Several LGBTQ advocacy groups and families on Thursday filed a joint federal lawsuit against Florida over the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, arguing that the legislation is unconstitutional and has already begun harming children and families.
The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida by Kaplan Hecker & Fink and the National Center for Lesbian Rights on behalf of Equality Florida, Family Equality and multiple family members. The groups say the bill, signed into law Monday by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), seeks to “stigmatize, silence, and erase LGBTQ people in Florida’s public schools” by imposing “a vague, sweeping ban covering any instruction on ‘sexual orientation and gender identity’” in classrooms.
“Through H.B. 1557, Florida would deny to an entire generation that LGBTQ people exist and have equal dignity. This effort to control young minds through state censorship ― and to demean LGBTQ lives by denying their reality ― is a grave abuse of power,” the complaint reads.
“The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that LGBTQ people and families are at home in our constitutional order. The State of Florida has no right to declare them outcasts, or to treat their allies as outlaws, by punishing schools where someone dares to affirm their identity and dignity.”
DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske described the lawsuit as “a political Hail-Mary to undermine parental rights in Florida.”
“Unsurprisingly, many of the parties to this suit are advocacy groups with publicly stated political agendas,” Fenske said in a statement to HuffPost, while failing to address the parents who raised concerns about the law in the complaint.
The law, which DeSantis and conservative allies describe as a “parental rights bill,” says that any classroom lessons “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.”
The legislation also requires public schools to inform parents of changes in a student’s “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being,” and allows parents to sue school districts if they believe schools or their employees have violated the law.
“I am frightened that this new law will prevent my daughter’s teachers from protecting her from bullying at school,” said Lindsay McClelland, mother of “Jane Doe,” a plaintiff in the suit who is a transgender fifth grader at a Florida public school. “All I want is for my daughter to be able to learn in a safe environment like any other student.”
Fenske said the governor’s office will defend the legality of “parents to protect their young children from sexual content” in schools. However, a separate Florida law already requires teachers who address “human sexuality” to provide age-appropriate instruction and material. Efforts to reduce the scope of the new, controversial law, so that it would apply only to instruction about sexuality or sex acts, were shot down multiple times in the state legislature.
The law’s vague language, the advocacy groups argue, is intentionally written to allow for arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement in schools. The statute raises, but does not explicitly define, terms like “discussion,” “instruction” and “age-appropriate” ― which has caused a growing number of teachers and school administrators to say they will remove LGBTQ references from the curriculum and no longer guide discussions that involve LGBTQ issues, out of fear of litigation.
“My school has been a safe environment where I have been able to express my identity. I would not have been able to learn and thrive without that support,” said plaintiff Zander Moricz, an 18-year-old senior at Pine View School in Osprey. “My teachers have already told me that they will no longer be able to have some of the classroom discussions that helped me feel accepted in school.”
The broad language in the law has also left LGBTQ students and parents fearful of expressing or discussing their own identities, and worried they will face punishment or exclusion if they do. It’s common for a teacher or school counselor to be the first adult an LGBTQ youth comes out to, since only a third of them find their home to be safe and LGBTQ-affirming, according to the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth.
“Accusations of a sinister plot by LGBTQ people to indoctrinate and corrupt aren’t new ― they’re the oldest trope in the book,” tweeted Brandon Wolf, a spokesperson for Equality Florida and a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando. “Bigots lobbed them while they tried to ban us from being teachers, serving our country, getting married, adopting children, and using the bathroom ... And those tired accusations are being wielded as weapons once again.”
“So let me say what I wish *anyone* had the courage to tell me when I was labeled a dangerous, 17 year old contagion: LGBTQ people are a normal, healthy part of society who deserve to be valued and seen,” he continued. “That’s what we’re fighting for. And I won’t apologize for it.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly listed the National Center for Lesbian Rights as a plaintiff.