Swelling mobilisation by US conservatives over what is taught in schools has led several states to push for new curbs on what educators can discuss related to sexual and gender identity – opening yet another front in the country’s rolling culture wars.

Schools have increasingly become flashpoints for political confrontation in the US, with heated standoffs throughout the pandemic over masking policies, and regular flare-ups over sensitive questions of race, history and sexuality.

The most recent battle is playing out in Florida, where a bill that passed a key hurdle in the Senate Tuesday would ban teachers from discussing questions of gender identity or sexual orientation with students below a certain age.

Derided by its opponents as the “Don’t say gay” bill, it has the backing of Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president in the next election.

Groups from the local level up have condemned the bill as anti-LGBTQ, while the White House weighed in Tuesday by vowing to protect students from such “harmful” legislation.

“Across the country, we’re seeing Republican leaders take actions to regulate what students can or cannot read, what they can or cannot learn, and most troubling, who they can or cannot be,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

Republicans say they too are motivated by a desire to protect children – from subjects they believe to be inappropriate for a young age.

But Brandon Wolf, press secretary of the non-profit Equality Florida, believes that by framing these questions in such a way, the new law would harm children beginning to identify as LGBTQ, by suggesting that “just by their existence, they are inappropriate”.

Swelling mobilisation by US conservatives over what is taught in schools has led several states to push for new curbs on what educators can discuss related to sexual and gender identity. AFP

“This will kill kids,” warned Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, in a tweet directed at Governor DeSantis.

Buttigieg cited a survey from the Trevor Project indicating that 42 per cent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered suicide last year, asking: “Now they can’t talk to their teachers?”

Natasha Poulopoulos, a pediatric psychologist in Miami, makes the case that being able to discuss sex and gender issues “in a safe and open space is actually reducing suicide attempts.”

“It’s not to encourage kids to be talking about sexual activity,” she says, but rather have them “reflect on what they feel internally and who they may be attracted to”, and that “it’s okay to talk about these things”.

Parents’ rights

On the other side of the debate, Tina Descovich, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, a group that supports the Florida bill, denies it amounts to “discrimination”.

“It is allowing parents to raise their children.”

Descovich cited the example of a woman whose 13-year-old had met with school counselors about their gender identity without notifying her, including to decide “which restroom she was going to use”.

“We think that is wrong,” Descovich said.

“I think that that is a discussion for the home, and I think there’s age appropriate discussions,” she added.

Sign of the tensions around the issue, a California mother named Jessica Konen has sued her local school district, arguing that two teachers encouraged her daughter, then in sixth grade, to use a male name and pronouns without discussing the issue with her.

The California Teachers Association, which refused to discuss specifics of the lawsuit, noted that it is “concerned about a political climate right now in which outside political forces fuel chaos and misinformation and seek to divide parents, educators and school communities”.


Bills similar to the Florida measure have been introduced across the country.

In southwestern Arizona, teachers would be required to tell parents if their child brings up their gender identity.

In midwestern Indiana, a bill would make schools ask parents’ permission before discussing sexual orientation or transgender issues.

In the central state of Oklahoma, proposed legislation seeks to ban school library books focused on “sexual preferences” or “gender identity”.

Activists have seen this playbook before: In the late 1980s, after sex-ed courses were updated to address the HIV epidemic, similar legislation spread across the country, out of fear children would be “recruited into homosexuality”, recalls Clifford Rosky, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Utah.

Despite a trend in recent years of repealing such laws, Rosky says, they remain in place in six states including Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

In Florida itself, meanwhile, the law today is clear: schools are instructed to teach “the benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage.”