By Andrew Roth, Michigan Advance.
A Republican candidate for the Michigan House of Representatives announced that, if elected, he would introduce legislation modeled on a Florida measure known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Jon Rocha, a candidate endorsed by former President Donald Trump in the 78th District, said his proposal would ban “discussion, or dissemination of materials, that involves sexual orientation, gender identity, or any sexually explicit content, in Kindergarten through 4th grade.”
“Elementary kids should be learning about math, science, history and how to read and write — radical, sexual indoctrination from adults pushing personal agendas has no place whatsoever in the education of Michigan’s youngest students,” Rocha said in a statement.
The newly-drawn 78th District includes parts of Eaton, Barry, Ionia and Kent counties. Small business owner and citizen lobbyist Gina Johnsen recently announced she also is running as a Republican on a platform of transparency.
The legislation in Florida, which has been sent to the desk of GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, would allow parents to sue school districts if their child is exposed to instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity deemed to not be “age-appropriate,” which the Florida Phoenix reports could include anything from kindergarten through high school.
Florida’s legislation has drawn backlash from leaders and corporations across the nation, with President Joe Biden calling it a “hateful bill.”
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has said that “all schools receiving federal funding must follow federal civil rights law, including Title IX’s protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Jay Kaplan, an LGBTQ+ rights attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the laws could have a chilling effect on teachers and school officials.
“If you look at the actual language of Florida’s law, it is so broad, and it’s so vague in terms of terminology,” Kaplan said. “It has the impact of potentially taking everything off the table.”
“How do you define classroom instruction? What if you have a student who was in a classroom, who happens to have two parents of the same gender showing up for, I don’t know, the Halloween party in the classroom, and in effect that should come up in discussion? Why does somebody have, you know, two moms or two dads? That can’t be discussed,” Kaplan said. “Let’s say, we’re talking about President Biden’s cabinet, and a student’s doing a report on [U.S. Transportation Secretary] Pete Buttigieg and the fact that he is married to his husband. Is that taken off the table? There’s so much vagueness in here.”
Kaplan said that chilling effect is already being seen, even in states that do not have the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation yet.
“I got a call from a teacher a couple weeks ago, in Michigan, who was told by her principal that she cannot, if a student comes out to her as LGBTQ, that she’s not allowed to acknowledge it, nor is she allowed to say or do anything supportive of that child, because the school district might be sued,” Kaplan said. “Now, that’s totally incorrect. We don’t have a law like this in Michigan. And yet the thought from this principal was, well, they’re attempting to do this in Florida, it’s probably going to come to Michigan.”
A Democratic state senator in Florida has warned that the controversial legislation could drive teachers out of the state, the Florida Phoenix reported.
Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat who is Michigan’s first openly gay top statewide official who argued this month in front of the Michigan Supreme Court to include LGBTQ people in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, told the Advance the legislation would be “one of the worst things that you can do for LGBTQ kids.”
“It says that they don’t exist, which of course, they really do,” said Nessel, who as a private attorney argued against Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned in 2015. “It will lead to a marked increase in suicide among LGBTQ kids, or the children of LGBTQ parents.”
Simply acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ+ individuals can have a profound impact for their mental health, especially during their formative years, Nessel said.
“Just by virtue of Gov. [Gretchen] Whitmer putting a Pride Flag out in June, outside the Romney Building, I can’t even tell you the significance of just acknowledging this community, what it meant to so many people in this state,” Nessel said. “Not even any word, just putting that flag out. There were kids that didn’t slit their wrists, and didn’t jump off a bridge that day, because they had a governor that acknowledged that they exist and that they should be proud of who they are.”
Beyond mental health struggles, Kaplan said it could also lead to external safety threats for LGBTQ+ students.
“This helps to foster this environment that somehow to be LGBTQ is forbidden, is wrong,” Kaplan said. “I think it also sends a message to other kids that to be LGBTQ or to identify as that is wrong. And it can also put those LGBTQ kids not only at risk for mental health harm, but also for physical harm, for bullying and harassment by other students, because this message is being communicated.”
Legislation restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals has recently moved in at least 10 other states, reports Them, an LGBTQ+ magazine launched in 2017.
“We’re obviously seeing a trend,” Kaplan said. “I think this is one of the worst years in terms of anti-LGBTQ legislation introduced in other state legislatures that we’ve ever seen, particularly targeting LGBTQ youth.”
Kaplan said there is a link between the trend of anti-LGBTQ legislation and the rise of Critical Race Theory as an issue for Republicans across the country, with the issues being similarly framed and weaponized.
“You absolutely see that connection. We’ve heard of particular groups appearing at school board meetings, and they have a three-point initiative: They don’t want discussion of critical race theory, in the past they didn’t want the kids wearing masks in school, and they also don’t want policies that are supportive of LGBT kids in school,” Kaplan said. “And sometimes they also will include they want to see transgender kids prohibited from being able to play school sports in accordance with their gender identity.”
Kaplan said that the legislation is designed for political gain, rather than from the standpoint of useful policy.
“The other thing that’s so important to keep in mind is the impetus behind much of this legislation is political. It’s trying to score political points, and trying to solidify political bases, by attacking particular groups of people — in this case, some of the most vulnerable people, LGBTQ kids,” Kaplan said. “And we have to call it out for what it is.”
Nessel said the strategy dates back decades.
“I feel like I’ve seen this from the Republican Party. I’ve seen this playbook, you know, I feel like my whole life,” Nessel said. “This is a party that operates on cruelty and hatred. And I can’t imagine wanting to be a member of a party that wants to target some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I don’t know what people get out of that. I don’t know what’s enjoyable about that. I don’t know what motivates a person to run for office, if their goal is to discriminate against their own constituents. It’s very disturbing to me. And I won’t ever understand it.”
“These are not legitimate issues for people to be concerned about. A person having medical insurance, that’s a legitimate issue. A person being able to find affordable housing, that’s a legitimate issue. A person having clean water to drink and clean air to breathe, that’s a legitimate issue. But because the Republicans don’t have policies that regular people would support on any of those issues, instead, they have to turn to these wedge issues that are divisive, and really are unhelpful to anyone.”
Nessel said that the policies need to be a defining issue for voters in the upcoming midterm elections. She is up for reelection this fall and likely will face former House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt), state Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.) or Kalamazoo-based attorney Matthew DePerno, who all have right-wing stances on social issues.
“All hope is not lost, but people have to pay really close attention to who they vote for, and people have to get out and vote,” Nessel said. “For everyone who’s an ally, who supports the LGBTQ community, you know, it just has to be bigger than issues like taxes, or issues like differences on COVID relief, or something of that nature. This is about acknowledging a very large percentage of our state as just as human. I mean, it’s as simple as that.”
Ultimately, Nessel said she wants LGBTQ+ people to know that while “you may have one party that wants to erase you,” LGBTQ+ individuals also “have an entire political party structure here in the state of Michigan that cares about you, and that supports you, and that believes that you matter, and that’s willing to fight for you.”
Andrew Roth is a reporting intern with the Michigan Advance. He has been covering Michigan policy and politics for three years across a number of publications and studies journalism at Michigan State University.