Don’t Say Gay Reprise: A Look Ahead

Education Policy Brief #82 | By: Rudolph Lurz | April 7, 2023

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Policy Summary

March 28th, 2023 marked the first anniversary of the signing of Florida’s controversial Parental Rights in Education Act. Critics have commonly labeled it as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The law effectively prohibits the instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3 in Florida classrooms, and gives parents the opportunity to sue school districts if the policy is violated. Governor DeSantis and his allies argue that the law is necessary to prevent “grooming” of minors. Governor DeSantis, in a heated exchange with a reporter, repeated those arguments and noted additionally that it was inappropriate for kindergartners to discuss sexual topics in their classrooms. At the time of the bill’s debate and passage into law, DeSantis frequently criticized the term “Don’t Say Gay” as a misrepresentation by the media. The age of children in question is a frequent defense by DeSantis and his allies in the Florida Legislature and beyond. 

Multiple other states are copying Florida’s law, demonstrating that there are strong currents in the GOP pulling for these cultural measures in the classroom. A bill in the U.S. House of Representatives aims to expand the law’s language to prohibit instruction at any building or agency that receives federal funding, which would potentially include some libraries and after school programs. Despite DeSantis’s early insistence that the law’s aim was to protect young children in grades K-3, Florida’s Department of Education is attempting to expand the provisions of the law into grades 4-12. The vague language of the law has a chilling effect on classroom discussions on any subject matter that approaches these topics, as educators fear losing their employment or subjecting their district to a lawsuit.

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Project Analysis

I began my teaching career at a rural Title I school in central Florida. I conducted my dissertation research on education policy formation in Florida. I am familiar with Governor DeSantis’s past and his political acumen. 

On the surface, the Governor’s policies, which are part of a broader culture war, do not seem to make much sense. His anti-LGBTQ+ stance and other social policies have alienated younger voters. The “Don’t Say Gay” debate sparked a huge fight with Disney, one of the largest employers in the state. Generally speaking, conservatives tend to be pro-business and strong supporters of the free market economy. Wielding the power of the state to meddle with a large corporation’s policies, especially a behemoth like Disney, seems like a real head scratcher. 

Unlike former President Trump, Governor DeSantis does not shoot from the hip and improvise his political attack angles. He is a shrewd, Harvard-educated politician who trounced his gubernatorial opponent by twenty points in what was once a swing state. If he takes a strong stance on a position, it is because he sees a quantitative advantage. 

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If one looks past the noise, Governor DeSantis’s tactics are straight out of the traditional GOP playbook to put Democrats on the wrong side of 60/40 cultural issues. In 2004, that cultural issue was marriage equality. Ohio’s Marriage Protection Amendment was widely viewed as a ballot initiative to drive up conservative turnout. At the time, same-sex marriage was opposed by 60% of Americans.  By 2012, that figure swung to over 50% opposition in swing states to banning same sex marriage at the federal level.

Today, marriage equality is both settled law and politically popular. Culture warriors like Governor DeSantis needed a new 60/40 issue to galvanize support and paint opponents as extremists. They simply moved from left to right on the LGBTQ+ acronym to attack the TQ+ portion of it. A recent poll by YouGov showed that just 32% of Americans would be “very supportive” if their child came out as transgender, and just 14% of Republicans. 

Governor DeSantis recognizes that this is a political winner for him, so it’s no surprise he will continue promoting legislation that puts the issue front and center in the public sphere. With a budget surplus in excess of twenty billion dollars, the Governor can afford to antagonize Disney. They are unlikely to pack up and leave the state, considering they have multiple theme parks and resorts located in central Florida. With a margin of victory approaching twenty percentage points, he can afford to antagonize younger voters with his social policies. With Florida’s large (and growing) senior population, the polling figures will likely continue to land in his favor.

DeSantis’s crusade might be a solution in search of a problem, but as long as he’s on the correct side of state and national polling, he’ll keep advancing it.

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Engagement Resources​

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For further engagement on this topic, consult the homepage of Florida’s largest teacher’s union, along with Florida’s Department of Education

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