when they have questions that they don’t feel like they can go to someone else. And in those situations I’m glad that they have someone to come to.

There’s been talk about “ grooming” — what do you think when you hear that?

Oh. You know, that is so disappointing and so discouraging. I would have hoped, I would have thought, that we would be past these horrible, horrible tropes. Because that’s not at all what’s happening. It is so cruel and cowardly. And we see right past that. That’s something that has been used horribly in the past, and I’m so disappointed that so-called leaders are talking to community members like that. It’s disrespectful, it’s detrimental. And it’s blatantly untrue.

What would you have people understand about this issue, about this case?

It’s about allowing young people to grow up and be the best versions of themselves. To have schools that are safe so that young people can grow up and self-actualize. So that they are not experiencing stigma and feeling bad about who they are. Because there’s nothing wrong with LGBTQ people. We are kind and smart, and we contribute to society, you know? And making it possible so that every single student can be the best version of themselves is making things better for all of us. This is an issue of equality. This isn’t taking anything away. This is creating a world where we can all be our beautiful, unique selves. That’s what we are fighting for.

What do you tell young people, especially young LGBTQ people, who are looking at what’s happening in these debates and trying to make sense of things?

You know, it’s hard when you see a version of yourself — I think of the young people who are thinking about coming out right now. They’re just starting to understand who they are, and they’re seeing this, and they believe that there are people there that hate them, you know? And I would I want these young people to remember that there are people that love you, and we are dedicating our lives to making it possible for you to grow up and be your authentic selves and pushing to keep you safe.

We have to remember that the majority of people in this country don’t like or want these discriminatory bills and laws. The vast majority of people in this country — almost 8 in 10 people — support federal anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. And in Florida, it is 8 out of 10, so it’s even higher than across the country. And I’m saying this because these bills that are being voted for by senators and signed into law by governors are not accurately reflecting the interests, the needs, and the values of the people that they’re serving. We have to remember that in these moments. Because those voices are loud right now. But they are not the majority. And they do not reflect us. It’s not even close. And I want young people to remember that.

KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine.