The Florida Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would prohibit “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s primary schools. The measure, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its opponents, was passed by the state House last month and now heads to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has previously expressed support for it.
“This is going to endanger the safety of our LGBTQ students and adolescents,” Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat, said during Tuesday’s debate. “We will not stop until this state moves forward and actually values everyone in it, everyone no matter their sexual orientation.”
The Parental Rights in Education bill, which was passed in both legislative bodies largely along party lines, has added fuel to the latest American culture war, which has put students in its crosshairs with a combination of book bans, Pride flag removals and bills targeting LGBTQ youth. The measure has even grabbed the attention of international newspapers, Hollywood actors and the White House.
Supporters of the bill say it’s about allowing parents to have control over their children’s education, while opponents say it unfairly targets the LGBTQ community.
“This bill says parents your right to raise your children does not end when they walk into a classroom. This bill recognizes that parents are not the enemy,” Republican Sen. Danny Burgess said ahead of the 22-17 vote on Tuesday. “The bill simply says that there should be an age limit on certain discussions, it’s not a new concept, nor is it radical.”
The measure bans “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade. It also prohibits such teaching “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students,” which critics say could be interpreted to extend to all grade levels. Parents can sue school districts for alleged violations.
In a tearful address to the Senate on Monday, Democrat Shevrin Jones, the first openly gay Florida state senator, urged his colleagues to narrow the bill’s language to say instruction should not be “intended to change a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
“I ask that you open up your hearts just a tad bit,” he said, noting the name-calling and shunning he had faced as a gay man. “Please, do no harm.”
Jones’ proposed amendment failed.
Last week, students across Florida staged school walkouts in protest against the bill, which they decried as the state’s latest measure to limit the rights of LGBTQ students.
“The language and the supporters of the bill and the rhetoric around the bill really shows what this bill is, and it’s an attempt to hurt queer people like me,” high school senior Jack Petocz said. Petocz, who organized the statewide protests through social media, told NBC News he was suspended “indefinitely” for distributing 200 Pride flags for the rally after having been advised not to do so by the principal.
The bill’s fate is now with DeSantis, who signaled his support for the measure for at least the second time when questioned by a reporter Monday.
“We’re going to make sure that parents are able to send their kid to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into their school curriculum,” he said.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona condemned the bill in a statement Tuesday. He said that parents are looking to national, state and district leaders to support students and help them recover from the pandemic by providing academic and mental health support.
“Instead, leaders in Florida are prioritizing hateful bills that hurt some of the students most in need,” Cardona said. “The Department of Education has made clear that all schools receiving federal funding must follow federal civil rights law, including Title IX’s protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We stand with our LGBTQ+ students in Florida and across the country, and urge Florida leaders to make sure all their students are protected and supported.”
If DeSantis signs the bill, it would go into effect July 1.
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Brooke Sopelsa is the editorial director of NBC Out, NBC News’ LGBTQ digital destination.
Tat Bellamy-Walker is the desk assistant for NBC News’ diversity verticals.