MIAMI — A bill that would ban lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity from some classrooms looks poised to become in law in Florida, the latest in a cavalcade of conservative legislation from state houses around the country that have targeted LGBTQ people and generated national backlash.
The legislation, which has both drawn the ire of liberal political figures and celebrities and cheers from conservatives, is the latest culture war blowup. In recent years, school officials and lawmakers in Republican-leaning states across the country have banned gender-affirming care, prohibited books with LGBTQ themes, and allowed parents to opt their children out of any lessons that mention sexual orientation or gender identity. On Tuesday, nearly identical legislation to Florida’s was introduced in the Georgia Senate.
Republican pollster Jon McHenry says such legislation taps into an issue that has rallied the GOP base in last year, which is that parents should have a say in school policies that affect their children, whether it’s teachings on race, mask mandates, or, now, discussion of sexual orientation.
“They are saying ‘we are supposed to raise them and the schools are supposed to help, not the other way around,’” he said.
But the efforts have caused fear and heartache for parents in states where these measures have passed — also where they haven’t.
“The LGBTQ community has often been used as a vehicle for organizing by the right wing. They love to attack us, to hate us, and to pass laws against us in order to organize conservatives to vote for them. This feels like déjà vu all over again,” said Arline Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts GLBTQ Political Caucus who led the fight for gay marriage on Beacon Hill. “It’s happened predominantly in other states. But it’s happened even here.”
In Florida, the Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” legislation by its opponents, bans “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade and prohibits the teaching of any lessons “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”
Parents who allege violations can sue school districts or take their concerns to the State Board of Education.
Governor Ron DeSantis has signaled he would sign the bill, which passed the Florida Senate mostly along party lines on Tuesday after passing the House last month.
Democrats say the Florida bill, which would go into effect July 1, will harm LGBTQ students.
“It’s frustrating and it’s disheartening,” South Florida Democrat Shevrin Jones, the first openly gay Florida state senator, told the Globe.
Republicans argue that it empowers parents with children in public schools, and say critics are misunderstanding the scope of the legislation.
“We are in the middle of a fundamental war in this country on education. It’s about whether children are subjects of government to be indoctrinated or whether government is subject of parents,” Representative Randy Fine, a cosponsor of the legislation in the House and chair of a committee that helps set the budget for K-12 education, told the Globe. “We are working very aggressively to get indoctrination out of schools. School should teach our kids how to read, how to write, history, math. They should not be in the business of social engineering or political ideology.”
During the floor debate on the bill Monday, Senator Dennis Baxley, the bill’s sponsor, said the bill would address conversations at school that he believes are the reason for an increasing number of children coming out as gay or transgender in school.
“Some of it, I’m sure, is part of a cultural shift of what’s accepted. But I know some of it is just the confusion that kids go through,” he said during the debate. “I know parents are very concerned about the departure from the core belief system and values.”
The state’s Department of Education would determine what constitutes an inappropriate lesson if the bill becomes law.
Alissa Jean Schafer, a mother of a 5-year-old who will enter public schools in the fall, said the new law adds “an extra layer of anxiety” to sending her child to school for the first time.
Schafer, a South Florida communications consultant and elected member of her local soil and water board, identifies as bisexual and worries about the repercussions in her daughter’s classroom if she starts dating a woman.
“It’s a scary time for parents and it’s a scary time for kids,” she said.
Jones, the South Florida Democratic state senator, filed amendments to narrow the bill without success, and said that this latest push is evidence that Republicans in states like Florida are catering to a base who support these types of bills.
“They don’t care about who they hurt,” said Jones, who gave an impassioned speech on the chamber floor. “Republicans are bulldozing their way through their agenda.”
Soon after the bill passed, US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote in a statement that “leaders in Florida are prioritizing hateful bills that hurt some of the students most in need.”
Arkansas last year barred doctors from administering gender affirming care to transgender minors and earlier this year in Texas, the governor called on the state agency that investigates child abuse to investigate families whose children seek such medical care.
Joe Saunders, who served as Florida’s first openly gay lawmaker, said the political climate since Donald Trump was elected has emboldened politicians to run further to the right, and is fueling the types of legislation being passed in states like his.
He helped lead the fight for marriage equality in the state, and was the lead sponsor of legislation that banned workplace discrimination against LGBTQ Floridians. Now, he said, the Republican party is more brazen and is being led by a governor who is seen as a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.
DeSantis came in second place behind Trump as the preferred presidential nominee in informal straw polls held during the last three consecutive Conservative Political Action Conferences, or CPAC.
“Florida has for a long time stood out as a beacon to the south as a place where there was a coalition of bipartisan support. That has really shifted under Ron DeSantis,” said Saunders, who is the now senior political director of advocacy group Equality Florida. “But as Florida goes, the country goes. . . . When our politics pivot off the far-right deep end, what that means for other states is very dire and very scary.”
Schafer, the South Florida mother, said she fears the ripple effects of the bill.
“We are all trying to do the best for our families, no matter what families look like,” she said. “Legislation like this is catering toward a really specific group of voters and galvanizing this hatred we are seeing nationally. Unfortunate is not a strong enough word.”