TAMPA, Fla. — There is no lack of opposition to House Bill 1557, dubbed by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill. But when you take out the buzzwords and rhetoric on both sides, what does the bill actually say? That is a tricky question that depends entirely on who you ask.
At only seven-pages long, the bill is not a difficult read, but the interpretation of the language in the bill for people for and against is drastically different.
Read the bill here:
If you support the bill, it's about parental rights, protecting our youngest children from adult topics, and holding school districts accountable. If you are against the bill, it's seen as an attack on the LGBTQ community.
"My first thought was, I can't believe we have to legislate common sense. But here we are," Renee Chiea, a member of the group "Moms for Liberty," said. "The other major part is bringing the parents into the conversation regarding their children."
In regards to student welfare, the language of HB1557 states that school districts must, "adopt procedures for notifying a student's parent if there is a change in the student's services or monitoring related to the student's mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being and the school's ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student. The procedures must reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children."
Chiea said young children have no reason to discuss gender identity or sexual orientation.
"My point is, I don't think it's something that would naturally occur, especially in that age group," Chiea said. "I think it's outrageous for someone to try and talk to my young child about things that aren't concerning them and maybe are at variance with the values in the home. Public school for everyone should be a neutral space, where you got to learn how to read, write, and do arithmetic, you know, not, not all this other stuff. There are all these culture wars in the schools, and they're starting to push it to younger and younger children."
The controversy surrounding the bill focuses mainly on a section that says, "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."
Critics believe "age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate" are vague terms that open the door to interpretation about what grade levels can or cannot talk about gender identity or sexual orientation.
"They want people to just take it down to some, you know, cute little phrase like 'Don't Say Gay' and then get them to rage about it," Chiea said. "That's the direction they (educators) want to take things. They want to build activists out of our kids in the schools. They don't want to build concerned citizens who had can have a dialogue and critical think and all of that."
The bulk of the language of the bill centers around parental rights to,
"reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children in a specified manner; prohibiting the procedures from prohibiting a parent from accessing certain records; providing construction; prohibiting a school district from adopting procedures or student support forms that prohibit school district personnel from notifying a parent about specified information or that encourage or have the effect of encouraging a student to withhold from a parent such information; prohibiting school district personnel from discouraging or prohibiting parental notification an involvement in critical decisions affecting a student's mental, emotional, or physical well-being."
Leaders in the LGBTQ community read that section and don't interpret the language as protecting parental rights or protecting children.
"So, the question about parental rights is, whose rights?" Nicholas Machuca, Regional Development Officer for Equality Florida, said. "So, it very clearly seems like LGBTQ parents are having their rights stripped by this bill. If I were to have kids, I would worry about my child going to school and sharing a little bit about his family on a family tree or a project or show and tell. So, what happens when the child of a same-sex couple goes to school and wants to share about their two moms or two dads for show and tell or a school project or a family tree assignment? And the teacher has to shut down that conversation. What happens if another student asks, you know, why does Jimmy have two dads? Or why does Margaret have two moms? How is the teacher supposed to respond to that?"
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Machuca said the bill is a step backward for LGBTQ rights; a dangerous bill that sets a precedent to open up attacks and strip members of the gay community of fundamental human rights.
"I think it's a major step in the wrong direction to believe that learning about LGBTQ issues is indoctrination into the LGBTQ community. We know that's not how it works. We know that you cannot change your sexual orientation, and it is a natural part of yourself," Machuca said. "And, it says the quiet part out loud, it shows that they believe that LGBTQ people are pedophiles and that we're preying on school kids when that's not the case. The trajectory that his administration has chosen is very clearly homophobic and transphobic."
GOV. RON DESANTIS:
Governor Ron DeSantis made it clear that he supports HB1557. However, at events across the state, DeSantis pointed out to opponents that nowhere does the phrase "Don't Say Gay" appear in the bill's language.
Earlier this month In Plant City, during a bill signing at the Strawberry Festival, a reporter asked about the HB 1557, referring to it as what critics call "Don't Say Gay." Then, frustrated, the governor lashed out.
"Does it say that in the bill? Does it say that in the bill?" DeSantis asked. "I'm asking you to tell me what's in the bill because you are pushing false narratives. It doesn't matter what critics say. For who? For grades pre-K through three. So, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, and um, the idea that you wouldn't be honest about that and tell people what it actually says is why people don't trust people like you because you peddle false narratives. And so we disabuse you of those narratives. And, we are going to make sure that parents are able to send their kids to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into their school curriculum."
This week, DeSantis addressed the bill again in Wesley Chapel.
"All I would tell people is: read the bill, and if you have issues with those, articulate them. It's a free country. But what I don't do are narratives and slogans and people just putting things out that are basically false narratives. And I think that's what happened. I think, unfortunately, Disney's leadership bought into a lot of the false narratives," DeSantis said. "I think when you're looking at saying for kindergartners or first graders, the classroom instruction they're getting should not be involving sexuality, particularly transgenderism. That's something that parents do not want. If you are out protesting this bill, you are by definition putting yourself in favor of injecting sexual instruction to 5, 6, 7-year-old kids. I think most people think that's wrong. I think most people think that's wrong. I think parents especially think it's wrong."
Current and former educators ABC Action News interviewed believe the bill will lead to a mass exodus of teachers caught in the middle of culture wars.
"What was your initial reaction when you saw the bill's language and what it meant for teachers?" ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska asked.
"It was very upsetting, very frustrating, very heartbreaking. It's the amount of stress that's put on teachers right now; in general, pre-COVID is a lot. With COVID, we had a whole nother dimension of stress that was brought on," Stephanie Bernstein said. "It's really scary to be putting teachers in a position where they have to worry that they're going to be sued by parents, or worried about what's going to be talked about outside the classroom, they may have said the wrong thing, or put something in the wrong context."
Bernstein is a former elementary and middle school teacher. In 2020, at the start of the pandemic, she left her job and decided to focus on her family. Her husband, Brad Bernstein, is currently an assistant principal at a Pinellas County high school. The couple has two children in the age group the bill aims to shield from talk of gender identity and sexual orientation. Something both said is not an issue at home or in their schools.
"Is this even an issue that needs to be put in legislation because it's happening in our schools?" Paluska asked.
"I never had a conversation where we explicitly discussed that type of conversation about gender identity or sexual orientation. It was never a conversation; it was never something that was taught," Stephanie Bernstein said. "But, I do feel that by bringing so much attention to it, it's, it's bringing a really negative connotation to it."
Brad Bernstein has more than a decade as an educator and administrator at area schools, with four years in his current role as assistant principal.
"This group of students that we have here, this generation, they are most accepting students I've ever witnessed before," Brad Bernstein said. "If these people are making these bills came into the schools, you wouldn't see students like fighting about this; you won't see students arguing about this, you'll see just acceptance. And that's what it should be."
Stephanie Bernstein doesn't know if she'll ever return to the classroom. And, she said many teachers who are still working at districts across Tampa Bay aren't happy.
"The amount of stress and requirements and bills that are being passed and put on these teachers' plates that they have to worry about is too much," Stephanie Bernstein said. "And, there's going to be no teachers left. Sure, no good teachers left if we if we keep doing this."
Students across Florida staged walkouts in protest of the bill. Several high schoolers we interviewed also questioned the need for this type of legislation to begin with.
"The bill focuses on parental rights, which on its own is fine, but it goes overboard and goes to a point where it forgets to protect the kids when their parents fail to," Miles Krumdholz, a senior and President of the Middleton High School Pride Club said. "This bill isn't going to affect healthy households, healthy households, where children feel supported by their parents and safe to share information like this with their parents. Nothing's going to change because they're already going to be sharing it."
There are concerns it could lead to more bullying if teachers can't moderate specific topics.
"If you ban it altogether, students are going to talk about it; they still have the freedom of speech. So you're just going to have the mean stuff, the derogatory stuff spread across, and that's what students are going to learn in school," Nick Miguel, a senior at Middleton, said. "They're not; they're still going to hear about it; you can't just ignore that they exist."
LGBTQ AND MENTAL HEALTH:
Pain runs deep in the LGBTQ community. During several interviews, topics of fear, depression, loneliness, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide came up. As members of this community fight for basic human rights, they also grapple with feelings and emotions that they sometimes do not understand.
According to a recent survey by The Trevor Project, "42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth."
For more than 20-years, the non-profit has provided suicide prevention and crisis intervention services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning young people. In addition, the Trevor Project has a 24-hour hotline and text services for people in need.
"So we know that our youth are under assault this year from a nationwide wave of legislation," Casey Pick, Senior Fellow for Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project said. "85% of transgender and non-binary youth, and two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth, say that recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively affected their mental health, often leaving them feeling frightened, angry, depressed, or hopeless."
"There's no age that is too young to talk about treating each other with dignity and respect," Pick said. "But, the reality is at the Trevor projects, crisis lines, we do hear from youth in elementary school. They are calling us because of who they are, and what they experienced and just their need for help because they are not finding the kind of welcome and understanding where they are."
Pick said her journey to acceptance was a hard road. And, she doesn't want to see any legislation that could hurt our younger generation.
"I came out to my mother in high school, and she didn't receive it. Well, she had a hard time with, to the extent that not long afterward, I came home to find that the locks on the door had been changed," Pick said. "We did ultimately reconcile. But it took years to do it, and we didn't finally completely forgive each other, completely, until she was on her deathbed. And I deeply, deeply miss the years that we could have had together because life is just too short for that kind of rejection based on misinformation and lies."
Governor DeSantis continues to tell opponents to read the bill.
"I feel like the bill is really written to protect kids and protect parental rights. I don't think the intent at all, not even a little bit is to be political and polarizing. In fact, if anything, I think DeSantis tries to send the message of why is this a polarizing or political issue? You know, one of the things he even said is, 'Hey, did you read the bill because there's nothing in it that should be so outrageous,'" Chiea said. "This bill is trying to give another level of accountability. I think he'd (DeSantis) love it if everyone just agreed with it and said, 'oh, that's great, that makes sense, lovely.' I think it just piggybacks on the parental rights direction that DeSantis has been going, which is one of the things I love."