What the "Don't Say Gay" bill really does
And how the LGBTQ community is fighting back.
Welcome to a premium Friday edition of Progressives Everywhere!
Florida’s official legislative session was supposed to end today, but will instead stretch into early next week. Lawmakers need a few more days to finish up the state’s annual budget, an essential process that got shunted aside over the past two and a half months while Republicans focused instead on ruining the lives of as many of their constituents as possible.
The centerpiece of their attack on women, children, and the LGBTQ+ community is what has become known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. After passing the State House earlier in the month over the loud and valiant protestations of Democrats and activists, the legislation was rubber-stamped last Monday by Florida’s State Senate, where lawmakers ignored gathering national outrage and student-led marches on the capitol to send it to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s desk.
We’ve covered the bill in several editions of the newsletter, from the malevolent conservative foundations pushing it to the explosion of bigotry that came out of Ron DeSantis’s office this past Sunday. Tonight, we’re talking with Brandon Wolf, who survived the Pulse nightclub shooting and now serves as the Press Secretary for Equality Florida, about the nuts and bolts of the bill, how it will work, who will be impacted, and how Florida got to this point.
Progressives Everywhere: These kinds of bigoted bills are passing in a lot of places, but Florida feels different — it’s controlled by Republicans but has a lot of very liberal people and a big LGBTQ population. How did this happen?
Brandon Wolf: Florida is unique for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Governor Ron DeSantis was elected as a Trump Acolyte. When he was in Congress, he was an obscure congressman from the Jacksonville area. Then he launched the America First Caucus in the US Congress and when he was running for governor, he essentially begged for Donald Trump's endorsement. He got it and ended up on Fox News a whole bunch and that's how he ended up as governor. He sort of got swept in by this wave of far-right outrage, machine politics. He won by a very slim margin, so people thought maybe that meant he would moderate a bit and lead from the middle. Instead, he has just doubled down on right-wing politics.
On top of that, we have this confluence of people who started showing up to school board meetings to protest masks that have metastasized into protesting everything, including inclusivity and conversations about history. And that's a really potent force right now. And the governor has tapped into it as he looks at wanting to be president from day one.
So what would the bill actually do?
That's still very unclear. Part of the issue with the bill is that it's intentionally vague. There were at least a dozen amendments that were filed throughout the process to try to clarify some of the vaguest or broadest language in the bill.
One example is the word “instruction.” Senator Lauren Book, who is a former educator and is very well versed in Florida education statute, tried to narrow the definition of “instruction,” because the supporters of the bill kept saying the word “curriculum.” They are not the same word. And if you want it to be focused solely on curriculum, then you would use that word, so she filed an amendment to narrow the word “instruction” to be more focused on simply classroom curriculum or lesson plans. Republicans rejected that.
And so the question becomes, well, what counts as instruction in a classroom? Say a kid in second grade is sent home with a family tree project — which is part of Florida's education standards — and comes back the next day to present their family tree and they've got two moms on it. When classroom discussion ensues about why does that tree have two moms on it, if a teacher intervenes and says that all families are good and valuable, we can appreciate two moms the same way we appreciate someone with a mom and a dad, does that count as instruction on sexual orientation?
If a teacher assigns a Women's History Month project and tells a student to go home and pick a woman they're inspired by in life and come back and give a classroom presentation on it, well, being a woman is a gender identity. So have we now instructed on gender identity, because we asked someone to do a project that identifies women specifically? That's where we don't know the bounds of the language of the bill. And ultimately, that's the point because whether or not somebody sues a school district, the chilling effect is already taking place.
Schools that don't have resources, can't even keep enough teachers in the classroom as it is, will simply avoid legal liability by pulling back on that inclusion. They'll peel rainbow safe space stickers off the window. They'll cancel GSA meetings, they'll ask potentially LGBTQ educators to flip over that picture of them and their partner on the desk so that they don't have to find out how far this law goes. And that's going to isolate LGBTQ kids more than they already are.
How would it be enforced? It’s not a criminal statute, right?
The enforcement mechanism is through lawsuits. So it's the Frankenstein's monster of Texas's abortion ban bill that tries to circumvent the legal system and specifically the Supreme Court by deputizing everyone's neighbors to sue everyone else into oblivion. If a parent feels that the bill or the law, if it's signed into law, has been violated, they would be able to sue the school district for allowing this instruction to take place. If they win, they get all of their attorneys fees and a $10,000 award. If they lose, the school district can't recoup any of its attorney fees at all. So they're out of money either way.
Do they plan on clarifying that if it does go into law?
They can't make the bill more specific, because they don't know the language in the bill. If you watched the debate on Monday, you'll notice that Senator Baxley doesn't know the basic definitions of the words in his own bill. He doesn't know the definition of sexual orientation. When asked repeatedly what the definition was, so they could get it on the record, after being hostile said “well, sexual orientation to me is whether you're male or female,” which we know is gender identity, not sexual orientation.
So it's hard to be specific when the bill sponsor doesn't know what the words on the page mean. The second piece is that it is intentionally vague and broad to sweep people up into it. It is a messaging bill, it is designed as red meat for a campaign base. And in order to achieve that you have to use intentionally vague and broad language that supercharges the debate. It's terrible policy, but it does mean that it gets you the buzzwords that you're looking for. And you've seen that in the way that the governor's office has responded, that they're now equating the existence of LGBTQ people to conversations about what happens in someone's bedroom, which is an age-old homophobic, transphobic bigoted trope that they are now weaponizing against anyone who opposes this bill.
There were efforts by both Democrats and Republicans to narrow that part of the bill and to say, if this is not a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, if it’s a bill about restricting conversations about sexual topics in the classrooms for very young people, then here's an amendment to change the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the bill to “sexual activity” or “sexual topics” or “sex education.” And Republicans voted those down three times.
So they know it's not about restricting sexual topics in a classroom, they know that it's about targeting people who have sexual orientations and gender identities. And by the way, they don't mean heterosexual people. They don't mean cisgender people, they mean LGBTQ people.
Also, sex education is already heavily regulated in Florida, you're not allowed to teach sex education until fifth grade. So this idea that they've created a bill that, you know, fights, talking about sex in the classroom, that's already not legal. And they know that, but they don't want to have that conversation.
What happens after this, now that it’s passed?
I want to be careful not to put the cart before the horse. And yes, the governor has indicated that he's interested in signing this bill. He's clearly on an aggressive offensive around the bill. But that said, our job is to show up for LGBTQ people throughout the entire process. So we still have to do the work of telling the governor that the right thing is to veto this bill, we still have to continue to have people email his office, call him, call his business partners like Disney and others to help put pressure on him to veto this bill.
And part of the reason for that is that when he signs it, he owns it. And if we haven't made that clear up front, then we haven't done our due diligence. So we need him to understand and we need the people of Florida to understand that we've given him every opportunity to do the right thing — we've called him in, we've invited him to stand with LGBTQ people. And if he chooses not to stand with us, he gets to own what happens next.
So let’s say he does sign it — how do you respond?
Should the governor sign the bill. our job is still to protect and defend LGBTQ Floridians. And that looks like a number of things. We will of course lead efforts to repeal the bill. From day one, we will begin calling lawmakers and having those meetings and building a coalition to try to get rid of the bill.
The second part of that is that we have to hold lawmakers accountable for the votes that they took. So that means every single one of these Republicans who shows up to pride and waives a rainbow flag and says I'm pro-LGBTQ, but voted for the Don’t Say Gay bill and voted for the trans youth sports ban needs to be accountable to that. And it's our job to make sure to tell their constituents that while your lawmaker is marketing themselves as a pro-LGBTQ candidate, here are the votes that they're taking. And finally, our job is to protect and defend LGBTQ folks in the courtroom, and we've already begun talking to legal partners about what a legal challenge to this bill may look like.
What are the politics on this right now? I know students have walked out, people have protested, but there are also a lot of conservative people in Florida — or at least enough for DeSantis to feel confident about this.
Supporters of that bill are actually quite frustrated because we've been able to frame the bill around the harm it will actually do instead of letting it live in this phony parental rights and education space that's just a cover for anti-LGBTQ school policy. The question of whether or not these policies are popular depends on whether you tell people what they do. When you allow right-wing politicians to write the messaging and the talking points, then people can misconstrue them as something that they're not.
As a result, you have people like Governor DeSantis, who actually is very popular. I think his favorability ratings are quite high, and certainly among independents, and that's in part because he's been able to frame these things in the way that's most advantageous to him. It's also why you've seen his shop green-lit to go on the offensive about the Don’t Say Gay Bill, because I think he's frustrated that he is not scoring the kind of political points that justify this sort of policy. It doesn't solve an actual problem, it exists to help him build a resume. He's not getting what he wants out of that, so he's unleashed his press secretary on everyone to make blanket accusations about pedophilia and other things like that.
The quiet part was said out loud. It was obvious what the bill was about. The sponsor of the bill in the Senate said on the floor during debate that he was drawn to the bill because he's concerned that young people feel comfortable enough to come out as LGBTQ in school and he wanted to put a stop to that.
How did it get to this point in the first place? The Pulse nightclub shooting was not even four years ago, and people at least acted like they were rallying around the LGBTQ community, and now they’re passing a “Don’t Say Gay” bill…
None of these politicians did anything after Pulse. They didn't pass a policy to address gun violence. They didn't pass a policy to address LGBTQ issues. They had a bill that they were moving through the legislature at that time that would have granted non-discrimination protections under the Civil Rights Act in Florida to LGBTQ people, and they didn't move on it. They certainly went out and championed themselves and said they were supporters of the LGBTQ community and showed up anytime there were television cameras, but they didn't do anything substantively to support the community. So I don't know that the politics have really changed. All of these lawmakers have always been self-obsessed. They've always done whatever is politically expedient.
Governor DeSantis is probably the worst perpetrator of that. He showed up at Pulse in 2019 to pay his respects on the anniversary with his wife. And people thought maybe that was a signal that he was going to lead as a pro-LGBT. But what they missed in the front half of that story is that the only reason he was there is that he botched a proclamation about Pulse that erased LGBTQ people and ended up in the New York Post and he called and said, “how do I fix this? How do I save face?” and people said you need to go and show your respect. So it was at the time of photo op and he’ll be the first one to green light a policy that directly assaults LGBTQ people when that's politically advantageous.