The new trend in American state legislature to limit discussion of LGBTQ+ people and issues in education has spiked concern among many. A Mississippi Mayor recently issued an ultimatum to the Madison Country Library to either remove all LGBTQ+ books or lose state funding while the Tennessee state legislature is currently reviewing a bill that would outright ban teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ issues in the state’s public schools.
Most recently, Florida State Senator Denis Braxely proposed "The Parental Rights in Education Act" - a bill that includes the following clause:
“A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”
Additionally, the bill states that if parents believe the above statement has been violated, they can take legal action against their school district. The bill has been dubbed the "Don’t Say Gay" bill by its critics because of its vague and potentially sweeping implications for facilitating discussions about LGBTQ+ issues in Florida schools. The bill, for example, never defines or outlines what "age" or "developmentally appropriate" means, leaving it up to the discretion of teachers, parents and school administrations. House bill analysis cites more specific instances in certain Florida counties where school districts are not required to disclose the sexual orientation of their students to parents. The bill, of course, implies that this is a parental right and that schools should be obliged to disclose information on personal orientation.
Critics have been quick to point out that for LGBTQ+ youth, a bill that bans the discussion of sexual orientation and gender could have dire consequences. Schools are not always safe places for LGBTQ+ youth as LGBTQ+ students are four times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide and, according to the Trevor Project, over half of LGBTQ+ middle and high schoolers have reported instances of bullying in school settings. Furthermore, the organisation reports that LGBTQ+ students who learn about issues relating to LGBTQ+ people in class are 23 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt.
Why, then, would the Florida State Senate propose a bill that seemingly would do so much harm to students who are already struggling? The bill has already garnered debate that plays neatly into the increasingly polarised politics of the United States. Florida Governor and 2024 Presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis has voiced early support for the bill, citing his belief in parental rights: "You have politicians saying parents have no rights in the education of their kids."
On the other hand, President Joe Biden clearly stated his opposition to the bill: "I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community –especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill – to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are".
The proposed Parental Rights in Education Act also plays into a more sinister discussion plaguing the United States where many Americans are convinced that publicly funded schools and places of education are indoctrinating children and students with liberal values, making them "radical leftists". Within this debate, being and identifying as LBGTQ+ has, unfortunately, been characterised as a potential outcome of liberal education. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that Senator Ron DeSantis and other Republican politicians have indicated their support for the bill. Ultimately, Republican politicians are using legislation that harms LGBTQ+ youth to appeal to an aging voter base that believes that parents are losing control of their children’s education because of liberal values.
Political strategy aside, it is important to acknowledge who this bill will hurt. With the progression of the bill and others like it, students are made pawns in a damaging partisan political debate. The lives of LGBTQ+ peers should not be turned into political strategy.