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Florida's not alone — 19 other states eye LGBTQ school bills

Following the enactment of what opponents call the “Don’t Say Gay” law, the debate over LGBTQ curriculum bills moves beyond the Sunshine State.
Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds the signed Parental Rights in Education, aka the "Don't Say Gay" bill at Classical Preparatory school in Spring Hill on March 28.Douglas R. Clifford / Tampa Bay Times via AP

Florida’s newly enacted Parental Rights in Education bill — dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — has catapulted LGBTQ rights to the center of political discourse in recent months.

Leaders of global corporations, editorial boards of major newspapers and the White House have all weighed in on the new law, with some calling it “deeply disturbing” and others “noncontroversial.” The cast of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” has repeatedly ripped into the bill in several of its most recent episodes. At last month’s Oscars, co-host Wanda Sykes took a jab at the measure in the Academy Awards’ opening monologue. And last week, officials in New York City and Chicago launched ad campaigns in Florida to persuade LGBTQ Floridians to pack their bags and move north.

While Florida has been ground zero for this nationwide debate, 19 other states have introduced similar legislation that would prohibit how educators can talk about or teach LGBTQ issues in school this year, according to the Movement Advancement Project, or MAP, an LGBTQ think tank that has been tracking the bills.

“The truth is, this has never been about Florida,” said Brandon Wolf, the press secretary for the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida, which sued DeSantis over the law last month. “It’s never been about one state but rather a policy objective from the furthest right wing of the Republican Party to try to roll back civil liberties and progress through fear and manipulation of their base.”

He added, “You can, I think, imagine that we’re staring down a national ‘Don’t Say Gay’ debate if we’re not successful in pushing back against it here in Florida.”

Lawmakers in Indiana are weighing legislation that would require any student under the age of 18 to “obtain written consent” from a parent before participating “in any instruction on human sexuality.” In Arizona, House lawmakers introduced legislation in January that would prohibit schools from allowing students to participate in school clubs or student groups “involving sexuality, gender or gender identity unless the student’s parent provides written permission for the student to participate.”

And legislators in Tennessee proposed a measure in February that reads: “The promotion of LGBT issues and lifestyles in public schools offends a significant portion of students, parents, and Tennessee residents with Christian values.” The bill, HB 800, seeks to ban textbooks or classroom materials that “promote, normalize, support, or address” LGBTQ “lifestyles,” and subject LGBTQ issues to the same limitations religious teachings face in the state’s public schools.

“They vary quite a bit, but the thing that they have in common is that they restrict the ability of teachers and schools to provide students with an honest and accurate education that they deserve, that helps them to learn from our past and reflect the diversity of the world around them and prepare them for the future,” Logan Casey, a senior policy researcher and adviser at MAP, said.

Proponents of the measures disagree and contend that they would give parents more discretion over what their children learn in school and say LGBTQ issues are “not age appropriate” for young students.

At the Florida bill’s signing ceremony, DeSantis, who is widely believed to be considering a run for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, said that the law would ensure “that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.”

Tiffany Justice, a mother of four school-age children and the co-founder of Moms for Liberty, a national network of about 80,000 parents that says its mission is to defend parental rights in schools, previously told NBC News that Florida’s Parental Rights in Education and similar measures amount to “parents pushing back.” 

“They’ve had enough. We’ve seen enough nonsense,” she said. “The kids are not learning to read in schools, and what I have said before is ‘Before you activate our children into social justice warriors, could you just teach them how to read?’”

Since DeSantis signed the Florida legislation into law on March 28, other conservative lawmakers have signaled that they would step up efforts to advance similar versions of the law in their states. 

In a campaign email last Monday, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick vowed to make a rendering of the law a “top priority” in his state’s next legislative session. That same day, Ohio state Reps. Jean Schmidt and Mike Loychik introduced their own version of the legislation.

Loychik and Schmidt did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment. On Tuesday, Schmidt refused to answer reporters’ questions about the bill while walking through the state capitol building in Columbus.

At the federal level — absent majorities in Congress or at the White House — Republican lawmakers have largely stayed out of the fray concerning a nationwide version of the legislation. But last month, while speaking with Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist and AM radio personality Alex Jones, Georgia Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene vowed to introduce a federal version of the law.

“I will meet with my team right after this interview, and we will work on it,” Greene told the radio host, “because I will do anything I can to protect kids.”

LGBTQ advocates note that the new crop of LGBTQ curriculum bills are not totally new. They say the measures resemble legislation from the 1980s and ‘90s that activists dubbed “no promo homo” laws, which explicitly prohibited the positive portrayal of homosexuality in schools. The majority of those laws have since been struck down, but they remain in place in four states in the South, according to national LGBTQ youth advocacy group GLSEN. 

Casey said that unlike today’s bills, the “no promo homo” laws were more “narrowly” focused on restricting what educators could or could not say in health classes.

“They at least had this pretense of limiting the censorship to classes about sex-ed specifically,” Casey said. “The bills today have removed all pretense. They are just saying flat out: ‘You cannot talk about these issues in any classroom, in any instructional materials full stop.’”

Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of GLSEN, said another differentiator is that these present-day measures — despite being dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” bills — are aimed at preventing gender identity and transgender issues from being taught, and in some cases even discussed, at school. 

“What we’re seeing now is that because it’s no longer politically feasible to discredit someone because of their sexuality, the most isolated, the most marginalized, the most impacted part of the LGBTQ+ community, which are trans and nonbinary people, are being hit with the same political playbook,” Willingham-Jaggers, who is nonbinary, said. “It’s absurd, this idea that trans folks are a threat.”

Supporters of these education bills have also suggested that they are meant to target trans Americans. Justice previously told NBC News that the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” laws are needed to fight a “transgender contagion” sweeping the country. 

The share of anti-LGBTQ state bills that specifically target transgender people have noticeably ticked upward over the past several years, an NBC News analysis of data from the American Civil Liberties Union and the LGBTQ advocacy group Freedom for All Americans found.

For example, 22 of the 60 anti-LGBTQ proposed bills in 2019, or 37 percent, were anti-trans bills, compared with 153, or 80 percent, of 191 anti-LGBTQ bills in 2021. This year, about 65 percent of the anti-LGBTQ bills filed as of March 15 — 154 — targeted transgender people.

While most, if not all, of these measures have been introduced by Republicans, not all GOP lawmakers are on board. At least five Republican governors have vetoed anti-trans bills in their states since last year (although some of those vetoes were overridden), and on Sunday, Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, dismissed the Florida LGBTQ curriculum law, calling it “absurd.”

"I didn’t really actually see the details of the legislation, but the whole thing seems like just a crazy fight," Hogan told CNN.

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