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Florida’s crackdown on LGBTQ issues in schools is getting worse

Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration and the GOP-led legislature are working to expand the reach of the so-called "Don't Say Gay" law.

It should come as no surprise to longtime readers that Florida legislators are moving to expand the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law far beyond its original framework. Three bills have been introduced in the Legislature that would further restrict the ability of schools to teach students about sex and gender. And a new rule under consideration at the State Board of Education would block classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity for students all the way through 12th grade.

Any or all of these changes could come into force in the near future. Republicans dominate the Legislature in Florida. And Gov. Ron DeSantis has every incentive to continue his pre-presidential-run efforts to lock down the “concerned parent” vote. But it’s galling that the GOP had the nerve to pretend for over a year that this expanded crackdown on LGBTQ students and teachers wasn’t always the plan.

When they were strong-arming the “Parental Rights in Education Act” through the Legislature last year, Republicans presented it as necessary to prevent teaching children up to third grade about subjects they couldn’t handle at such a young age. DeSantis, ahead of signing the bill, specifically referred to kindergartners’ being taught “they can be whatever they want to be” as a justification for the measure. Older students, meanwhile, have been covered by a ban on materials that are “not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

It’s galling that the GOP had the nerve to pretend for over a year that this expanded crackdown on LGBTQ students and teachers wasn’t always the plan.

Now Florida Republicans want to widen these restrictions with a slew of changes. One bill under consideration in the House would require schools to teach “that sex is determined by biology and reproductive function at birth; that biological males impregnate biological females by fertilizing the female egg with male sperm; that the female then gestates the offspring; and that these reproductive roles are binary, stable, and unchangeable.”

The Senate version of that bill, which passed the Education Pre-K-12 Committee this week, would also bar teachers from calling students by any pronoun different from the one assigned at birth and “require every public K-12 school to have a policy that says it is ‘false’ to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to their assigned sex,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.

But the more immediate threat comes from a proposed rule before the State Board of Education, which would revise its Principles of Professional Conduct for educators. The update would mandate that Florida teachers “shall not intentionally provide classroom instruction to students in grades 4 through 12 on sexual orientation or gender identity unless such instruction is either expressly required by state academic standards … or is part of a reproductive health course or health lesson for which a student’s parent has the option to have his or her student not attend.”

According to the draft posted online, the proposed rule comes courtesy of Randy Kosec Jr., the chief of the Education Department’s Office of Professional Practical Services. The office “investigates alleged misconduct by educators in Florida” and “pursues disciplinary actions against the certificates of educators found to have committed acts of misconduct.” It’s also the DeSantis administration’s instrument of choice for enforcing the “Don’t Say Gay” law, as it can strip an educator’s teaching certificate in the event of a violation.

Last month, the State Board of Education voted to update those same principles to punish teachers if parents aren’t notified of a student’s change in preferred pronouns or bathrooms absent a clear indication that “abuse, abandonment, or neglect” would follow. The principles also are the mechanism for enforcing the state board’s similarly chilling “anti-critical race theory” provisions passed in 2021, threatening teachers who promote the idea that a “person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

With both the anti-CRT push and the muzzling of LGBTQ topics, the vagaries in the rules are purposeful. It’s clear exactly who can —and will — be punished for violating these rules, but despite the original bill’s nickname, there are no explicit provisions blocking teachers from saying “gay” or any other rules that could be challenged as discriminatory. Administrators were left grappling with the changes at the start of the school year, and teachers are choosing to self-censor rather than risk disciplinary action.

As with the anti-trans rights bills that are plaguing state legislatures around the country, the original argument in Florida was that the bill was narrowly crafted to alleviate specific parental concerns. Republicans perpetrated a rhetorical bait-and-switch, well aware that those concerns are being purposefully hyped into a moral panic.

DeSantis and his administration don’t care about the harm they are inflicting with their changes.

Advocates, activists, LGBTQ teachers and LGBTQ parents alike have all been warning that this is exactly what would happen. There was never going to be a moment when the first bill’s success would satiate the bigots and opportunists who supported it. Into that small crack, a deluge of hate is allowed to flow, one that erodes rights and freedoms in bits and pieces. Conservatives’ success has only bred a desire to see just how far the LGBTQ rights movement can be rolled back.

As this loathsome campaign continues, DeSantis and his administration don’t care about the harm they are inflicting with their changes. They don’t care for the kids they claim to be protecting from indoctrination through the ostracizing of their peers. They don’t care about the teachers who are left trying to educate their students in a way that lets them lead full and happy lives and will be forced to bite their tongues instead.

I challenge DeSantis to show me one student who materially benefits from an expanded “Don’t Say Gay” law, one student who will somehow cease to feel scared at school. I would like to meet that student and ask what lesson was learned through all this that makes it all worth it. Because it seems to me that instead of teaching tolerance and inclusion, Florida is dead set on making schools a place where discrimination goes unchallenged.