UMass students and staff react to Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill recently signed into law

Act HB 1557 is faced with criticism and protests for its censoring of any LGBTQ+ topics in grades K-3

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Ana Pietrewicz / Daily Collegian

By Caitlin Reardon, Collegian Staff

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed House Bill 1557, the Parental Rights in Education Act, on March 28. This bill acts as an effort for parents to assert more control over their children’s education by eliminating conversation of sexuality and gender in schools.

The “Don’t Say Gay” bill, as protesters call it, states that both school personnel and any outside third parties are not to speak of sexual orientation or gender identity to children in grades kindergarten through third grade.

HB 1557 claims that “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” is prohibited and not age appropriate. If any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity is discussed, parents are able to sue the school district for not cooperating with the bill.

The Republican-majority Florida House passed the bill with a 69-47 vote in early March. The Senate voted 22 ‘yeas’ to 17 ‘nays,’ gathering much controversy among members. Gov. DeSantis was predicted to sign the bill if it passed the House and Senate, as he previously spoke about his distaste with any LGBTQ+ discussion in primary schools.

“I don’t care what corporate media outlets say, I don’t care what Hollywood says, I don’t care what big corporations say,” Gov. DeSantis said during a conference at a school before signing on to bill in a video posted to his Twitter account. . “Here I stand, I’m not backing down.”

A number of protests have blossomed across the state in opposition of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, coloring the sky with Pride flags and signs encouraging LGBTQ+ youth to stay true to themselves. In Orange County, Winter Park High School amassed over 500 student protesters in early March.

Florida senior Jack Petocz at Flagler Palm Coast High School organized walkouts to express student disapproval and was indefinitely suspended from his school following the protests.

Hillary Montague-Asp, a graduate assistant at the University of Massachusetts Stonewall Center, reacted to the bill and stated that she found it “super upsetting.”

“We can see the negative impact that that has on the whole country, not just people living in Florida,” she said.

Montague-Asp also mentioned how hearing about queer news in the media statistically has a “pretty big impact on their [those in the LGBTQ+ community’s] mental health.” Montague-Asp cited gay comedian Wanda Sykes, who recently co-hosted the Oscars and called out the bill in the award show’s opening: “For you people in Florida, we’re going to have a gay night,” Sykes said.

“That kind of message on that large of a platform is really, really impactful for queer youth,” Montague-Asp said.

Robert Cahill, a junior history major and student staff member at the Stonewall Center, said that HB 1557 is “extremely damaging. It tells queer youth that they’re inherently dangerous.”

Cahill pointed out how it makes school systems unsafe, the bill being “an indicator of a really powerful backlash against queer movements in the 21st century.”

Large companies such as Disney have even condemned the bill. A Walt Disney Company spokesperson posted a statement to the company’s website, stating that Florida’s bill “should never have passed and should never have been signed into law.”

This written statement was released after a group of LGBTQ+-identifying Pixar employees released their own letter expressing disappointment with the company.

“We at Pixar have personally witnessed beautiful stories, full of diverse characters, come back from Disney corporate reviews shaved down to crumbs of what they once were,” the statement read.  “Nearly every moment of overtly gay affection is cut at Disney’s behest.”

Molly Solano, a junior architecture major involved with the Center for Women and Community, said that “unity” is needed.

Solano believes it’s important that legislation is “showing representation and showing these kids that it’s okay to stand against what people are telling us and that we are people too, and we should stand up for our rights.”

Other states are now considering putting this bill into their state legislation. Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick said it could be a top priority for their legislative session this coming January. Ohio and Louisiana lawmakers have also expressed similar consideration.

The Republican-sided claim is that the bill creates more autonomy for parents to control what their children are learning and talking about in school. LGBTQ+ community members, however, disagree.

Florida’s first openly gay senator Shevrin Jones spoke passionately in a legislative meeting. “To those who think you can legislate gay people away, I’m sorry, you cannot,” he said.

While Florida may be creating the ripple effect for other states to enact this bill into law, Cahill addressed LGBTQ+ youth: “Know that there are so many people who would actively want to help you, want to build that community with you,” he said.

“And just know that there are plenty of other people out there who would love to see you flourish and be a part of this community.”

Caitlin Reardon can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @caitlinjreardon.