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How ‘Don’t Say Gay’ and Parental Rights Laws Can Harm Students

Understanding the impact on school climates and student health.

Key points

  • "Don't Say Gay" laws can have a negative impact on student well-being.
  • "Parental rights" laws may interfere with a school's ability to promote educational opportunity.
  • Teaching about gender and sexual diversity appears to be essential to creating effective and positive school climates.

The new "Don’t Say Gay" bill working its way through the Florida legislature is actually nothing new in U.S. schools. What is new is the organized youth resistance to such harmful laws and the deep knowledge base we have about how they can harm students and negatively impact school cultures. In order to push back against such legislation, we need to understand the history and impacts of such laws as well as why “parents’ rights” approaches need to be viewed with caution, as they can impact students’ rights to learn in a nondiscriminatory environment.

History of ‘no promo homo’ laws and negative youth outcomes

There are currently four states that have state laws banning the discussion of LGBTQ people in schools (TX, OK, LA, MS). These laws are generally paired with laws requiring abstinence-only sex education and include language such as:

"Course materials and instruction relating to sexual education or sexually transmitted diseases should include: emphasis, provided in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under Section 21.06, Penal Code." Tex. Health & Safety Code § 163.002.

Other states had similar laws on the books but have repealed them in recent years: Alabama in 2021, Arizona in 2019, and Utah in 2016. South Carolina’s law was overturned in 2020, saying that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Although this was only decided with a consent decree, the South Carolina Department of Education agreed that the law was likely unconstitutional and did not appeal the decision. This is an important legal foundation that other states should learn from.

What we know from several decades of research is that LGBTQ youth who attend schools that don’t have an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum can experience a host of harms, including:

  • Exposure to more frequent anti-LGBTQ remarks at school.
  • Higher levels of victimization (bullying and harassment).
  • More likely to miss school because they felt unsafe.
  • Lower GPAs (GLSEN 2020).

We also know that students in the South tend to experience more negative environments related to gender and sexual diversity. This is likely due to the more conservative culture of the South and the many anti-gay laws that now only exist in Southern states. This new Florida law would prohibit instruction about gender and sexuality in K-third grade which means young children who are raised in families with LGBTQ parents, who are transgender, or who may come to identify as LGB have no opportunity to see themselves, their family structure, or loved ones represented in the curriculum and will likely be subjected to school environments that are hostile to LGBTQ people. This bill is called “an act relating to parental rights in education,” so what does that really mean?

Parental rights in public education

What is new about this Florida legislation (HB 1557) is it is using the language of parents’ rights. In addition to limiting the curriculum, it provides parents the right to sue the school district if they violate this law. The legal strategy of leveraging parental rights has been effective in advancing individual rights over efforts to promote educational opportunity and equity in public schools (Mead & Lewis 2016) and violates the concept of parens patrae, which is explained as follows:

“principle of parens patriae provided state and district officials the authority to dictate what a child is required to learn in a public school. That result is even true in the case of controversial topics such as sex education (e.g., Brown v. Hot, Sexy, Safer Productions, Inc., 1995; Leebaert v. Harrington, 2003). Parents who objected to such curriculum had no choice but to withdraw from public schools.” (Mead & Lewis 2016)

Fortunately, the youth of Florida are voicing their concern with this bill and organizing walkouts and demonstrations against it. One student was even suspended for his role in organizing a protest, which likely violates his First Amendment rights—something I addressed in an earlier post about free speech at schools. But I digress.

Importance of a positive school climate

What we know from the research on effective learning environments is that students are more likely to thrive in settings that are safe, organized, engaging, and where they feel that they can belong. If students aren’t allowed to talk about their families, their identities, and their realities, they won’t feel safe or like they belong at school. If their school enforces silence and fear around discussing their family background or their own developing identity, they can be vulnerable to bullying, harassment, and isolation. This can cause students to engage in harmful behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse or dropping out of school. This isn't even considering what it would do to teachers who are LGBTQ and can't discuss their families at school. So what should we do?

Public schools in the U.S. have a long history of being tasked with trying to address a whole host of social ills, including segregation and racism, poor treatment of people with disabilities, integrating new immigrants, as well as improving academic achievement and economic opportunities for all. If parents and states are allowed to pick and choose which lessons they want to learn and which information they don’t like, we risk amplifying the already deep fissures in our society. To cultivate engaged citizens for a functioning democracy, we need schools that educate students about our diverse society and help them cultivate trusting relationships with teachers and peers. “Don’t say gay” and “parental rights” laws undercut such important goals. We need to continue working against such legislation to ensure our public education system serves all learners and puts the good of the community as well as the health of our youth over the wishes of individuals.

References

Mead, J. F., & Lewis, M. M. (2016). The Implications of the Use of Parental Choice as a Legal "Circuit Breaker". American Educational Research Journal, 53, 100-131.

Kosciw, J. G., Clark, C. M., Truong, N. L., & Zongrone, A. D. (2020). The 2019 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. glsen.org

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