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Florida families and advocacy groups file lawsuit over 'Don't Say Gay' law

The plaintiffs argue that the new education measure, which took effect July 1, has already caused them harm by chilling and suppressing speech.
IMAGE: People celebrate during the Tampa Pride Parade on March 26, 2022 in Tampa, Fla. in the wake of the passage of Florida's controversial "Don't Say Gay" Bill.
People celebrate during the Tampa Pride Parade on March 26. Octavio Jones / Getty Images

Florida teens and their families, along with advocacy groups, have sued to block a law that restricts classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" law by LGBTQ advocates, bans instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity “in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

The measure also gives parents the right to sue school districts they believe are in violation of the law, which took effect July 1.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill in March, saying at the time that it ensures “parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.”

The National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a suit in March, just after DeSantis signed the bill.

On Tuesday, three other civil rights groups — Lambda Legal, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Southern Legal Counsel — filed a lawsuit on behalf of two Florida couples and their children; Florida high school student Will Larkins; and CenterLink, an international member-based association of LGBTQ centers.

The suit argues that the law's "vigilante enforcement mechanism," combined with its "intentionally vague and sweeping scope, invites parents who oppose any acknowledgement whatsoever of the existence of LGBTQ+ people to sue, resulting in schools acting aggressively to silence students, parents, and school personnel."

As a result, the complaint states, "The law, by design, chills speech and expression that have any connection, however remote, to sexual orientation and gender identity."

The complaint named four county school boards — Orange, Indian River, Duval and Palm Beach — as defendants.

Tracy Pierce, chief of marketing and public relations for Duval County Public Schools, said in an emailed statement that the district "will always take steps necessary to comply with Florida laws."

Pierce added, "Any further district response will come within the context of the judicial proceedings."

Representatives for the other three school boards did not immediately return a request for comment.

Larkins, who uses gender-neutral pronouns and is a rising senior at Winter Park High School near Orlando, said in a statement that they are "concerned that this law will eviscerate any hope of healthy and important discussions about LGBTQ+ issues or historical events, which are already lacking in our schools."

Larkins, the founder and president of the school's Queer Student Union, testified against the Parental Rights in Education bill on the Florida Senate floor in February. Then, in March, Larkins taught their history class about the 1969 Stonewall uprising, a dayslong protest that began after a routine police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City's Greenwich Village neighborhood. Video of Larkins' presentation went viral.

Plaintiffs David Dinan and Vikranth Gongidi, a married same-sex couple, said they are "deeply concerned about the negative effect" that the law could have on their family. Their children, who are 8 and 9 years old, are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“The law forces us to self-censor for fear of prompting responses from our children’s teachers and classmates that would isolate our children and make them feel ashamed of their own family," Dinan and Gongidi said in a joint statement. "It also causes irreparable harm to our children and to their development."

Parents Jennifer and Matthew Cousins said they are afraid the law will harm their four children, particularly S.C., who is 12 and a rising seventh grader. S.C. came out as nonbinary last year and uses they/them pronouns, according to the complaint.

“This law will prevent our two youngest children, rising first and third graders, from discussing their older non-binary sibling in the classroom for fear of their teacher or their school getting in trouble," the Cousins said in a joint statement. "The law also robs them of the opportunity of discussing their family like other non-LGBTQ+ children. It’s heartbreaking to know that my children may be bullied because this law paints our family as shameful. Every child deserves the right to celebrate their family in the form that it exists."

Florida legislators who supported the Parental Rights in Education bill have said that it wouldn't prohibit students from speaking about their own families and wouldn't ban discussions about LGBTQ history.

But LGBTQ legal experts disagree, citing the vague language of the bill. During House and Senate debate, supporters of the bill also didn't provide examples of what counts as "instruction" about sexual orientation or gender identity.

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