What the “Don’t Say Gay” Law Would Really Mean
Schools need to be teaching kids to read, to write. They need to teach them science, history. We need more civics and understanding of the U.S. Constitution, what makes our country unique, all those basic stuff.” Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida
As an educator myself, on the face of it, there isn’t too much to object to in DeSantis’s quote above (overlooking the fact that “stuff” is a mass noun — a noun denoting something that cannot be counted — and thus would get “that” as a determiner, not “those”), but because this quote is in response to his support of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed by the Florida Senate Education Committee, which echoes the Parental Rights in Education bill, there is a lot to unpack here.
Most obviously, this is a smack in the face to all LGBTQ children and all who know and love them. But this also does a disservice to all children.
Once a child learns to read, the fundamental benefit of reading is to read stories about people, events, and things outside your world. Thus, if you are a child growing up in south Florida, you should be reading literature from around the nation and around the world, encompassing all races, religions, and, yes, genders.
What now? Are we going to ban books from LGBTQ writers? That’s a lot of books! Or only ban said writers if they write about their gender or sexual experience? Are we going to appoint a committee to oversee this process?
When I was in graduate school (graduate school!), I took a class devoted to the writings of James Baldwin. In the second week of class, we were discussing one of his essays and the professor was asking questions about it. One young lady spoke up and said, “I didn’t read it. I object to his homosexuality.” Jaws dropped open. This was a graduate class in the middle of Harlem.
The professor gently but persistently laid out arguments about why it was worthwhile to read books from authors with a different perspective. Why she ever signed up for the course, knowing she would never read any of his works, is beyond me but, as I recall, she did remain. Maybe the professor’s talk woke her up a bit. Why she didn’t learn those values in elementary school, I’ll never know.
So, if we wipe out LGBTQ discussion, that means we need to wipe out any literature or history book that includes them because if they are assigned, it forces the students to write about those experiences or discuss them in class.
Furthermore, what happens to books about straight protagonists? If a book about a gay relationship can’t be discussed, then we can’t discuss a book with a straight relationship. We shouldn’t be learning about sexuality and gender in school, right?
Let’s face it, all the books I read in school about straight people did not make me straight. If that was the goal, it didn’t work then and it won’t work now.
What is especially pernicious about this law is that it allows parents to sue the school. Right-wing lawmakers know that schools do not have the budget to fight these lawsuits. Thus, the law is muzzling teachers, suppressing education.
It goes without saying that DeSantis and the right-wingers are also against critical race theory, which means matters of our history that don’t “fit in” with the traditional narrative of seeing our white founding fathers as heroes, for example, are also silenced.
I will never forget an incident when I was in sixth grade. I grew up in a nearly all-white town (and I’ve recently relocated there again — slightly more diverse, but there is a robust right-wing presence as well). There were racist comments to be heard, but little accountability for using them.
One afternoon, Mrs. O’Malley called a meeting for all three of the sixth-grade classes to come together. Once gathered, she explained that a male student of Puerto Rican heritage, whose family had recently moved to town, went home after he was labeled with a racist pejorative by another student. She explained why this was a terrible thing and allowed us to discuss it.
It was one of the greatest teaching moments of my life, still remembered all these decades later. Today, Mrs. O’Malley would probably be fired if she taught in Florida.
If gay students were bullied in the same way, wouldn’t they deserve a similar hearing?
When I was in high school, we read few books on race and no books about gay or lesbian or trans people. This tremendously set back my own education and, worse, my mental health. I was reading nothing that was reflecting what was going on inside me. Each one of our stories matters.
This is also damaging to straight students because they are not learning about friends and family members in a safe environment, guided by a teacher who will allow questions and discussions.
As a young adult, I went off to New York City and found people like me and read books and saw movies that reflected not only my experience but the experiences of so many others I never knew about. But so many small-town kids don’t run off to big cities to get those experiences, so they need to learn about them in school.
There is also legislation spreading across the country that is demanding that cameras be put in the classroom so parents can see what is going on. Where is the privacy for the kids? If a child is unable to express themselves at home, where else can they find a safe space, but at school? If fear is governing their every move, how do they find true friends?
If a child is going to grow and be independent, they need to be exposed to different ideas and be encouraged to question them. That is not going to happen if they are constantly monitored by parents who are fearful that their child will not carry on their racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic tendencies.
I’ll keep the focus on education here, but it’s worth mentioning that, as governor, DeSantis has shown little regard to science, and fully supported a president who trampled all over the Constitution. Perhaps DeSantis should go back to school.
To finish unpacking his quote, what makes our country unique is, unfortunately, a disregard — if not a full-on Fuck You — to all matters of literature, grammar, history, science, and civics.
Support for this law — in Florida, as well as coming to a state near you! — is only going to make that so much worse.