Experts believe Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' law could loom over schools for years

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Staff in Florida schools face legal jeopardy, attention from hate groups, and demonization from conservatives if they show support for LGBTQ children.

A school board resolution that would have expressed support for LGBTQ students in one of the largest school districts in the country was voted down last week, in a move that observers say underscores how, in the current political environment, school officials are facing pressure from the anti-LGBTQ right.

Lucia Baez-Geller, a member of the board of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, introduced a resolution this month calling on the board to recognize October as LGBTQ history month and to provide 12th grade social studies teachers with curriculum resources about Supreme Court cases that affirmed same-sex couples' right to marry and banned discrimination against LGBTQ employees.

The board rejected the resolution on Sept. 8, as parents at the meeting threatened to sue and members of the right-wing Proud Boys militia group protested outside, even though it had approved a similar measure last year.

Experts on education and right-wing movements tell the American Independent Foundation that Florida's Parental Rights in Education legislation, also referred to as "Don't Say Gay," which was signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in March, has had a chilling effect on how gender and sexuality can be taught in schools. They said the law could have consequences for Florida public education for years to come as more right-wing candidates are elected to school boards.

Parental Rights in Education prohibits classroom instruction about gender and sexuality in kindergarten through 3rd grade classes and significantly limits it in the 4th through the 12th grades. However, Florida Public Radio station WFSU reports that the law's vague wording and provision allowing parents to sue schools have already caused school officials in the state to limit or ban such forms of expression as stickers in support of LGBTQ people; photos of teachers' same-sex spouses; mentions of sexuality in classroom discussions of LGBTQ figures; and books containing LGBTQ-related content.

Scott Galvin, the executive director of the organization Safe Schools South Florida, told the American Independent Foundation he believes the intention of the law was to apply the ban to all grades, which became clear when parents at the Miami-Dade school board meeting threatened to sue.

Despite the vote, Baez-Geller remains committed to supporting LGBTQ students.

"I am confident that the vast majority of our community members reject the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, and the politics of division," she said on Twitter. "Although we are disappointed by the outcome, we must not be disheartened. We will continue to advocate for our students, support our marginalized populations, and create a safe space for each and every student across our district."

LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida issued a statement over the weekend in which the group's senior political director, Joe Saunders, blasted the vote, saying: "We are shocked and alarmed to see this reversal from the Miami-Dade School Board. This is a horrible signal to send to the thousands of LGBTQ youth in Miami-Dade County public schools. Voting down this simple recognition of our LGBTQ community makes our schools less safe."

Apart from threats of legal action, school board members have also faced intimidation by members of the Proud Boys, which is designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In a video published to Twitter by an account called Miami Against Fascism, one Proud Boy is seen approaching a person holding a transgender pride flag and saying, "Get that gay shit outta here," making a white power hand sign, and then calling the person "f**got."

Cassie Miller, an expert on hate groups at the SPLC, wrote that over the past six months the Proud Boys have developed a targeted campaign of transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny, and she linked the evolution in their tactics to an increasingly militant anti-LGBTQ movement within the GOP, reflected in anti-trans legislation and the overturning of Roe v Wade. The New York Times reported last year that the group is focusing more closely on local politics, including attending school board meetings.

"So as the more extreme parts of the GOP have embraced an anti-LGBTQ agenda, the Proud Boys have focused their efforts on the same fight," Miller told the American Independent Foundation. "While the GOP concentrates on legislation, the Proud Boys are showing up at school boards and city council meetings to intimidate people who oppose the anti-LGBTQ agenda and empower those who embrace more extreme positions."

Politico noted last month that 20 of 30 school board candidates endorsed by DeSantis had won their elections, shifting the politics of education in the state to the right for at least the next few years, including in Miami-Dade County.

As the right's anti-LGBTQ agenda gains steam, Galvin said he is concerned for the future of LGBTQ students in schools.

"It's going to get worse before it gets better," he said. "The kids who are in high school now have never known a world in which gay marriage wasn't legal. They assume that equality is something they've known that it'll always be that way. It's a dark day for LGBT kids – and adults."

He added that, due to the pandemic, advocates have already made a shift to supporting LGBTQ students via the internet.

During the COVID shutdowns kids connected without going into schools. We beefed up social media and started YouTube shows, we gathered private emails. Ironically, lots of those things are going to pay dividends now. We hosted a GSA Zoom last week, from different schools. The school board cannot stop that. It can't stop them interacting digitally or outside the school building. That is where we are prepared to go in the worst case scenario, and I think that's where they're going to go.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.