Florida prevents LGBTQ discussion in schools

Similar legislation proposed in Illinois

It was not until his middle school English teacher exposed him to queer-focused novels that junior Paul Wallace could approach a conversation with his parents about his sexual identity.  

“If it weren’t for education, I can’t imagine how [different] my life would be,” Wallace said.

While conversations on sexual identity take place in Illinois schools, other areas of the country are currently facing laws that restrict this dialogue in classrooms.

In March, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis signed into law the Parental Rights in Education bill, nicknamed the ‘‘Don’t Say Gay’’ bill by those opposed to the law. In part, the bill states that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” 

According to a filed complaint, interest groups have asked a court to rule that this state law violates multiple U.S. constitutional principles, including free speech and freedom of expression.

Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida, the leading plaintiff group, said in an email correspondence that the “or” statement of the bill restricts the instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity through 12th grade.

Other provisions are also left unclear by the ambiguity of the bill’s language, Wolf said.  

“Because the law is vaguely and broadly written, the door is left open for parents to sue schools over perceived violations,” said Wolf. “Could that mean a parent taking legal action if a teacher affirms the value of an LGBTQ parent? Or if a book is read that contains LGBTQ characters? Very possibly.”

The threat of legal recourse is causing chilling effects around the state, Wolf said. 

“Books [are] being preemptively banned, rainbow ‘safe space’ stickers [are] being peeled from windows and teachers [are] being asked to remove signage that calls for treating one another with respect,” Wolf said. 

Psychotherapist Heather Zayde, who specializes in issues related to gender and sexuality in youth, said in a phone interview that LGBTQ youth are already subject to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal behaviors.

The bill could increase the prevalence of these issues, Zayde said.

“Silencing a kid [from] being able to talk about [LGBTQ topics] is going to make them feel like they don’t belong or like their family doesn’t belong, and that is incredibly dangerous,” Zayde said. 

According to Wallace, a member of the GSA club at Glenbrook North, GSA focuses on advocating and discussing topics that affect the LGBTQ community.

“[The passing of the Florida bill] made me realize that spaces like GSA where people can talk openly about the issues facing them are not something that can be taken for granted,” Wallace said. 

In Illinois last February, House Bills 5239, 5505 and 5344, which purportedly aim to increase transparency between curriculum and parents, were introduced to the Illinois legislature. All three bills have since been stalled. 

Jonathan Carroll, state representative from the 57th district of Illinois, said in a phone interview that transparency between parents and their child’s curriculum is important on the surface level, but these bills seem to ensure that control over curriculum is left to local communities.

“There’s no doubt that I’m an involved parent,” said Carroll. “With that being said, sometimes these types of bills are filed under the pretense of, ‘Oh, we want to be involved ineducation,’ but then it goes a step further to try and to restrict certain things that are learned in a classroom.”

There are LGBTQ people in the community who have made great strides in the world, but students still need an education on the diversity around them, Carroll said. 

“I think that’s what makes us educated people,” said Carroll. “But when you want to shut out a certain school of thought because it doesn’t jive with what you believe, that’s a very dangerous precedent.”

According to Wolf, the Florida bill will have impacts beyond just the changes in curriculum.

“The bill invokes a chilling effect that will force teachers into the closet, erase LGBTQ parents and families and stigmatize and silence LGBTQ students,” Wolf said.