Jean Eckhoff has been teaching history to middle- and high-school students in Live Oak, Florida, for the past 17 years without any fuss about her sexuality. “It’s like ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” she says. “Everyone knows I’m gay, but as long as I don’t talk about it, it’s okay.” And the limit of her activism was “when I went to Pride in New York City.”
Under a bill proposed by Republicans in Florida, just saying those words could cost Eckhoff her job. “I feel targeted,” she says. “It would be very easy for a parent to say, ‘There’s my dyke teacher teaching my kid to be gay,’ and sue the school.”
Nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents, the legislation prohibits any discussion of LGBTQ+ sexuality or gender in the classroom and empowers parents to sue for violations. While “Don’t Say Gay” is a catchy phrase that’s had the intended effect of drawing attention to the bill, which is expected to be signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis any day now, the legislation is much worse than it sounds. “‘Don’t Say Gay’ has a ‘stickiness’ that helps it stay in people’s heads, but it doesn’t convey the full harm that this bill would cause,” says Ross Murray, the vice-president of the GLAAD Media Institute.
Ostensibly, HB 1557 is about protecting the rights of parents, which sounds laudable enough. But a close read of the text shows it to be an overly broad piece of legislation that requires school mental-health counselors to “out” LGBTQ+ children to their parents and makes any discussion of LGBTQ+ issues or identities practically forbidden because parents could start a state investigation and sue for damages any time they feel aggrieved. As a result, the bill endangers the lives of children who already suffer disproportionately high rates of houselessness and self-harm. Really, it’s the “Don’t Discuss Anything About Queer or Trans Existence and Don’t Counsel Trans or Gay Kids (Instead, You Must Out Them to Their Parents) or Else Parents Can Force a State Investigation of the School, Get Money Damages, and Probably Get You Fired” bill.
The bill’s broad language not only says “classroom instruction … on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3,” but it also bans such instruction “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” What does that mean? No one knows, but because the bill empowers parents to sue whenever they perceive a slight, anything is fair game.
Moreover, the preamble to the bill advocates “prohibiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner” (emphasis added). “Discussion” is much broader than “classroom instruction.” Eckhoff says that as a matter of professional boundaries, she does not discuss her sexual orientation in the classroom. “But a lot of these kids, they just knew. I once had a kid come out to me right in front of the whole class.” Now she’s worried she might lose her job if that happens again.
The provisions governing school counseling are even worse. The bill requires school boards to “adopt procedures for notifying a student’s parent if there is a change in the student’s services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being and the school’s ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student.” And no district could “prohibit school district personnel from notifying a parent about his or her student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.”
The principle here is that it is a parent’s absolute right to know such things about their children, but the consequences would be that counselors would have to violate confidentiality and out kids to their parents even if it would cause them to be rejected or thrown out of their homes. This is a massive, terrifying inversion of the responsibilities of a counselor. A trans kid who can’t talk about their gender identity at home, a closeted gay kid in a conservative Christian family — all public-school counselors would be required by law to out them to their parents, who may be unsupportive or abusive.
It’s also dangerous: According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, 22 percent of houseless youth are LGBTQ+ even though they account for just 7 percent of the overall population, and around half say they were thrown out of their homes by disapproving parents. LGBTQ+ kids are four times more likely to consider, plan, or attempt suicide than straight ones, according to studies conducted by the Trevor Project. “This puts kids at risk,” says Eckhoff. “As teachers, we aren’t going to be able to help them.”
So what happens if a teacher or counselor does help? That’s where the bill’s vigilante provisions kick in.
Taking a cue from recent laws targeting “critical race theory” (whatever that means to Republicans), HR 1557 empowers citizens to enforce its provisions. If one of Eckhoff’s students says she discussed gay marriage in class, the student’s parents can request that a special magistrate investigate the allegation — at the school’s expense — with the investigation to be submitted to the state’s board of education. Parents can also sue for damages and an injunction in court, again at the school district’s expense. All of this could be done on the basis of a rumor or allegation because there’s no provision barring frivolous complaints or requiring parents to pay for investigations that don’t bear fruit. The bill is a license to harass.
“This bill is a hot mess waiting to happen,” says Anita Hatcher, who has been an educator for 35 years and recently returned to her hometown in Jackson County to take care of her ailing mother. She now teaches sixth grade at the elementary school she attended in the 1970s. “I don’t think counties realize what’s going to fall on them legally with parents saying, ‘I didn’t like this — I’m going to sue the county at taxpayer expense.’”
Since no school district can be expected to afford these kinds of investigations or lawsuits, they would be forced to act preemptively. That might entail removing books from the library, instituting gag rules, ending discussions of sexual orientation in sex-ed classes, curtailing faculty advising of gay-straight alliances, and, without a doubt, barring LGBTQ+ teachers’ personal statements of any kind about themselves, their kids, or their families.
Ironically, Republicans, who normally chant the slogans of local control, centralized all of these investigative and oversight functions in the state bureaucracy. Schools and districts would be given no latitude to determine the appropriate policies for the populations they serve. All would be forced to comply with a state mandate handed down from above. But it’s not just ironic. As a result of these provisions, the bill would destroy Florida’s LGBTQ+-friendly school districts, such as Miami, which would face the impossible choice between hurting their own kids and financial ruin. At least in public schools, gay-friendly enclaves would be extinguished.
The debates around the bill have been a shocking throwback to the anti-gay crusades of the 1970s with conservatives casting gay people as child molesters and opponents of the bill as groomers of children to be gay or trans. DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw said in a tweet, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.””
“This bill empowers bigotry in the same spirit as we’ve seen anti-Semitic, anti-Black, anti-immigrant bigotry,” says Eckhoff. “It’s normalizing degradation.”
Still, Eckhoff says that if the bill becomes law, she won’t back down. “When I first saw the headline ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ I thought, I might lose my job over this,” she says. “But now I say, ‘Bring it on.’ I’m not asking for trouble, but I’m 52 years old — why should I play this game? I can’t go along with this. This is my life.”
Hatcher, who sent her transgender son to live with out-of-state relatives so he could go to school safely, was similarly defiant. “We should be promoting inclusion, compromise, understanding … This is the exact opposite of that. People have gone into the deep recesses of their fears, and fears breed prejudice.” But, she continued, “I’m going to go into my classroom, I’m gonna close my door, and I’m gonna do what’s right. You wanna drag me out? Fine. That’s where my moral and ethical principles are.”
But it wouldn’t really be up to principled teachers like Hatcher because the bill makes it financially impossible even for sympathetic school districts to defend her anywhere in the state. This bill isn’t about parental rights; if it were, it would be narrowly tailored, age-limited, and clear. It’s about eliminating any safe space for LGBTQ+ kids in the entire state — in no public school in Tampa or Miami or Fort Lauderdale or anywhere else would it be okay to be gay, trans, or simply open about oneself or one’s family. There is to be no school in the state where queer kids can get the counseling they need or at least be safe from being reported to their parents for trying.
This bill isn’t “Don’t Say Gay.” It’s don’t be gay or trans.
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