Edward Martí Kring knew from a young age that he was different, but he couldn’t say the word gay. To him, gay was synonymous with bad, and he knew he was a good person. It wasn’t until he joined a confidential LGBTQ club at his Florida high school that he started to change his opinion of what it meant to be gay.
“Up to that point, I didn’t know anybody like me,” Martí Kring said. “And so I can only imagine how much more difficult and challenging it would be when there’s legislation saying ‘don’t say gay.’”
The legislation he mentions—Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by activists—was passed by Florida’s Senate committee on Feb. 8. The bill would limit discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms and require schools to notify parents of changes in a students’ “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.”
The bill’s most controversial clause reads “a school district 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.”
“There’s nothing good about this,” Martí Kring said. “It’s really just targeted discrimination against the LGBT community. There’s nothing here that would benefit society as a whole. It’s an attack to civil society. It’s an attack to education itself. It’s censorship and it’s just plain wrong.”
Martí Kring, now 37, is a field and community organizer for SAVE LGBTQ, which works to fight anti-LGBTQ discrimination in South Florida. When he was growing up, there was virtually no discussion of gender or sexuality in Florida schools, and all the rhetoric he heard about being gay was negative.
“And at 13 I came to this point where I thought, am I like that? I couldn’t even really say the word gay,” Martí Kring said. “I was having this conversation with God or the universe, whatever one calls it, where I thought if I’m like that I would rather you kill me than me be that way.”
It took Martí Kring a lot of therapy and self-work to undo the negative messages he received as a child about gayness. Now he is concerned that this bill will be harmful for LGBTQ students’ mental health.
“When you’re told not to say a certain word it typically has the connotation that it’s a bad word of some sort or has something negative associated with it,” Martí Kring said.
A 2021 survey by The Trevor Project found that 42 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously consider attempting suicide in the last year. But having at least one accepting adult, such as a teacher, can reduce the risk of suicide by 40 percent, and having at least one LGBTQ-affirming space can reduce the risk by 35 percent. The strongest association in lowering risk was with LGBTQ-affirming schools.
“Schools are where a lot of kids feel most comfortable,” Scott Galvin, the executive director of Safe Schools South Florida, said. “They might only be able to be themselves with a school teacher or somebody inside of a school.”
Safe Schools South Florida works to create safer schools for LGBTQ youth and helps administrators set up Gender and Sexuality Alliances, abbreviated as GSAs. Now, Galvin worries that GSAs will be shut down and that students will have nowhere to turn.
The “Don’t Say Gay” bill’s stated purpose is to “reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children.” Under the bill, teachers could not withhold information regarding a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity from parents unless it would lead to “abuse, abandonment or neglect.”
However, a proposed amendment to the bill, sponsored by Republican State Rep. Joe Harding, would require teachers to share information with parents even if they determine that it would lead to “abuse, abandonment or neglect.”
If teachers have to share information with parents, Galvin said students will stop confiding in teachers. The bill also has a provision allowing parents to sue their school district if they think a school has violated the bill.
“It’s just a recipe for disaster for us,” Galvin said.
According to The Trevor Project, only one third of LGBTQ youth say their home is LGBTQ-affirming.
Mayako Stryke, an 18-year-old high school student in Poinciana, Florida, dropped hints to his parents for years that he might not be a girl or be interested in guys, but they would just yell at him. When he was outed to his parents against his will as transgender and biromantic, they pushed him to act more girly and show interest in guys.
“I grew up in a not very accepting family. And a lot of my support was from friends at school and some teachers,” Stryke said. “Some teachers would talk to me and help me try and understand that this is a completely normal thing. And that’s what helped me be so open about myself and [start] to come out to people more, because I had that support as a child.”
Stryke said that if this bill had been in place when he was in primary school, he would not have talked to teachers about his gender or sexuality. He also said it might have taken him longer to come out.
“You want to go to someone who you can talk to, who you can trust, and won’t betray that trust by going to adults that you deem untrustworthy,” Stryke said. “So I feel like this will definitely encourage kids to stay in the closet.”
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, argues that it isn’t age-appropriate to teach primary school students about gender or sexuality. But Stryke points out that by the time kids are in preschool, they are already bombarded by gender norms.
“These things are girly. These things are like a boy,” Stryke said. “In their fairy tales, the movies that they watch, their parents, they’re always seeing relationships. So why is gender and relationships a problem when it comes to anything queer related?”
Rep. Joe Harding, who also introduced the House version of the bill in Florida’s House of Representatives, said during a committee hearing last month that teachers would still be able to teach lessons on LGBTQ history. Both sponsors have said that classroom presentations, school clubs and less formal discussions about gender and sexuality would be allowed.
If that’s the case, critics wonder why this legislation is necessary at all.
“There’s no need to put these limitations in place anyway,” Galvin said. “And the fact that they’re coming up with vague language … they’re setting it up so that it can be interpreted by a teacher or a school principal or a parent who doesn’t want these things being discussed.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ comments on the bill seem to indicate a broader intolerance of conversations about gender and sexuality. At a Miami roundtable on Monday, he said it was “entirely inappropriate” for teachers to have conversations about gender identity with students, and that he doesn’t approve of “injecting these concepts about choosing your gender” at schools.
Galvin also worries that one word in the bill’s language—the “or” in “in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate”—will allow anti-LGBTQ teachers or administrators to limit discussion of gender or sexuality beyond primary school.
“My first thought about this was, here we go again,” Mark Ward said.
Ward, 59, works as a life strategist in Chicago. He grew up as a military brat, but spent the majority of his time in school in Dayton, Ohio.
Ward is gay and describes his experience in school as “horrific.” Throughout his childhood, he absorbed the idea that being gay was unacceptable—that it made you a freak or an abomination. He felt like an alien, wanted nothing more than to be “normal.”
“You didn’t hear people talk about people being gay unless it was derogatory,” Ward said.
Ward grew up in a family of fundamentalist Christians and knew his parents could not accept him being gay. He never had conversations about sexuality growing up, and he never felt like he could tell teachers or friends what he was feeling. He didn’t come out until he was in his 20s, after years of grappling with the homophobic messages he internalized during his childhood.
He thinks that being gay is generally more accepted today, but he doesn’t want to go back to the way things used to be.
“I think that, you know, the way that racism and prejudice and homophobia, misogyny, and all the isms thrive is when there’s absolutely no exposure, no discussion,” Ward said.
If Florida’s legislature passes the Parental Rights in Education bill, it will go into effect on July 1.