Protesters denounce Florida bill to ban discussion of sexuality and gender in schools

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Wearing a flag in shades of teal and sea-foam green depicting gay men, Rey Arcenas shouted into a megaphone: “This legislation is going to kill gay youth.”

Arcenas, 19, a freshman in history and philosophy at the University of Florida, spoke just before a crowd of 150 began a protest march in Gainesville on Sunday against state legislation dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” bills by LGBTQ activists.

“If you’re queer – and you probably are if you’re here – or if you care about a queer person in your life, we’re calling you right now,” he told University Avenue and 13th Street.

“Coming out of the closet,” shouted Arcenas, from Sebring, Highland County.

“Into the streets,” the crowd shouted in response.

Supporters say bills HB 1557 and SB 1834 aim to strengthen parents’ rights in education. They would ban discussion of sexuality and gender identity in elementary schools and prevent its encouragement in all schools in a manner deemed not “age-appropriate”.

The bills would also mandate parental notification of anything relating to the mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being of their children — a measure that some fear school staff will “report” LGBTQ+ students to. their parents.

Led by members of Take Action Florida, UF Young Democratic Socialists, Students for Justice in Palestine and the local chapter of Planned Parenthood, protesters marched to Cora P. Roberson Park to declare that the bills would negatively affect LGBTQ+ people.

UF student Tessa Sun holds a sign protesting the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill during the march in Gainesville on Sunday. “This bill is trying to prevent things that don’t even really happen, because it’s not like I learned about sexuality and gender identity in school,” Sun said. (Alan Halaly/WUFT News)

Buchholz High School English teacher Kendra Vincent, faculty sponsor of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, told WUFT News that she’s watched LGBTQ+ inclusion flourish in her career. throughout Alachua County. She recently attended a district workshop for alliance sponsors and can now leave an “AKA” list to help substitute teachers avoid calling transgender children the wrong name.

Vincent said she fears school districts will be required or feel pressured to shut down inclusion efforts if the legislation is passed.

“Students need more support, more protection and more love,” she said. “Our supposed reps tell them their love is shameful.”

Activists drew comparisons with Laws “no gay promo” that legislators in the 1980s and 1990s created across the country when HIV/AIDS emerged. Except for any discussion of LGBTQ+ people or issues, these laws still exist in four states.

Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), co-sponsor of the Florida bill, was criticized last year for sponsoring another bill that proposed Bright Futures Funding Limits.

“Our students belong to families and are not wards of the state,” Baxley wrote in an email regarding the pending bill. “Parents need to decide what content is age-appropriate for their children.”

Rep. Joe Harding (R-Williston), a co-sponsor, did not respond to requests for comment.

During the march, 22-year-old Tessa Sun, a senior UF materials engineer from Palm Beach County, held a sign with the transgender flag reading “Stand up for trans youth.” Sun said she wished transgender people were included in the sex education curriculum when she was in elementary school.

“I could count on one hand how many queer people there were in my high school,” Sun said. “If only they could tell me what a trans person was in sixth grade so I didn’t have to find out on the internet on my own.”

Brandon Wolf, of Orlando, is the spokesperson for Equality Florida, a statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy group that lobbies against nearly 100 bills per legislative session. He said that only one anti-LGBTQ+ bill in recent memory has become law in Florida: ban transgender girls from playing sports on girls’ teams. The bill was initially rejected, but later passed. Wolf said it taught him never to take small wins for granted.

“This kind of otherness of LGBTQ people is at the heart of the homophobia and transphobia that have been used to justify violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people since the dawn of time,” he said.

Wolf said such bills reflect an offer from Governor Ron DeSantis to lay the groundwork for a presidential race in 2024. However, Wolf said, the bills are no less divisive than more blatant homophobic and transphobic laws throughout US history.

“Although it has new packaging… (and) politically correct language around it, it’s the same old bigotry with a new coat of paint,” he said.

Conservative lobbyists have also latched onto the controversial bill.

John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, said the bill should be more aptly named the “Don’t Turn My Son Into A Daughter” bill. Stemberger referred to a lawsuit in which a Jacksonville school withheld information from father about her daughter’s gender dysphoria. The father first heard about it when the student tried to hang herself.

Stemberger said he doesn’t mind if conversations about identity are student-led, saying limiting student-to-student discussions will become a free speech issue. The problem arises when teachers and staff try to intervene, he said.

“What we’re looking to do is empower parents to be more involved in knowing what’s going on in their children’s lives,” Stemberger said.

It remains unclear how the Florida Department of Education would ask school districts to enforce the law if it passes.

Cassie Palelis, spokeswoman for Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, said it was too early to comment on how the department would instruct schools. On the contrary, she wrote in an email, parents continue to play the most important role in a child’s upbringing.

“Schools should work with parents as a partnership in a child’s education, and not hide issues from parents or interfere with the parent-child relationship,” Palelis said.

Alachua County Public Schools spokeswoman Jackie Johnson said the legislation’s big concern is for the well-being of LGBTQ+ students: “The state has already intervened in a very controversial area. Once again, school districts are going to be caught in the middle of this.

Marion County School Board Chairman Eric Cummings said he expects people from all political persuasions to have strong opinions about the implementation. Conversations about LGBTQ+ student issues are uncomfortable but necessary, he said.

“These kids aren’t going anywhere, whether they’re straight, gay, trans or whatever,” Cummings said. “We have to learn to live in the world we find ourselves in, instead of trying to get everyone to comply with different things and do it within the law.”

Protesters brought a cardboard cutout of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis with them to Cora P. Roberson Park during their march on Sunday. Some of the protesters said DeSantis supported ‘Don’t Say Gay’ legislation as a way for him to leverage a 2024 presidential election. (Alan Halaly/WUFT News)

The negative impacts of revealing a student’s sexuality or gender identity to their parents are well-documented in academic research, said Luke Harness, a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in counseling and school counseling education at the UF. He said that all accredited and licensed counselors in Florida are forced to take a course in human sexuality.

Harness, who identifies as gay, said an official “exit” policy would drive many counselors out of public schools. It would also increase rates of LGBTQ+ homelessness and create mental health issues that could lead to other issues like addiction and suicide, he said.

“We need to allow them to explore all facets of their identity — including their LGBT identity, their racial identity, or their cultural identity,” Harness said. “There needs to be a way for all children to explore all facets of their identity so they can grow into wonderful, amazing functioning adults in society.”

Education organizations statewide are also concerned about the bill’s impact on families.

Daniela Mcvea-Smith, senior community health educator at Planned Parenthood of South East and North Florida, said she wasn’t sure if the legislation would prevent staff from mentioning sexual orientation and gender identity in a public school. .

Mcvea-Smith expressed concern about how the bill could affect sex education efforts, for which inclusion standards already vary widely from district to district. New inclusiveness efforts like LGBTQ+ History Month in Broward County could no longer exist, she fears.

“Nobody is looking after these kids,” Mcvea-Smith said. “These kids may have questions or concerns and have nowhere to go.”

Regina Livingston, founder of Unspoken Treasure Society, a Gainesville-based LGBTQ+ resource center, said she recently traveled to Tallahassee with Equality Florida to meet lawmakers in person. She wonders why lawmakers continue to target her and her peers.

“They go to the bottom of the barrel, which is LGBTQIA,” Livingston said. “(They) bypass guns, drugs, the biggest things that… keep America apart. They bypass all that to disturb the LGBTQIA community.

A transgender woman of color who frequently works with LGBTQ+ youth in North Central Florida, Livingston, 49, said the bill would be harmful to young people in her community.

“Can you imagine what could happen?” she says. “…It’s like a kick in the face for the work we’ve done just so LGBTQIA youth can just be comfortable in their own skin.”

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