Florida's Law Restricting LGBTQ Discussion Will Harm All ChildrenRoundup
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, Florida, culture war, teaching history, LGBTQ history
Marie-Amélie George is a legal historian and assistant professor at Wake Forest University School of Law.
Florida made headlines in late February when its House of Representatives approved a bill that critics have dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill. On Tuesday, the state Senate followed and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has indicated that he will sign the law, officially titled the Parental Rights in Education bill, which limits discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3. The bill also encourages parents to sue schools and educators that address these topics.
The proposal has sparked protests. Critics fear the law will become a de facto ban on teaching LGBTQ history and will prevent educators from addressing queer identity in schools. That concern is well-grounded, given that religious conservatives have spent almost five decades trying to limit what children can learn about same-sex sexuality. This history reveals just how harmful the ban would be for Florida students — LGBTQ and straight.
The gay rights movement that gained steam throughout the 1970s provoked a fierce backlash from religious conservatives. In 1978, schools became the focus of the religious right’s efforts to curtail gay rights and address the perceived threat of same-sex sexuality. That year, California state Sen. John Briggs (R) sponsored a statewide ballot proposition that would have prohibited public schools from employing people who engaged in “public homosexual conduct” or “advocate[d]” for homosexuality. Briggs maintained that his purpose was to prevent educators from “teaching lifestyles” or “encourag[ing] a youngster to commit a homosexual act.” Briggs’s much-publicized effort failed, arousing opposition even from former governor and presidential aspirant Ronald Reagan.
Yet with much less fanfare, Oklahoma enacted a similar law that same year, indicating the potential for such efforts to succeed — especially ones that stuck to material taught in schools, not teachers’ personal lives.
In the 1980s, therefore, religious conservatives shifted their attention from teachers to curricular policy. They succeeded in convincing school boards to frame same-sex sexuality as deviant and LGBTQ individuals as diseased. Alabama and Texas began requiring schools to teach that homosexuality was an unacceptable lifestyle and a criminal offense. Other states took more circuitous yet no less damaging approaches by introducing an abstinence-only curriculum that framed homosexuality in the context of AIDS. One of the most popular abstinence programs during this period, “Sex Respect,” identified the AIDS epidemic as “nature’s way of ‘making some kind of comment on sexual behavior.’ ”
The impact of such curriculums was devastating — even deadly — for queer youths. Such lessons taught these students shame, guilt and rejection. LGBTQ teens suffered from so much verbal harassment and physical abuse at the hands of their classmates that many abused alcohol and drugs; some even dropped out of school.
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