Is a teacher’s ability to mention sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom a threat to elementary school students or does it promote a full and inclusive educational experience? Americans are grappling with the question as initiatives progress in several states that would muzzle public school teachers on LGBTQ-related topics.
In Florida, a state legislative committee recently approved the Parental Rights Education Bill, which has the support of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. A portion of the bill that would ban discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in Florida public elementary schools has been denounced by LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and/or or queer).
“The bill is cynical — political in nature, designed to help right-wing politicians rally their base before the next election,” said Brandon Wolf, spokesperson for Equality Florida, one of the groups fighting against what some have dubbed the “Don’t Say”. “Gay” bill.
“But these political games also have real consequences for young people,” he added. “Policies like this cause social isolation for LGBTQ students and can lead to bullying and violence. LGBTQ children are four times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide before graduating from high school.
The Florida bill would need to clear several more legislative votes before DeSantis can sign it. Proponents say the initiative is misunderstood by some and misrepresented by others.
“There are so many false claims out there,” said Jay Richards, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank. “You have people saying the bill will ban conversations about homosexuality in school. That’s not true. It’s a ban on teachers discussing highly sexualized topics — borderline of pornography – to young children, and this ban is something that I hope we could all be behind.
A summary of the invoice displayed on the Florida House of Representatives website states that it “prohibits classroom discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity at certain grade levels” with no indication that the ban is limited to highly sexualized topics.
A version of the bill before the Florida Senate banned encouraging “classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in the elementary grades or in a manner that is not age or developmentally appropriate students”. The bill does not specify what is or is not age-appropriate, but it would allow parents to sue schools if they believe teachers are violating the ban.
Elementary school in the United States is divided into elementary (kindergarten through 4th through 7th grades) and middle school (4th through 7th through 8th and 9th grades) components. It’s unclear whether Florida’s legislation would apply to all elementary grades or just the early grades attended by younger children. A revised version of the bill to be introduced in the House deals more specifically with kindergarten to grade three education.
But as written, the House and Senate versions of the bill could eventually prevent public school students from learning about LGBTQ topics in the classroom until high school, where most students enter college. 15 years old.
LGBTQ activist Zack Ford of Washington’s Alliance for Justice said there was no reason to shield even the youngest students from the reality of the existence of sexual minorities.
“There are kindergarteners who understand that they are gay,” he said. “This bill could have the effect of censoring and isolating them, which makes school less safe for them. There is no age too young to understand queer (LGBTQ) identities. »
Not just in Florida
According to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the US states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas already have book laws prohibiting or restricting discussion of sexual orientation and sex. gender identity in public schools.
While recent years have seen the states of Alabama, Arizona, South Carolina and Utah repeal such laws, Florida is among at least eight states moving in the opposite direction. Separately, some school districts in the United States have seen parent-led campaigns to rid school libraries of LGBTQ-themed books.
Wolf of Equality Florida says it’s no coincidence that legislative efforts are popping up across the country at the same time.
“All of these anti-LGBTQ bills circulating in the United States originated from the same bigoted place,” he said. “They’re cooked up by anti-LGBTQ organizations outside of our states and then shipped to right-wing lawmakers in Florida and elsewhere.”
For the governor of Florida, it is a problem of students exposed to certain subjects without the consent of their parents.
“To get into situations where you’re hiding things from the parent, you’re injecting these concepts about choosing your gender — that’s just inappropriate for our schools,” DeSantis said earlier this month. “The biggest problem with all of this is that parents need to have a seat at the table when it comes to what’s going on in their schools.”
“What school doesn’t want parents involved?” Wolf replied. “But education is also a community effort. Teachers and administrators need to be able to share and conduct open dialogue with their students to be more effective for them. »
President Joe Biden weighed in on Twitter, calling Florida’s legislation a “hate bill” and saying he wants young LGTBQ people “to know that you are loved and accepted for who you are.”
“Teachers are not sexologists”
Some Americans doubt teachers’ ability to properly address sensitive topics of human sexuality at a delicate stage in students’ personal development.
“The teachers are not licensed sex therapists or mental health professionals,” Florida resident Hamlet Garcia told VOA. “I don’t want them teaching my children about sexuality. I want them to teach English, arts, math, science, social studies and other basic courses.
Critics of the Florida bill argue that its language is both sweeping and ambiguous.
“Can a queer teacher have a picture of their same-sex spouse on their desk? wondered Ford of the Alliance for Justice. “Can they keep their job if they cross (from one gender to another)? Wouldn’t that encourage the kind of discussion that this bill would prohibit?
Wolf of Equality Florida echoed that concern.
“What if a school asks students to introduce their families at a career day and a child has same-sex parents? Isn’t that encouraging class discussion? ” He asked. “What I fear we will eventually see happen is what we always see happening: schools will become more cautious lest they be sued by a parent who feels any discussion is too far.”
For some, the problem is personal.
“I was the only openly gay student at my school in the 1990s,” recalls Marcus Hopkins, a health policy consultant who grew up in socially conservative West Virginia. “I was always on the defensive and felt like I had to develop a tough, combative exterior. But for today’s students, school has become a much safer environment. … I’m afraid the policies currently being debated do not reverse these gains.
Some researchers echo the concern.
“LGBTQ youth face the unique mental health risks of forming a stigmatized identity in virtual isolation,” explained John Pachankis, director of the LGBTQ Mental Health Initiative at the Yale School of Public Health. “Laws that make this isolation and lack of acceptance more likely will almost certainly increase LGBTQ youth’s risk of depression, anxiety, and suicidality.”
Proponents of the Florida bill dispute any draconian intent or consequence stemming from the legislation.
“These are complicated questions, and we’re not trying to tell different communities where to draw the line between what is and what isn’t appropriate,” said Richards of the Heritage Foundation. “We just want parents to be involved.”