Hoping to strike a blow for heteronormativity, in a party-line vote in March the Florida House and Senate passed a controversial “Don’t say gay” bill. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law on March 28. But as any strict constructionist will tell you, it’s not just a “Don’t say gay” law. HB 1557, “An act relating to parental rights in education,” bars instruction on anything to do with sexual orientation and gender identity. That makes it a “Don’t say straight” law too, because straight is definitely a sexual orientation.
The relevant part of HB 1557, which takes effect in July, reads,
Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.
A strict construction of the text—the kind of legal interpretation that conservatives insist on—means that teachers not only can’t say “gay” or “straight,” they can’t say anything suggesting sex or gender, like she or he or girl or boy.
Lawmakers might not have intended this, but a strict constructionist like the late Justice Antonin Scalia rejected “speculation about . . .the drafters’ extra-textually derived purposes”—in plain English, the lawmakers’ intentions are irrelevant. The only thing that counts is what the law actually says, which is, “No sex in school, and no gender, either.”
The scope of the law is broad. Supporters wanted to bar discussions of same-sex dating and marriage, but it also covers heterosexual relationships, children, birds, bees, and a whole lot more.
That’s what happens when legislators are so focused on scoring political points they don’t read what they’re voting on.
Avoiding sex and gender in Florida classrooms will be tricky business. An anonymous letter circulating on Twitter notes that singular they must now replace the gendered pronouns he and she. Gone too are gendered titles like Mr., Ms., and Mrs. Now all teachers will be Mx., pronounced ‘mix.’
Florida already has some experience with Mx. and they. In 2017, trans teacher Chloe Bressack told their Tallahassee fifth grade class to call them Mx. Bressack and use the pronouns they/them. Bressack was promptly transferred to an adult education center. But after July, all teachers will be Mx. and their pronouns will be they/them.
But wait, there’s more. “What’s the shortest distance between two points?” the geometry teacher wants to know. Not a straight line, not after July 1. Those pesky masculine and feminine nouns in Spanish? Gone from the state whose original name was La Florida. All the latest dictionaries define “same-sex marriage,” so they’re out of the classroom. But gone too are the classic dictionaries of Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, which define marriage as “uniting a man and a woman.” Man and woman entail gender, a violation of section 1001.42 of the Florida Statutes.
As a bonus, Florida won’t need a “bathroom bill” like North Carolina’s to sort children into the right stalls. Come July, all school bathrooms will be gender free, just like the bathrooms the governor and state legislators have at home. No more gendered school sports, either, so school board meetings can now focus on eliminating more important topics from the classroom.
The new law focuses on the early grades, but it really covers any time through high school, since it also lets parents opt out of pretty much anything related to sex and gender that they don’t want their children to learn. Plus parents can sue schools for any violations. Straight parents can sue. Gay parents can sue. Trans parents can sue. Other categories of parents and caregivers can sue. Buckle up, Florida, it’s the law.
Florida wants children to learn only what parents want them to learn. But students always learn things some adults don’t want them to know. Even before schools existed, in that idyllic time when everyone learned at home, children acquired forbidden knowledge on their own, whether it was about sex or gender or race or history or grammar or slavery or geometry or dinosaurs or the Big Bang.
HB 1557 and similar bills in other states are trying to legislate gender nonconformity out of existence. But “Don’t say gay” laws can’t change anyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. They don’t even represent majority opinion, the will of the people. Instead, these laws pander to the minority of “family values” extremists and threaten to strip away legal rights from a significant group of people whose rights, and lives, have often been in jeopardy.