Unleashing Hate in Our Schools: Florida's "Don't Say Gay" anti-LGBTQ+ bill is a chilling affront to teachers and students alike.

AuthorPerry, Amber

Michael Woods, a special education teacher in Palm Beach County, Florida, remembers how it felt to be bullied as a child, trying to survive day-to-day in school. His career path sprang from a desire to be like the teachers who supported him during that time in his life and cultivated a welcoming environment in the classroom.

Woods wasn't openly gay until he was thirty-one. At the school where he worked, he told only a few colleagues.

"Even then I thought, you know, what happens if this gets out? Can I get fired?" he says. "Some people are accepting of all people. And some people aren't. And I didn't want anything to impact what people thought of me as an awesome teacher."

In March, Florida enacted a bill restricting the discussion of certain topics in the state's public schools. The "Parental Rights in Education Act," as it is officially named, is better known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill. And it is part of an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation cropping up around the country that, for Woods, reaffirms the importance of being unabashedly open about his sexual orientation.

"I have this term, it's called an 'upstander,' Woods says. "I'm like, 'You have to be an upstander. You have to start living your life and not be afraid. Because if you don't, who's going to do it for you?' "

Passed by Florida's GOP-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, the law does not take effect until July 1. But already, Woods and others say, it is instilling fear in teachers at all grade levels. For queer teachers especially, casual conversations that arise with students--such as disclosing innocent weekend activities that just so happen to be with a same-sex partner--are now a potentially fireable offense. Even discussing a child's LGBTQ+ parents could be in violation of this law.

The bill is vaguely written, giving legislators arbitrary power and leaving teachers in the dark on what the law prohibits. It bans classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, adding that it "is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students" to discuss these matters, creating potential impacts for classrooms with older students.

"The law is clearly designed to have a chilling effect," says Sean Cahill, a political scientist and the director of health policy research at the Fenway Institute, an organization committed to LGBTQ+ health. "It's [meant] to make it so that teachers and school staff will not want to go near these issues with a tenfoot pole."

Outside of teaching, Woods has previously served as a sponsor for his school's Genders & Sexualities Alliance (formerly Gay-Straight Alliance). GSA clubs are student-run organizations that serve as a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth and their allies. As a sponsor, Woods has talked a lot about intent versus impact. He applies that framework to the Florida law.

"The intent, according to the governor and legislature, is to protect students by handing over more parental rights," Woods says. "But the impact is far-reaching. Because it's so vague, nobody really understands what it is."

When DeSantis signed the "Don't Say Gay" bill into law, a...

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