When Ron DeSantis signed Florida’s HB1557 (better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill), plenty of people raised concerns about how it might be applied. Defenders of the bill were quick to explain that this would only affect certain age groups and suggested that it would not actually make that much of a difference to the educational space. Meanwhile, the opponents of the bill pointed out that the language was too vague for the boundaries of its application to be clear, and that this would cause additional problems.
Of course, even without vagueness over what is really covered by “Don’t Say Gay,” the bill has and will continue to cause real harm to LGBTQ+ individuals and their families. In its own language, the bill is already clearly anti-LGBTQ+ as it bans instruction on “sexual orientation and gender identity” from “school personnel” or “third parties.” It has never been clear what that has meant specifically, as “third parties” could theoretically even include students, meaning that it could be impossible for students to come out to their peers and teachers (who have often been a source of support for LGBTQ+ students with unsupportive home lives) would not be able to discuss it with them.
The past year has proved the fears about the results of these restrictions to be correct. “Don’t Say Gay” was an early domino to fall, with sweeping book bans leading to schools covering or removing huge sections of books to avoid the risk of running afoul of the new laws. And now, predictably, the Florida Board of Education has voted (at the request of DeSantis himself) to expand the law to cover not just the original K-3 but now all the way up to and including 12th grade.
While defenders might try to argue that “Don’t Say Gay” is strictly about not teaching children about LGBTQ+ issues as part of the instruction, it’s now painfully clear just how much further it goes. On top of the state banning LGBTQ+ books in an attempt to pretend that we don’t exist, a Florida teacher now finds herself under investigation for showing a Disney movie that includes gay characters.
2022’s Strange World was dumped on the Disney+ streaming service with very little fanfare. The movie follows a group of adventurers in a fantastical land with a romantic subplot about a character who lacks confidence trying to woo one of the other characters. Of course, the big difference here is that both of the characters are male, and the rest of the group are supportive of this as it’s no big deal.
The teacher in question, Jenna Barbee, explained to CNN that she had no idea that the rule applied to her class and that the movie would be a problem, saying after the fact that “I just found out today that they increased [the bill] to my level.” That level is fifth grade, and Barbee might well be excused for thinking that she could show a room of 10 and 11-year-olds a Disney movie without being at risk of being suspended or having her teacher’s license revoked. Barbee has also been keen to point out an element of these students’ lives that holds true for schools across the country:
The parent who made the complaint to the board about her child being shown the movie has tried to claim that Barbee should have had the specific movie approved (despite a permission slip from parents already allowing movies in general to be shown) and that she is “playing the victim.” But in reality, the “Don’t Say Gay” law is working exactly as it was intended to, and this particular incident helps to highlight that.
When INTO spoke with Zander Moricz (one of the plaintiffs in the case against HB1557) in April 2023, he highlighted that this vagueness in how the law might be expected to be applied is a feature, not a bug:
While HB1557 and the rest of the sweeping anti-LGBTQ+ bills that Ron DeSantis has been introducing in an attempt to build his reputation in preparation for a presidential bid are clearly all heinous, it’s important to remember this aspect. Some of these bills might seem to be sloppily written and cobbled together out of a pile of homophobic and transphobic sentiments by people who don’t understand the world. And that might be the case. But this vagueness is being left in intentionally so that when someone does something a parent dislikes they can be punished for it by finding room in the bill, and to avoid that people will hold themselves back from getting close to providing an accepting environment for queer youth for fear of such a punishment.