Ten anti-LGBTQ+ bills largely focused on sports and education restrictions are going into effect today across six states — Alabama, Florida, Indiana, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah. Two of the most prominent bills are one in Florida restricting classroom discussion of gender and sexuality, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents, and a bathroom bill in Alabama that was amended to include its own education restrictions.
Collectively, the bills build toward an atmosphere of silence around LGBTQ+ people and restrict how LGBTQ+ youth can learn about themselves and participate at school, advocates say.
National LGBTQ+ advocates are especially concerned that more bills restricting classroom discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity are being passed into law.
“These curriculum censorship bills hurt me the most,” said Vivian Topping, director of advocacy and civic engagement of the Equality Federation, a coalition of state LGBTQ+ organizations.
It is already hard enough for transgender and LGBTQ+ youth to see themselves reflected in the culture or in the academic materials they’re learning from, Topping said — and harder still for LGBTQ+ youth to simply go to school if they are getting bullied. Taking away the ability for students to talk with teachers about their identity or learn about queer communities in school may hamper their ability to dream of a future with people like them in it.
Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at LGBTQ+ suicide prevention organization the Trevor Project, is particularly worried about Alabama’s bathroom bill, which includes an amendment seemingly styled after Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Alabama’s bill passed with an amendment that prohibits public schools from teaching or allowing classroom discussion on gender identity and sexual orientation for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The bill was sent to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk on the last day of the state’s legislative session in an 11th-hour move that shocked the state’s LGBTQ+ advocates.
“We got this weird Franken-bill, this education bill that is also a bathroom bill. That is one I’m particularly concerned about,” Ames said, noting that LGBTQ+ youth in Alabama will be hit with two restrictions in the same legislation.
Also in Alabama, a federal judge has blocked the state’s separate felony ban against prescribing hormone treatment or puberty-blocking medication to trans youth — but the state’s law still requires school counselors and teachers to alert parents if children come out as trans or gender-nonconforming.
Across the state line, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill outright bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade — but LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have interpreted the fine print of the bill to also restrict that instruction in grades four through 12. The law states that such instruction cannot take place in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.
A jury trial for Equality Florida and the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ lawsuit against the state over the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is currently set for February 13 next year. Parties currently have until November of this year to finish exchanging information on witnesses and evidence that they’ll present.
Equality Florida argues that the ripple effect of this legislation has already expanded beyond the classroom: A Florida high school class president was prevented from talking about his experience as a gay student in May, and some Florida teachers have reported being told to take down Pride flags (a trend that surfaced last year among teachers in other states as well).
Anita Carson, a former sixth-grade science teacher in Florida, told reporters on a Friday press call hosted by Equality Florida that the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is one reason she resigned from teaching about a month ago — after spending 12 years in the profession.
“I could not see myself in a classroom where I could not support students in the best way possible,” she said. “This law prevents that.”
Conversations around education have grown “increasingly toxic” in the state, she said, pointing to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and the “Stop Woke Act” — a law setting boundaries on discussions of race that also went into effect on Friday. Teachers have been accused of trying to harm kids while doing their jobs, she said.
“It’s already a hard job. And if you add to that this very toxic narrative surrounding what we do and why we do it, it’s untenable,” she said.
Dempsey Jara, who is trans and will soon enter fifth grade, told reporters on the call that she doesn’t feel safe in school with the bills that Florida has passed. Jara’s mom said that she feels the bills seek to hide and invalidate her child’s existence.
In South Dakota, an anti-trans sports bill and bill limiting classroom discussion on race, sex and ethnicity that advocates say would also affect LGBTQ+ students are going into effect on Friday.
Jett Jonelis, the ACLU of South Dakota’s advocacy manager, said the vagueness of the bill’s language — and how it defines “divisive concepts” that schools should not direct students to affirm — could especially restrict discussions on two-spirit identities. (While being two-spirit means different things to different tribes and Indigenous communities, it broadly refers to gender variation and those who are neither men nor women, who possess both spirits, or who occupy a separate gender identity.)
“It’s very overly broad and it opens the door to a wide variety of dangerous interpretations that would censor free speech and academic freedom,” they said.
Early next month, a Louisiana bill restricting school sports access for trans youth is also expected to go into effect.
Topping warned that a significant amount of confusion may be caused by the enforcement of these laws as they go into effect — whether that’s teachers figuring out how curriculum restrictions work, or how athlete bans would actually be implemented in schools.
“What these bills are encouraging is a culture of censorship and surveillance,” she said. “It’s encouraging people to report on each other.”