Jennifer Koslow said her son started to feel sad in fourth grade.
He didn’t know why. He couldn’t find the words to describe how he felt.
Assigned female at birth, when class was separated by boys and girls for sex education lessons, things didn’t feel right to him.
Eventually, he spoke to his friends at school about his gender identity. His parents contacted school administrators, who offered support and looped in his six middle school teachers. By eighth grade, he officially changed his pronouns to he/him with Leon County Schools.
A new potential state law, however, would have changed the trajectory of her son’s happiness, Koslow believes.
A bill nicknamed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics is moving through the Florida Legislature and could become law this summer.
The measures seek to ban discussions surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. It would also give parents the power to sue violators.
Supporters say the House bill (HB1557) will regulate discussions about LGBTQ identity, empowering parents to lead and be involved in those conversations. But critics say schools are sometimes the only safe place for some LGBTQ youth and that the legislation would hurt kids who aren’t ready to come out to their parents yet or feel unsupported.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Joe Harding, R-Williston, who said the bill won’t stop conversations about identity altogether, but rather, guarantee that school personnel can’t make decisions regarding a student’s health without involving parents.
Vague in language, the bill, if passed, could raise legal issues. Some legal experts say it opens floodgates both for parents who want to protect their children’s rights to discuss their identity as well as for parents who are upset about sexual orientation discussions happening at all.
The bill says it gives parents more rights and control over their children’s education. But for Koslow, it does the opposite. She needs the district to discuss gender identity in the classroom so her child doesn’t get bullied.
“If the school district cannot talk about gender identity and sexual orientation, it gives a message to every student in that school system that it is wrong and shameful,” Koslow, a college history professor in Tallahassee, said.
Mental health experts worry about the bill’s impact on LGBTQ youth
Jeanine Hoff works with a third-party crisis response team that assesses children who are suicidal or at-risk for self-harm within Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville. She also runs the nonprofit, Where is the Sunshine?, which focuses on mental health and suicide prevention through peer support advocacy and education.
Hoff says many of the young people assessed by crisis teams and inpatient mental health facilities that identify as LGBTQ, gender nonbinary or non-conforming look to schools as their safe space.
“These students often share that they aren’t ready to discuss their identity with their families or have already been rejected by them,” Hoff said. “Just being able to speak to a school counselor or even seeing the ‘All In’ badge [indicating a classroom is a safe space] has provided these students some semblance of safety and belonging.”
LGBTQ and mental health advocates say that if passed, the provisions could silence important conversations about identity within the classroom out of fear of violating the law’s vague terms, They also worry that the law could result in declining mental health and even higher rates of youth suicide.
A report conducted by The Trevor Project last year said that 42 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth. BIPOC LGBTQ+ youth made up the highest percentage of those who attempted suicide compared to white youth.
GeeXella, a Black and Latinx artist and educator who is nonbinary and originally from Jacksonville, Florida, said the bill is dangerous for youth who are still discovering themselves.
“It tightens the little room that LGBTQ youth are already feeling,” they said. “I know I already felt out of place as a youth being from a Black and Mexican home and in a predominantly white institution. To think now I wouldn’t even be able to be my queer self just strips away so much safety and care that youth deserve to feel in school.”
As it stands, the proposed bill says that school districts can’t “encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”
But age- or developmentally appropriate discussion is not defined in the bill.
When asked during committee questioning last month about where this law could leave young people who don’t feel comfortable turning to their family, Harding said the bill includes a section that allows schools to withhold information from parents “if a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect.”
“What we don’t want is for the school district to be taking on the role of the parent, because they’re not,” he said.
Protests against the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill crop up across Florida
Twenty or so people gathered in Naples last week at an impromptu protest to rally against the bill.
Jenna Everts of Naples showed up at the event hosted by Naples Pride with her husband and two young children to voice their opinion and concern.
“We want them to grow up and learn in a safe environment that supports diversity. I feel like this bill is against those ideas,” Everts said. “My children are still so young, so I have no idea what their sexual or gender orientations are, and I do not care. But I think it is important to stand up for all kids who are already in the LGBTQ community, and this bill could make them feel very unsafe.”
As the group marched around the downtown area, surrounded by busy restaurants, they were met with mixed responses, some yelling at them to go home, while others cheered in support.
In Broward County, Safe Schools South Florida hosted a rally at the local Pride Center where more than 100 community members gathered to oppose the bill.
“It’s OK to be gay, it’s OK to be trans, it’s OK to be LGBTQ,” Shenika ‘Nik’ Harris, Florida’s first LGBTQ consumer advocate, said to a cheering crowd.
Vague language makes law tricky to enforce, but lawsuits have already started
Dan Merkan, the Director of Policy for JASMYN — a youth services organization for the LGBTQ community in Jacksonville that opposes the policy — said the bill’s vagueness is dangerous.
“It means any teacher might be challenged or any district sued even over any discussion of LGBTQ topics,” he said. “Collectively, these ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills would have a chilling effect on LGBTQ students and limit their options for safe conversations with caring school staff.”
The bill is a step even farther than debates over bathroom access and sports team participation, according to Shelley Rodden, a former teacher and a sponsor of a high school gay-straight alliance in Brevard County.
“It erases everything,” potentially chilling any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in schools, she said, also calling it “shocking” and “dangerous.”
Experts say that if the legislation takes effect in June, it could lead to parents taking legal action if they feel like their child is unable to exercise freedom of speech because of the law.
Rep. Harding could not be reached for comment about potential lawsuits that could come from the law’s passage.
Clay Calvert, a University of Florida law professor, says if a student wants to talk about LGBTQ+ issues as it relates to a lesson or just mentions their sexual orientation or identity and is shut down by a teacher, it could become a First Amendment issue.
Ryan Wilson, Associate Regional Campaign Director with the Human Rights Campaign, said enforcement of the law is discriminatory and also hurts teachers.
“[The bill] is a politically motivated effort to stigmatize LGBTQ+ people, isolate LGBTQ+ kids, and make Florida’s teachers fearful of providing a safe, inclusive classroom for all students,” Wilson said. “Every student, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, deserves the chance to see themselves reflected in academic curriculum. This bill is nothing more than a shameful attempt to erase the existence of LGBTQ+ people and undermine existing protections for LGBTQ+ kids. The Florida state legislature must stop advancing this discriminatory piece of legislation.”
The bills have yet to pass, but lawsuits have already begun.
A “public interest” law firm filed suit in October on behalf of a Tallahassee couple against Leon County Schools, saying the district violated their rights because its LGBTQ policies exclude parents from conversations about their children’s gender identity.
The lawsuit alleges the district spoke to the couple’s child about gender identity without their consent. However, school officials maintain a parent gave the school permission to let the child take the lead in discussions.
Unless the district rescinds and stops using the LGBTQ guide and student support plans and begins notifying parents of gender identity issues, “the right of familial privacy will continue to be violated,” the complaint says.
The parents’ lawsuit asks for damages, including for emotional distress, saying their relationship with their child has been damaged because of the district.
“When the schools meet with the children under these circumstances without notifying the parents, it creates a huge wedge within the parent-child relationship,” the mother told the Democrat.
In Brevard County, parents of LGBTQ students are still on edge from tense conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools last year, Rodden said. In March, protests outside a Brevard County School Board meeting grew disorderly. Some anti-LGBTQ protesters shouted obscene insults and slurs at people arriving to discuss the district’s accommodations for LGBTQ students, including children who came to support the guidelines.
“The fact that this kind of snuck back into our life, it seems like a curveball,” Rodden said. “It was last March that we had some of these same conversations. And it kind of died down a bit, but nothing was really resolved.”
‘It’s important to me that my kids are able to have crushes on who they have crushes on’
It’s hard to say exactly how many elementary school-aged children in Florida identify as LGBTQ. But experts say that banning conversation about identity and self-expression can also hurt straight, cisgender students, who will have less guided discussion and exposure to peers who may be different or come from a non-traditional family.
Rebecca McDermott of Jacksonville, an educator who is also a member of the LGBTQ community, worries that the bill could close off her daughter’s conversations at school about her family life.
“As a parent of a 6-year-old who has two moms, I am terrified that this bill will end up making her feel like her family is less than others,” McDermott said. “My daughter should feel free to discuss her family with whomever she chooses and her teachers should be allowed to talk to her, too.”
Matt Hartley, whose two children are in elementary and middle school in Jacksonville, said he’s worried the bill would push young people who are just beginning to find themselves back into the closet.
“It’s important to me that my kids are able to have crushes on who they have crushes on,” Hartley said. “That they can develop a healthy sense of their gender and not have to worry about being stigmatized for any of that. This bill is not about childhood development, but simply about bigotry and censorship. It would tell LGBTQ families they have to be a secret.”
Across the country, the bill has sparked outrage from public figures and politicians including teacher and LGBTQ rights advocate Chasten Buttigieg, who is married to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
Rodden, the Brevard County gay-straight alliance sponsor, said she has met many LGBTQ students with unsupportive families. For some students, a teacher might be the only adult they feel comfortable sharing their identities with, she said.
“I think that just the bigger message this is sending people is, ‘You don’t matter,’” Rodden, who is also the youth director of Space Coast Pride and board member for Brevard’s PFLAG chapter, said. “Your identity is not significant enough that we need to talk about you or your parents or your family … I feel that the whole thing is putting students at more risk, and we can’t afford that.”
As the bills move through legislative committees, Koslow of Leon County — whose son is transgender — thinks about her uncle, a gay man who grew up in the 50s, and the struggles he suffered because he couldn’t talk about his sexuality.
“I don’t want my kid to have to suffer like my uncle did in silence,” she said.
It upsets her son to know that his state legislators are actively working to make his life worse.
She said he worries about kids in middle school who haven’t come out yet who will have to deal with the repercussions of these bills if the law passes. He knows what trans kids like him are up against.
“When parent after parent and legislator after legislator implies that LGBTQ people are less than, that they deserve less, that they should not be treated with equality for who they are…they hear it and it hurts,” she said. “There’s no way it can’t hurt.”