House panel backs bill expanding education law on sexual orientation, gender identity

The bill would also restrict transgender students' and teachers' use of preferred pronouns in schools.

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  • | 6:00 p.m. March 15, 2023
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A Florida House panel Tuesday backed a proposal that would expand a controversial 2022 law barring instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades and restrict the way students and teachers can use their preferred pronouns in schools.

The Republican-controlled House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee voted 14-4 along almost-straight party lines to approve the proposal (HB 1223), after numerous LGBTQ advocates slammed the bill as harmful to vulnerable youths. Rep. Lisa Dunkley, D-Sunrise, voted with Republicans for the measure.

The 2022 law, which drew national attention and federal court challenges, prohibited instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and required it to be “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” in higher grades.

The new bill would extend the prohibition through eighth grade — reigniting a legislative debate about the 2022 law, which was formally titled the “Parental Rights in Education” bill but was derided by opponents as the “don’t say gay” bill.

“The bill reinforces that instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity is best left to parents and guardians within the home. And (such) classroom instruction is not appropriate for our youngest, most impressionable students,” Rep. Adam Anderson, a Palm Harbor Republican who is sponsoring this year’s proposal, said.

But Rin Alajaji, public policy associate with the LGBTQ-advocacy organization Equality Florida, pointed to effects on LGBTQ students.

“When we talk about sexual orientation and gender identity, that is about who we love and who we are. We have LGBTQ students in our schools right now. They deserve to be acknowledged and respected just like everyone else,” Alajaji said.

Critics also opposed the part of the bill that would restrict how preferred pronouns can be used in classrooms. The measure would prevent school employees from telling students their preferred pronouns if those pronouns “do not correspond to his or her sex” and would bar asking students about their preferred pronouns.

The bill says that it “shall be the policy” of every Florida public school that “a person's sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person's sex.

The State Board of Education would be authorized to adopt rules to carry out the pronoun part of the bill.

Anderson characterized the bill as being “about protecting the rights of all parents.”

“What we have to recognize here is that, in a classroom, using a specific title or pronoun for one student, while it may or may not be appropriate for that student, that’s up to the parent,” Anderson said. “But if it is potentially appropriate for that one student, we have to recognize that in that classroom there’s 19 or 20, 25 other students … and it may not be appropriate for those kids.”

Javier Gomez with Equality Florida echoed several other opponents by asserting that lawmakers are misguided in focusing on use of pronouns.

“There are other pressing issues than pronouns. Come on, like, be serious. There is a housing crisis, climate change, mass shootings, and you’re seriously worried about protecting youth from queerness? I have to laugh as a constituent,” Gomez said.

The House panel approved a change to define “sex” in the bill.

“‘Sex’ means the classification of a person as either female or male based on the organization of the body of such person for a specific reproductive role, as indicated by the person's sex chromosomes, naturally occurring sex hormones, and internal and external genitalia present at birth,” the revision said.

Meanwhile, the panel rejected a proposal by Rep. Rita Harris, D-Orlando, that, in part, would have required school employees to refer to students by their chosen pronouns unless parents notified the students’ principals that different pronouns should be used.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made combating “gender ideology” in schools a pillar of his education agenda as he is widely viewed as a potential 2024 presidential contender, last week reiterated his focus on the issue.

“We need to focus on the basics of academics. We need to focus on reading, writing, math, all of these different things. That is what unites parents and unites us. When you start getting into things like gender ideology, it’s very divisive. The majority of parents in Florida, I can tell you, do not want that in the schools,” DeSantis told reporters on the opening day of the legislative session.

Opponents of the bill, including Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, have characterized it as being politically motivated.

“I think this bill is just a way to create a culture war and a way to erase a community,” Nixon said.


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