Sarah Longwell serves on the Leadership Council for Conservatives Against Discrimination and is the chief executive of Longwell Partners.
When my wife and I picked out that picture last September, I thought of it mostly as a sweet family memory of the summer just past — and a rare instance where all four of us are looking at the camera. But, in recent weeks, it’s taken on a new significance.
I wonder how teachers in Florida who, under a law Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is expected to sign, will be banned from providing any sort of “classroom instruction … on sexual orientation or gender identity” before the fourth grade would talk about families such as mine. It’s not just LGBTQ children this legislation will hurt. It’s any kid who considers someone gay, bisexual or transgender to be family.
I object to this bill as a parent. And I object to it even more as a conservative.
Especially for young kids, their families are their whole world. My children talk about their families in class. They bring home pictures they drew of us. The figures in those pieces might look like thumbs, but the kids will tell you, “Those are my moms, that’s my little brother, and that’s our cat, Calvin. Hobbes, our other cat, died.” When our children explain who’s in their pictures or talk about their upcoming family vacation plans, their classmates sometimes have questions like “Why does Bobby have two moms?”
The obvious way to respond to this completely normal question is “Some kids have a mom and a dad, some have two moms or two dads, or maybe just one mom or one dad. Families can look all kinds of different ways and they’re all great. The most important thing about a family is that the people in it love each other.”
I’m lucky to live in a state where my kids’ teachers can say such things. The new Florida bill, however, would make this terribly complicated. Now, teachers will have to ask themselves if simply telling the truth — that families come in different forms — means that they’ve given instruction on sexual orientation. And, in the absence of any clear definition of “instruction,” these educators have to wonder if a parent will end up suing them over a simple explanation that’s intended to put a child at ease.
Unfortunately, Florida isn’t an outlier. There are more than 200 bills nationwide targeting LGBTQ people, many of them children in public schools.
Conservatives used to be skeptical of vaguely written laws that could have unintended consequences — especially when those laws serve no real purpose beyond performative culture-war posturing.
DeSantis and his cynical allies respond to objections such as mine by saying the media narrative is twisting the language in the bill. At a recent news conference, DeSantis said the bill tells teachers “no sexual instruction in grades pre-K through three. And so how many parents want their kindergartners to have transgenderism, or something, injected into classroom instruction?”
But it’s DeSantis who’s being misleading about what the bill actually says. It doesn’t say “no sexual instruction”; instead, it blocks instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. Talking about families with two moms or two dads isn’t talking about sex, but it could be construed as a conversation about sexual orientation.
And the bill never clarifies what “instruction” means. Is “instruction” everything a teacher says in the classroom? We likely won’t know until parents start suing teachers under this law, and the courts establish what constitutes “instruction” by a teacher vs. what is an organic conversation that acknowledges that gay and trans people exist in the world — and sometimes they are part of our families.
But that, of course, is the pernicious intent of bills such as these: to stigmatize and shame gay and transgender people under the guise of protecting children from inappropriate conversations about sex. There is a long and ugly history of tarring gay people as sexual predators. DeSantis and the law’s supporters are playing into this slur by conflating “sexual instruction” and any mention of LGBTQ people, and claiming they’re doing so to protect children.
The irony, of course, is that the people most likely to be hurt by this law are kids in Florida whose families look different from those of their classmates.