Florida’s Latest Ruling Against “Don’t Say Gay” Law Isn’t Enough

In Florida, where I live and work, Equality Florida, a LGBTQ civil rights group based in the state, sued the state of Florida over its controversial and discriminatory “Don’t Say Gay” Law and received a ruling last week that deemed some parts of the law unconstitutional and unenforceable. When news dropped of the ruling on March 14, many people flocked to social media, as we have a tendency to do, to celebrate what was being labeled as a “significant victory” and a “huge win.”

The “Don’t Say Gay” Law (HB 1557 or the “Parental Rights in Education” Bill) was signed into law in early 2022 and was then expanded in 2023. The original version of law banned educators and other school officials from discussing gender or sexual orientation with students in kindergarten to the third grade. When it was expanded, the law banned those discussions for students from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade. In the same legislative session, the Florida legislature and Governor Ron Desantis also passed the “Stop WOKE” Act (HB 7 or the “Individual Freedom” Act), which was created to prevent educators and schools from exposing children to any materials deemed “Critical Race Theory.” After the bills were passed and signed into law, Florida state public school officials from elementary schools to public colleges went into a frenzy trying to ensure their teachers and institutions were in compliance with the laws. They scrapped programs that promoted LGBTQ acceptance and education on gender diversity and diversity, equity, and inclusion; they changed their Humanities curricula to be in compliance with the law; they cleared their libraries and classroom libraries of any books that could be seen as out of compliance (oftentimes to an absurd degree); they canceled any LGBTQ clubs and organizations on campus; and they instructed their teachers to change the way they interact with their students in their classrooms.

March 14’s ruling does help alleviate a small part of that. Now, according to the ruling, educators, school officials, and students do not have to worry about disclosing their sexuality or gender identity at school and in the classroom, students are once again allowed to participate in LGBTQ clubs and organizations and events, and the law does not prohibit students or teachers from having materials (such as books or other media) from being present in schools. Of course, this is no small feat, but learning there are still many limitations in the ruling does feel somewhat disappointing. And the ruling doesn’t help eliminate the damage that has already been done. Since the law was passed, teachers have lost their jobs or resigned from them as a result of the original law passing (which has only exacerbated the teacher shortage in Florida), students have had to endure watching some of their only safe spaces in the world get upended, and there’s not plan to return all of those books that were banned and ripped from school libraries. It also can’t reverse the way racist, anti-queer, and anti-trans parents and families have been emboldened by the legislation. It won’t prevent them from continuing to challenge school curricula the way they have been for the last two years.

And actually, that is barely just brushing the surface about the very real material threats to the lives and safety of queer and trans people and children in the state currently. In the last year alone, several anti-trans bills have also been passed in Florida, and now we’re beginning to see their implementation across the state. The “Safety in Public Spaces” Act (SB 1674), which is a law that bars trans people from using the bathroom of their choosing in government-owned public restrooms (meaning any government-owned public property like schools and universities), went into effect in July 2023 and has now been expanded to include private schools and universities beginning April 1st. House Bill 1639, which was just passed in this month’s legislative session and is slated to go into effect on July 1, defines sex and gender as what you’re assigned at birth (as determined by your genitals) and prohibits trans people from changing their sex/gender marker on any state issued identification. And the most materially impactful and egregious of them all is Senate Bill 254, which went into effect in May 2023. 254 is a complete ban on gender-affirming care for minors in the state of Florida that also mandates that children who are undergoing gender-affirming care can be taken from their parents and placed in state’s guardianship. In addition to that, buried deep in the law, there are provisions that severely limit the ways trans adults can access gender-affirming care in the state.

While the ruling does help make working in schools for teachers and going to school for students just slightly easier, the material realities for trans people in Florida continue to deteriorate as a result of these laws. Considering that anti-trans laws are sweeping the legislative sessions of other states across the country, it’s concerning there isn’t more focus placed on the fact that these laws are doing real harm and getting worse as each subsequent legislative session passes. The goal, at this point, seems very clear: Lawmakers (from both sides) seem intent on scapegoating queer and trans people for a variety of issues in order to push us out of the public eye and public life entirely. We don’t have to let them, but we also have to be very intentional about calling these material impacts into full view.

Sure, celebrating our wins — especially right now, when it feels like we get very few of them — is important, but I think it also presents us with an opportunity to step back and assess what other work we need to do. Here in Florida and across the country, this is just another reminder that we need to keep fighting. Not only do we need to keep fighting to get the rest of the “Don’t Say Gay” Law repealed, along with the total dismantling of “Stop WOKE” Act-related legislation, but we also need to pay closer attention to the fact that this small limitation to the power of the “Don’t Say Gay” Law can only do so much. The rest of these laws are making it difficult for queer and trans people, especially trans children, to live freely. As non-lawmakers, we are, of course, limited in what we can do legally to help make a material impact on what is going on. But I don’t think that should stop us from talking as loudly as possible and on whatever platforms we have about what is going on, and I don’t think that should stop us from finding alternative solutions — legal or not — to the people who are suffering the most as a result of these laws.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 95 articles for us.

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