Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed what critics have dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill into law Monday, ending months of debate over state legislation that has sparked a national war of words.
The measure — titled the Parental Rights in Education bill — will prohibit “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s public schools.
DeSantis, a Republican who is running for re-election and is widely considered to be a potential 2024 presidential candidate, said the bill will also ensure "that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination."
"The bill prohibits classroom instruction about sexuality or things like 'transgender' in K through three classrooms," DeSantis said, standing behind a podium that read "Protect Children, Support Parents." "In Florida, we don’t just think parents should be involved. We insist that they be involved."
As he signed the bill into law, DeSantis was surrounded by students, parents, the bill's sponsors and other conservative state lawmakers.
While debate over state legislation that affects the LGBTQ community rarely leaves the halls of state capitols, HB 1557 has spurred months of national outcry, with Hollywood actors, corporate chief executives and the White House all weighing in against it.
Similarly to DeSantis, proponents of the measure have contended that it would give parents more discretion over what their children learn in school, vindicating their “parental authority.”
The bill's sponsors have repeatedly stressed that it would not prohibit students from talking about their LGBTQ families or bar classroom discussions about LGBTQ history, including events like the 2016 attack on Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. Instead, they have said the measure would ban the "instruction" of sexual orientation or gender identity, without providing examples of what that would entail during House and Senate debate.
But opponents have argued that the law would unfairly target the LGBTQ community — particularly gay and transgender students — and that it is “pretending to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.” They say the broad language of the legislation could open districts to lawsuits from parents who believe any conversation about LGBTQ people or issues to be inappropriate.
Which age groups the bill would apply to has also prompted fierce debate in recent weeks. The text states that teachings on sexual orientation or gender identity would be banned “in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
Legal experts have said the language of the bill could open up school districts to lawsuits from parents who believe any conversation about LGBTQ people or issues to be inappropriate, regardless of their child’s age, but disputed that a parent’s interpretation of what is or isn’t “age appropriate” would hold up in court.
Critics have also lamented a provision in the bill that they say would force educators to out LGBTQ students to their parents. The text of the bill mandates that educators notify parents of a child’s “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being ... unless a reasonably prudent person would believe that such disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect.”
LGBTQ advocates condemned DeSantis for signing the legislation into law and vowed to fight it.
"Today, Governor DeSantis once again placed Florida squarely on the wrong side of history, and placed his own young constituents directly in harm’s way — and he has done this for no other reason than to serve his own political ambitions," Joni Madison, the interim president of the LGBTQ advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. "The existence of LGBTQ+ people across Florida is not up for debate, and this restriction on free speech flies in the face of one of our most sacred rights. So, let’s be clear — this bill must be repealed."
The American Federation of Teachers, the country's second largest teacher's labor union, also slammed the measure, calling it an “assault” on American students and teachers.
“Make no mistake, this bill will have devastating real-world consequences—especially for LGBTQIA+ youth who already experience higher rates of bullying and suicide,” Randi Weingarten, the group's president, said in a statement. “And for teachers and school staff who work tirelessly to support and care for their students, this bill is just another gross political attack on their professionalism.”
The debate over the measure has drawn one of the country's largest corporations and one of Florida’s largest employers, The Walt Disney Co., into its crossfire.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek came out in opposition to the bill this month and pledged $5 million to LGBTQ organizations, following ire from employees over the company's campaign donations to the bill's sponsors. But that did little to placate workers, who bemoaned Chapek's weeks of silence on the measure and, in response, staged a company walkout last week.
On Monday, the company denounced the measure, saying that it "should never have passed and should never have been signed into law."
“Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that,” a Disney spokesperson said in a statement.
The bill goes into effect July 1.
The Biden administration issued a statement saying that it would "monitor" the law upon its implementation and "evaluate whether it violates federal civil rights law." Shortly after, President Joe Biden posted a message on Twitter saying, "Our LGBTQI+ youth deserve to be affirmed and accepted just as they are. My Administration will continue to fight for dignity and opportunity for every student and family — in Florida and around the country."