Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference on January 18, 2023 in Daytona Shores.

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference on January 18, 2023 in Daytona Shores.

(Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Critics Say DeSantis Move to Expand 'Don't Say Gay' Exposes Law's True Intentions

"It was never about 'protecting children,'" said one opponent of the law. "It was always about eliminating LGBTQ people from public life and making it illegal to even discuss our existence."

Florida's Republican governor and presumed 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis is moving to expand his state's prohibition on classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity to all grades.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Wednesday denounced DeSantis' effort to broaden what critics call the "Don't Say Gay" law, describing it as "completely, utterly wrong."

Passed last year by Florida's GOP-controlled Legislature, the law forbids classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3. The DeSantis administration's proposed rule change, first reported Tuesday by The Orlando Sentinel, would extend the ban on such lessons to grades 4-12, except when they are required by state standards or as part of a reproductive health course from which parents can choose to exclude their children.

The proposal, introduced by DeSantis' Department of Education, goes even further than right-wing Florida lawmakers' current push to expand the law through grade 8 and does not require legislative approval. The state Board of Education—controlled by appointees of DeSantis and his predecessor, U.S. Sen Rick Scott (R-Fla.)—is set to vote on the measure at its April 19 meeting.

"Everything he does is about what can further his own career ambitions," Brandon Wolf of Equality Florida toldThe Associated Press on Wednesday, referring to DeSantis. "And it's clear he sees the anti-LGBTQ movement as his vehicle to get him where he wants to go."

Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law has been widely condemned since it was first introduced last year. Opponents—including President Joe Biden, who called the measure "hateful"—contend that it marginalizes LGBTQ+ people.

"Everything he does is about what can further his own career ambitions. And it's clear he sees the anti-LGBTQ movement as his vehicle to get him where he wants to go."

DeSantis' proposed expansion has confirmed critics' warnings that the law was never intended to "protect kids," as proponents claimed, but rather to undermine support for LGBTQ+ rights and sow mistrust in public education to facilitate privatization.

"It was never about 'protecting children,'" Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic, wrote Wednesday on social media. "It was always about eliminating LGBTQ people from public life and making it illegal to even discuss our existence."

That message was echoed by former Florida Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-49), who tweeted: "It was never, ever, ever, ever about kindergarten through third grade. It was always about demonizing us and censoring LGBTQ people out of existence in our schools."

During her Wednesday press briefing, Jean-Pierre alluded to growing attacks on LGBTQ+ people and said that DeSantis' proposal reflects "a disturbing and dangerous trend that we're seeing across the country."

Last month, PEN America revealed that GOP officials across the United States unveiled 84 educational gag orders during the first six weeks of 2023.

As the free speech organization previously documented, Republican lawmakers introduced 190 bills designed to restrict the ability of educators and students to discuss the production of and resistance to myriad inequalities throughout U.S. history—including several proposals to create so-called "tip lines" that would enable parents to punish school districts or individual teachers—in dozens of states in 2021 and 2022. Over the past two years, 19 laws limiting the teaching of gender, sexuality, and racism were enacted in more than a dozen GOP-controlled states, plus eight measures imposed without legislation.

This year alone, Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law has spawned at least 27 copycat bills in more than a dozen states, including several measures that would, as DeSantis is now proposing, censor instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity at all grade levels.

Opponents of Florida's law argue that "its language—'classroom instruction,' 'age appropriate,' and 'developmentally appropriate'—is overly broad and subject to interpretation," AP reported. "Consequently, teachers might opt to avoid the subjects entirely for fear of being sued, they say."

In an opinion piece published last year, Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent argued that the nationwide surge in restrictive education legislation has "an obvious purpose: to make teachers feel perpetually on thin ice, so they shy away from difficult discussions about our national past rather than risk breaking laws in ways they cannot themselves anticipate."

"But there's another, more pernicious goal driving these bills that might well succeed politically precisely because it remains largely unstated," Sargent continued. "The darker underlying premise here is that these bills are needed in the first place, because subversive elements lurk around every corner in schools, looking to pervert, indoctrinate, or psychologically torture your kids."

The "combination of... vagueness and punitive mechanisms such as rights of action and tip lines" is intentionally designed to promote self-censorship, wrote Sargent. "Precisely because teachers might fear that they can't anticipate how they might run afoul of the law—while also fearing punishment for such transgressions—they might skirt difficult subjects altogether."

He added that "calls for maximal parental choice and control in schools have been used by the right for decades as a smoke screen to sow fears and doubts about public education at its ideological foundations."

National Education Association president Becky Pringle similarly argued last month that DeSantis' attack on a new high school Advanced Placement African-American studies course is part of the far-right's wider anti-democratic assault on public schools and other institutions aimed at improving the common good.

"For DeSantis, blocking AP African-American studies is part of a cheap, cynical, and dangerous political ploy to drive division and chaos into public education debates," Pringle wrote.

"He seeks to distract communities from his real agenda, which is to first whitewash and then dumb down public education as an excuse to privatize it," she added. "His ultimate goal? The destruction of public education, the very foundation of our democracy."

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