Earlier this week, news outlets across the country reported on the advancement of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ controversial “Parental Rights in Education Bill”, also known as HB 1557. In case you missed it, the bill was passed by the state House’s GOP-controlled Education and Employment Committee on January 20th by a vote of 15-5. While the bill’s sponsors claim the legislation aims to “provide parents with greater oversight over what their students learn and discuss at school”, the passage of this bill would be detrimental not only to LGBTQ students, but also to LGBTQ families across the State.
Policy makers across the country are discussing the variety of social issues that should or should not be approached in public education and exactly how deep parental rights go in contributing to that decision. I find it interesting that parents are, for the most part, not involved in the selection of other curriculum in public schools, yet somehow feel entitled to have their voices heard when it comes to topics such as Critical Race Theory or sexual orientation and gender identity.
Republican state Representative Joe Harding told CNN on Monday that this law would apply to students in kindergarten through third grade. Claiming, “At that age they need to be worried about reading and worrying about their math,” he said. “For me, it’s why are we sensationalizing this age to have all these questions and to force so many questions…We’re talking specifically about young, elementary-age children that just don’t need that stress in general.”
So, having worked with the LGBTQ community, with a focus on inclusive environments, for 18 years and being a gay dad, I posted about the advancement of HB 1557 on both the Gayborhood Business Alliance and ARK Leadership LinkedIn pages; organizations that I am a managing partner of. A colleague that I met while speaking at a symposium on Culture Building Basics for the Studer Community Institute in Pensacola, FL messaged me on LinkedIn after seeing my post. My topic at the symposium was “Belonging - The Gateway to Innovation and Inclusivity.”
In her message, she said:
“Saw your post about the LGBTQ measure…we often find ourselves planning to move out of FL. Anyway, the article says it’s aimed at kids K-3. I don’t disagree with you…but I don’t know much about this. I plan to read up on when kids start needing to talk about this. I don’t think I started paying attention to boys until around fifth grade.”
In writing my response, it inspired me to write this piece. This bill is not just about how students identify with their own sexual orientation, but also for those students living in LGBTQ households. Of those under the age of 50 who are living alone or with a spouse or partner, 48% of LGBTQ women and 20% of LGBTQ men in the United States are raising children under the age of 18.
The Trevor Project is quoted as stating the bill would “ban classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity is schools, erasing LGBTQ identity, history and culture – as well as LGBTQ students themselves.” Now, there is some debate on exactly when sexual orientation begins to be recognized in children. Personally, I knew at five that I was attracted to men and not women. I didn’t know what it meant at the time…but I knew one thing for sure: I was different.
This bill doesn’t just affect LGBTQ youth. Don’t get me wrong….the possibility is high that it will; someone at that age will identify as LGBTQ. It is well documented by The Trevor Project that “LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the last year.” But, again, as state Representative Joe Harding said, “For me, it’s why are we sensationalizing this age to have all these questions and to force so many questions.” The simple answer: because when these kids get into the real world, the fact that LGBTQ people exist and will be alongside them is very true.
The entire point of me writing this piece is around the last statement and the question from my colleague. You see, my husband and I have an 8-year old son. He’s precious, sweet, and innocent. I’d like to think he’s that way in part because of how we’ve raised him. So, when my colleague asked what is an appropriate age to start the conversation around sexual orientation and gender identify, my response was “as early as possible.” As same-sex parents, we have always strived to teach our son that families come in all shapes and sizes. Some may have two daddies or two mommies, some may have a dad and a mom, some may have an auntie or grandparents, and some may be single-parent households. All that matters is love.
While important, for the sake of this argument, take the LGBTQ students out of the mix. After all, we’re talking about K-3. What about the kids that are a part of a LGBTQ family? Sexual orientation and gender identity transcends physical attraction; there are mental and emotional aspects that are difficult to explain. For our son, he’s always grown up knowing he has Daddy, Papa, and Mama Tara. That’s the way it’s always been and the way it will always be; we started these conversations when he was literally a week old.
Should this law pass, what happens when he goes to school and tries to explain to his friends that he has two dads? For the record, he just turned eight-years old in January and is in second grade, so yes…this law would affect our family. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging are often ignored in our public school system. I can say this as a current board member in my sixth year of service with a Charter School in the Atlanta Public School District. I am proud to say our school has made DEI a primary focus as part of its culture. At the same time, I am saddened to say the majority of the school districts I have seen do not take the same approach.
So, I will close with this…my son’s name is Noah and he is eight years old. As I mentioned before..he is a precious, sweet, innocent soul that has a heart the size of Texas. What is he to do in second grade when talking about his two dads if we lived in Florida and this bill becomes law? Are the teachers going to unilaterally ignore his family unit? He surely would be made to feel “less than” or “different” for having two loving parents at home just because we aren’t a cisgendered opposite sex couple. How will a child that isn’t LGBTQ, but is a part of a LGBTQ family be treated if this law were to pass? How will they view their family in relation to others? If we cannot guarantee that experience will be positive, should it even occur?
If you live in Florida, and agree that there are a multitude of reasons why HB 1557 should not pass into law, please reach out to your representative and express your opposition. Feel free to quote this article and please help spread the word; a copy of this article has been sent to the Speaker of the House, The Honorable Chris Sprowles.
One of the worst possible outcomes is not only HB 1557 passing in Florida, but then being used as a justification for similar laws in other states. So many families are counting on us to stand up and have our voices heard.
Thomas Ryan-Lawrence, SPHR
Thomas Ryan-Lawrence is an entrepreneur living in Atlanta, GA with his husband and eight-year old son. He has worked in the LGBTQ community for nearly two decades and currently serves as the President of the Gayborhood Business Alliance and VP, Operations for ARK Leadership.