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LGBTQ+ parents fear the impacts of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

Vague language in Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill leaves LGBTQ+ parents worried their children will be stifled.

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Governor Ron DeSantis speaking with attendees at the 2021 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida. (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons) [CC BY-SA 2.0]

This story was originally published by The 19th

The most important thing in Janelle Perez’s life is her family. “My wife is amazing. My [older daughter] is an incredible little girl. She’s so smart. And she’s so proud to have two mommies,” Perez said. 

Her family is one of thousands in Florida potentially impacted by the Parental Rights in Education Act, nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by LGBTQ+ advocates. The bill’s vague language has caused some LGBTQ+ parents to worry that their children will be stifled, unable to talk about their families at school like other kids do. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law on Monday.

The bill states that instruction of “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.” It does not define “age-appropriate” or “developmentally appropriate.” Parents are allowed to sue school districts for anything they feel may violate the law. 

“If our kids aren’t allowed to talk about their families, it’s basically saying [our families] are less-than,” said Dan VanTice, a father living in Jacksonville. VanTice and his husband, Brent, have two 7-year-old sons. “It’s ironic that it’s called a parental rights bill. I’m a parent and I have rights and my family has rights. But those rights are the ones that the bill is trying to diminish and eliminate,” he continued.

VanTice is worried that children, including his sons, might effectively be barred from normal school activities like drawing pictures of family or writing assignments about what they did with their family over summer vacation — all possible situations within the expansive bill language. “When kids are young, their families are their whole world,” he told The 19th. 

Perez shared VanTice’s concerns. 

“My daughter’s school sends updates and pictures of what they’re doing throughout the day. And when I opened the phone, it was a picture of my daughter with the biggest smile on her face and a drawing [of our family] that she drew. It said ‘I love my family,’” she told The 19th. 

DeSantis has not only framed the bill as a matter of parental rights, but as a way to protect kids. DeSantis’s press secretary, Christine Pushaw, described it as an “anti-grooming bill” on Twitter.

“For kindergarteners or first graders or second graders, the classroom instruction they’re getting should not be involving sexuality… If you’re protesting this law, you’re in favor of injecting sexual instruction into 5-, 6- and 7-year-old kids,” DeSantis recently told WPTV

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Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, believes that kind of rhetoric is dangerous. She objects to the idea that there is something inherently sexual around discussing LGBTQ+ issues with children or that it is somehow predatory.  

“There’s a long history of invoking the ugly stereotype,” she told The 19th. “In the 1970s and 1980s, it lead to the passage of laws in Florida banning gay people from adopting their own children, children they were already raising … We can’t take it lightly when the governor’s office implies we’re pedophiles. That’s rhetoric just before they start coming for our children,” said Smith, the parent of a fourth grader.

Smith also expressed concern for how teachers would be required to respond to children with LGBTQ+ parents. 

“If a child has two moms and the teacher says ‘yeah, we’re not going to talk about that, that’s a conversation you need to have with your parents,’ everything changes. The message every child who hears that gets is ‘there’s something wrong with my family here. Something sinister. I can’t even talk to my teacher,’” she said. 

LGBTQ+ parents have been contacting Equality Florida with concerns since the bill was first proposed. “The most common worry from parents has been about how so much instruction in class is about family. Draw a picture of your family. Write about your summer vacation. These are realistic concerns because there’s no definition of ‘classroom instruction’ in the bill,” she told The 19th. 

“Parents understand what it is. It’s intended to stigmatize LGBTQ+ young people. It’s intended to demean LGBTQ+ families. And it’s intended to erase anything that affirms the existence of LGBTQ+ people,” she told The 19th. She has also heard concerns from other parents in her personal life. “We’re not the only lesbian parents at my son’s school,” Smith said. 

Smith said the organization is prepared to take swift legal action when the bill is signed into law. Equality Florida is preparing a legal defense fund to defend school districts from expected lawsuits. 

Smith also had advice for LGBTQ+ parents: “Be more involved in your school districts than you have ever been before. Document any instance where a school fails to meet their obligation safeguarding your child.” 

The 19th is an independent, nonprofit newsroom reporting at the intersection of gender, politics and policy.

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Sara Luterman is our caregiving reporter. She is based outside Washington, D.C. Prior to The 19th, she worked as a freelancer covering disability policy, politics and culture for publications including The Nation, The American Prospect and Vox. Her reporting in The Nation was shortlisted for the 2021 Deadline Club Mosaic Award, which recognizes excellence in “coverage of disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, social justice, equity and inclusion.” Most recently, Sara became a contributing editor for Radiolab.

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