A Michigan Student and Professor on Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill: Why It Matters to All and How to Talk About It 

By Amy Brainer and Naja Nile

Naja Nile is a sophomore at the University of Michigan-Dearborn majoring in Women’s & Gender Studies with a certificate in LGBTQ+ Studies. Amy Brainer is an associate professor at UM-Dearborn where she directs the Women’s & Gender Studies and LGBTQ+ Studies programs.

We write this op-ed as a teacher and a university student who share in common a deep concern about Florida’s HB 1557 and similar bills.

Descriptions of the “Parental Rights in Education” bill recently passed by the Florida Senate differ based on where you look.

From opponents, we learn about a bill (soon to be law) that stops teachers and schools from acknowledging LGBTQ+ people and gives parents the ability to opt their kids out of health services in potentially all grade levels. Meanwhile, supporters present the bill as a measure that protects the youngest children from sexual content and predation.

How can we talk to one another across this gulf?

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Amy Brainer: A few years ago, a student opened up to me about her discomfort with “In a Heartbeat,” an animated short film that shows a first crush between two boys. My student, a young mother, said that she had gay friends and supported them but worried about the impact of the film on kids.

As a result of her candor, we were able to talk about what happens when children see — or don’t see — gay and trans people around them. Isolation from LGBTQ+ people does not make gay children straight or trans children cis. But, we know from study after study, it does make them feel less hopeful about the future, less worthy of love, and more likely to harm themselves.

Isolation from LGBTQ+ people does not make straight, cis children more straight or more cis. But, it does increase their risk of developing biases and condoning or even participating in bullying. Most parents, including those who identify as conservative, do not want their children to bully or harm others. I respected my student enough to have this conversation with her, and she respected me enough to do the same. In the end she changed her mind about the film. That won’t always happen. But I think it’s worth the effort.

With Florida’s HB 1557 and other bills like it winding their way through state legislatures, we must find a way to communicate with people who think they need to protect their kids from LGBTQ+ content. Many LGBTQ+ kids (and siblings, cousins, and friends of LGBTQ+ kids) live with those parents and guardians, some of whom hold anti-LGBTQ+ biases, and we owe it to them to believe the adults in their lives can change.

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Naja Nile: We also need to help people understand that this bill is not about sheltering kids from sexual activity, as many of its supporters claim. Its language is more specific. Sen. Jeff Brandes proposed to replace “gender identity and sexual orientation” with “human sexuality and sexual activity” and this proposal was rejected by the full Senate vote.

The bill Gov. DeSantis will sign into law prohibits discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade or when “not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” It will give parents the right to sue school districts, at the district’s expense, for perceived violations of this vaguely worded clause. Perhaps most devastatingly, it will potentially open the door for parents to force schools to expose kids’ sexual and gender identities to them, even when those are shared in confidence with a teacher or counselor.

Even under a narrow interpretation of the law, Florida’s state standards do not introduce topics to do with gender identity or sexual orientation until the ninth grade. Ninth graders are 13 and 14 years old. That is more than enough time for young people to form relationships with and ideas about their own bodies, and be exposed to real-world issues around gender and sexuality.

Discussions of these topics are not as common as kids need and as lawmakers imagine. Without a bill like this one, I went through K-3 without being taught by a teacher about gender, sex, or human sexuality. In fact, I made it to the ninth grade without a single sex-ed class. It is well known that if you aren’t willing to teach kids about things, they will learn it elsewhere.

Brainer: That’s true, and many of the bill’s supporters think the ‘elsewhere’ will be at home. But it’s not that simple. As a family sociologist, I have interviewed parents, grandparents, and siblings of LGBTQ+ people and have spent a lot of time thinking about the ways that different policies and laws show up in family dynamics. Evidence shows that bills like HB 1557 hurt the whole family. Our challenge now is to help people understand why.

Nile: This bill is about censoring genders and sexual orientations that do not fit the social norm. Public education has always been about more than just math, science, and reading. School curricula already teach kids about cultural and social issues.

Classrooms ought to be allowed to facilitate conversations around topics that affect students’ lives. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10–24, and 19 percent of LGBTQ+ youth ages 13–18 reported attempting suicide within the last year alone. Young people need to see themselves represented and their humanity affirmed. Their lives depend on it.


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