“We are going to make sure parents are able to send their kid to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into some of their school curriculum,” DeSantis said at a news conference Monday.
The bill, officially called the Parental Rights in Education bill, would prohibit Florida schools from teaching students in kindergarten through third grade about topics involving sexual orientation or gender identity.
Lessons for older grades would have to be “age appropriate,” which Democrats argue is a vague way of stifling all conversations about LGBTQ issues. Republicans played down that risk, saying the legislation prevents “planned lessons” but does not ban discussions between students or prevent teachers from answering specific questions from a student.
The measure also allows parents to sue school districts if they feel their children have received inappropriate lessons. Democrats warned of a wave of lawsuits against cash-strapped school systems.
“This is a direct attack on the Florida’s LGTBQ community, and that is not okay,” Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book (D) said during Tuesday’s debate.
The 22-to-17 vote Tuesday, which was largely along party lines, followed days of emotional debate over the legislation on school grounds, in corporate boardrooms, and in the Florida Senate.
Last week, students at dozens of Florida schools walked out of classes to protest the legislation. Several corporate leaders also spoke out against it.
On Monday, during initial debate over the bill on the Senate floor, Sen. Shevrin “Shev” Jones (D) became emotional while urging his colleagues to vote against the legislation. Jones, who in 2018 became the Florida Senate’s first openly gay member, spoke about how hard it had been for him to come out to his father, a pastor in South Florida.
“It just seems like in politics today, we have gone down a road where we are scared to just step up and make sure we are not hurting people,” Jones said through tears.
Democrats, meanwhile, remain outraged over comments that DeSantis’s spokeswoman Christina Pushaw made on Twitter last week. Pushaw suggested that only “groomers” would oppose the legislation, an apparent reference to child predators.
“The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as Anti-Grooming Bill,” Pushaw wrote, adding “If you’re against the anti-Grooming bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4- to 8-year-old children. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.”
During Tuesday’s debate, Book and others lashed out at Pushaw, saying her comments were an insulting betrayal of the state’s LGBTQ residents.
“The governor’s communications director accused us of being pedophiles for being again this bill. Boy, oh boy, I got news for you: You can’t teach gay and you sure can’t pray away gay,” said Sen. Gary M. Farmer (D).
Sen. Randolph Bracy (D) accused his Republican colleagues of engaging in a “culture war against the LGBTQ community” in hopes of furthering DeSantis’s political career. DeSantis has been widely mentioned as a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2024.
“I actually appreciate the discipline, and sometimes I wish our party would do the same thing,” Bracy said, while looking at his GOP colleagues. “But in your effort to elect Ron DeSantis and send him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I just ask you: Is it worth it? Is it worth it if one child is affected by this legislation? Is it worth a child being outed or bullied or potentially becoming suicidal?”
Sen. Ileana Garcia (R) countered that children have their entire lives to sort out their sexual orientation or gender identity, so there is no need to have “tough conversations” in elementary school. “This is not about targeting, this is about rerouting responsibility back to the parents and allowing children to be children,” she said.
But Democrats argue that the legislation will hurt gay Floridians and endanger the state’s reputation around the world.
“Who in the world have we become? Who in Florida have we become?” asked Sen. Janet Cruz (D), who noted that she has a daughter who is gay who was in the chamber to watch the floor debate. “I feel like I had a dream of a bad version of ‘Back to the Future.’ I mean, there is no time machine here. We can’t roll back 40 years; we are here.”