Critics Slam Florida 'Don't Say Gay' Bill Ahead of Key Vote

Critics have slammed a controversial Florida education bill that is scheduled for a key vote in the Judiciary Committee of the state's Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Thursday.

The Parental Rights in Education bill, which opponents have dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill, will be considered by the committee during their meeting at 3:00 p.m. ET.

President Joe Biden has been among the critics of the bill, calling it "hateful" in a tweet on February 8 and telling LGTBQ individuals "I have your back." Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has signaled support for the bill.

The Parental Rights in Education bill says that Florida school districts "may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students."

The bill would also grant parents the right to sue schools if they thought those schools were violating the provisions of the bill.

One version of the bill is before the Florida House and another almost identical bill is before the Florida Senate. The Senate bill has to clear two further committees.

Some Democratic lawmakers in Florida have strongly criticized the proposal. State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat representing the 49th district, highlighted the committee meeting in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

"The Florida House continues to advance the dangerous 'Don't Say Gay' bill and has placed it on the agenda for a vote in this Thursday's Judiciary Committee at 3.p.m.," Smith wrote, urging people to contact the members of the committee.

U.S. Representative Charlie Crist of Florida's 13th congressional district told Newsweek in a statement on Wednesday that the bill was not designed to benefit the state's children.

"We are all God's children, and our vibrant LGBTQ+ community is part of what makes Florida special," Crist said. "This is another effort to politicize our classrooms, not for our kid's benefit, but rather Ron's presidential ambitions. It's obscene and it's wrong."

Crist is considered the frontrunner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Florida which would see him face off against DeSantis, who is a Republican. There has been significant speculation about DeSantis' presidential ambitions, though he has repeatedly said he's focusing on reelection this year.

Anna Eskamani is a Democratic member of the Florida House of Representatives for the state's 47th district. She told Newsweek on Wednesday that the Parental Rights in Education bill was "rooted in homophobia and transphobia."

"It would prohibit the encouragement of any conversation in a school setting about sexual orientation or gender identity, meaning that a child wanting to talk about their two moms, or learn more about the Pulse Nightclub shooting or hear from elected officials and community leaders who identify as LGBTQ+ would be unable to do so," Eskamani said.

"The bill sends a dangerous message to kids that being gay or trans is wrong, that these are 'dirty' words," Eskamani said. "It also has the potential to force kids to be outed to their parents on their LGBTQ+ identity before they are ready to do so."

"We stand aggressively against this bill—it is always appropriate to acknowledge the fact that LGBTQ+ people exist and we must do whatever we can to stop this bill from becoming law," she added.

Equality Florida, a civil right organization advocating equality for LGBTQ people in the state, released an ad on February 14 opposing the legislation and asking for help to "stop the DeSantis Censorship and Surveillance State agenda."

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, told Newsweek in a statement on Thursday: "The Don't Say Gay bill would erase LGBTQ people from classrooms across Florida, further stigmatizing our community and isolating young LGBTQ people who are already four times as likely as their peers to attempt suicide before graduation."

"Governor DeSantis, in his desperate attempt to outflank Donald Trump to the right and build an onramp to run for president in 2024, has mired our state in these culture wars and is championing legislation to curb free speech, censor classroom conversations, and shove LGBTQ people back into the closet," Smith said.

Smith accused DeSantis of trying to "build political power by targeting and demonizing LGBTQ people."

Newsweek has asked Governor Ron DeSantis' office for comment.

State Representative Joe Harding is a sponsor of the Parental Rights in Education bill and a Republican representing the 22nd district. He dismissed criticism of the legislation.

"Parents feel like they are losing control of their own children in the classroom," Harding told Newsweek in a statement on Thursday.

"There is no reason for anyone other than a parent or guardian to be discussing gender identity or any other topic of a sexual nature with a child between kindergarten and the 3rd grade," he said.

"This bill simply defines for parents and guardians a right that should be universally recognized," Harding said.

Harding said opponents of the bill are "making a ridiculous case that this bill is about attacking gays."

"Discussing heavy sexual topics with children before puberty and without the direct consultation and participation of a parent is usually recognized as abuse," he said.

"Every adult, LGBT or straight, who has a child's best interests in mind, should support this legislation," Harding added.

State Senator Dennis Baxley, a Republican and sponsor of the bill in the state Senate, said the legislation is not "anti-gay."

"I'm particularly concerned about early intervention and shaping and social engineering their views about topics that are much more sophisticated than primary age children should be struggling with," Baxley told CBS Miami.

Baxley said he didn't want parents, including LGBTQ parents, "to relinquish their role."

"I think this is a mistake with our school system, because teachers do receive students from all over the spectrum, they are trying to do things that are far beyond what a teacher should do," he said.

People Carry a Rainbow Flag in Florida
People carry the Rainbow Flag as they participate in the Miami Beach Pride Parade along Ocean Drive on September 19, 2021 in Miami Beach, Florida. A controversial Florida education bill dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by critics will be discussed in a committee hearing on Thursday. Joe Raedle/Getty Images