A proposal to further limit acknowledgement of LGBTQ students and teachers in public schools is now moving through the House.
After roughly two hours of mostly oppositional testimony, House lawmakers advanced legislation to expand a controversial law Gov. Ron DeSantis signed last year restricting classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual preference.
The existing law, which critics labeled “Don’t Say Gay,” bans those lessons in public schools for students in kindergarten through third grade and in all grades thereafter where not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”
A bill (HB 1223) that cleared the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee would extend the prohibition down to prekindergarten and up to eighth grade, which is several grades after most school districts mandate sexual education classes. It would also define “sex” in state education law and add restrictions to pronoun usage in classrooms and among school faculty.
The measure’s sponsor, Palm Harbor Republican Rep. Adam Anderson, called it a “very simple bill” that builds on an “existing framework.”
“The bill reinforces that instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity is best left to parents and guardians within the home,” he said.
“Most parents would agree that conversations about these topics can be necessary, but they would also agree that this should not be outsourced to the government.”
HB 1223 aims to build on last year’s legislation, which has since attracted legal challenges, by applying to public and charter schools from kindergarten to eighth grade and to public, charter and private preschools.
It would also prohibit requiring public school employees, contractors and students from having to refer to others by a title or pronoun that does not align with the person’s sex assigned at birth. The measure would establish a statewide policy for schools that sex is “an immutable biological trait and it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such a person’s sex.”
Further, the bill would define sex as “the classification of a person as either female or male based on the organization of the body of such person for a reproductive role, as indicated by the person’s sex chromosomes, naturally occurring sex hormones, and internal and external genitalia at birth.”
The bill includes exceptions for “individuals born with a genetically or biochemically verifiable disorder of sex development.”
Every Republican member of the committee — Chair Kaylee Tuck, Vice Chair Traci Koster and Reps. Thad Altman, Carolina Amesty, Jessica Baker, Doug Bankson, Fabían Basabe, Lisa Dunkley, Alina Garcia, Stan McClain, Jenna Persons-Mulicka, Juan Carlos Porras, Spencer Roach and Paula Stark — voted for the bill.
Democratic Rep. Lisa Dunkley voted with them. All the remaining members of her party in the committee — Kevin Chambliss, Angie Nixon, Katherine Waldron and Susan Valdés — voted “no.”
GOP members of the panel also rejected an amendment from Orlando Democratic Rep. Rita Harris that would have provided exceptions to the pronoun restrictions for students whose parents submit a written request to the principal detailing how they’d like their kids to be addressed.
Nixon, among the most vocal committee members against the bill, took exception with the amendment’s dismissal, which she said would at least provide a small compromise to legislation that will further “erode the quality of education, (add to a) culture war and erase a community.”
“This bill is anti-freedom. It’s anti-liberty. It’s not about parental rights. It’s not about kids’ rights. It’s about scoring political points. It’s about power and control,” she said, adding that she is the “mother of a queer child” and the sister of someone who committed suicide. “The fact we couldn’t pass an amendment to acknowledge and humanize folks by the pronouns they want to be called is appalling, ridiculous, disgusting, absurd. It’s infuriating.”
Miami Rep. Fabián Basabe, who announced his pronouns as “love, loves and love self,” suggested the bill’s intended effect is being misconstrued. In reality, he said, the bill would remove a target now on members of the LGBTQ community by deemphasizing them in state law and district policies.
As an example, he read from an older version of Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ policy on inclusive programming that included special mention of “students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ).”
“It’s as if that’s somehow a separate genre or separate class of people,” he said. “I put these members of our community in the ‘all students’ (category).”
The bill received some support from speakers representing several conservative groups, including the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, Florida Citizens Alliance, Moms for Liberty and Florida Family Policy Council.
David Leatherwood, speaking for Gays Against Groomers, claimed LGBTQ people in Florida “overwhelmingly” back Anderson’s bill.
“This bill is not anti LGBT; it’s pro-child safety,” he said. “The radical activists who are against it are either self-obsessed narcissists or simply misinformed. The sexualization and indoctrination of minors is … evil, and using taxpayer dollars to do it in the classroom is even worse.”
However, an overwhelming share of public testimony was against the measure, with members of ACLU Florida, Women’s Voice of Southwest Florida, Rainbow SemDems, PRISM and SPLC Action Fund joining scores of students, teachers, parents and activists in denouncing its potential effects.
“Just like the Batman enterprise, you’ve somehow made the sequel worse,” said Devon Graham, assistant state director of American Atheists. “It’s always disconcerting to me that those of us who do not believe in Jesus take his words in Matthew 7:12 and Matthew 22:39 to heart more than those of you who claim that you do.”
Allie Lynn, one of several Equality Florida members to speak, identified herself as queer and her child as trans. Those aspects make up “a minute part” of who she is as a teacher and a person, she said, but that’s not the point.
“We all need windows and mirrors,” she said. “We all need people to see people who look like us and who are different from us. And I am proud to be both to many different people, including my students. This bill would eliminate that even further.”
Clinton McCracken, a public school teacher from Orlando and a gay man, recalled growing up when there was no support for students like him who really needed it. Noting Florida’s perennial teacher shortage, policymakers should work to make school campuses safer, more nurturing and attractive to educators and students instead of making things harder on students and teachers, he said.
“Lastly, gay isn’t a dirty word, and being LGBTQ isn’t shameful,” McCracken added. “For all the youths out there listening and watching what your lawmakers are doing, know that you are perfect the way you are.”
After the vote, which came just before 2:45 p.m., several members of the public who attended the meeting to contest the measure hurled expletives at the panel.
HB 1223 has one more stop, the House Education and Employment Committee, before heading to a floor vote. A similar bill (SB 1320) by Jacksonville Republican Sen. Clay Yarborough awaits a hearing before the first of two committees to which it was referred this month.
The legislation is among several filed for the 2023 Session aimed at changing Florida’s policies regarding people with nonbinary gender identities or sexual orientation. One such proposal (SB 1674, HB 1521) would make it a second-degree misdemeanor if a person refuses to leave a bathroom that does not match their sex assigned at birth. Another (SB 254, HB 1421) would subject health care practitioners who provide gender-affirming treatment to minors to felony charges and enable the government to seize control of children whose parents seek such care, including out of state.