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How the GOP, horrifically, succeeded with "Don't say gay"
The Florida law passed after anti-LGBTQ Republicans reframed failed efforts of the past. And they've now stacked the courts.
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The Florida Senate yesterday passed the grotesque “Don’t say gay” bill, following on the Florida House passage. Governor Ron DeSantis, who pushed this bill from the beginning, will sign it into law. It’s all part of the MAGA agenda, as Christian nationalism is integral to the Trumpist base. And the religious extremists have been waiting for this day for a long time.
The bill bans public school teachers from offering "instruction" about
”sexual orientation and gender identity” in kindergarten through 3rd grade — though such issues were never part of the curriculum in those grades — and limits the issues to those who are “age appropriate” and “developmentally appropriate” in other grades.
Worse yet, it allows parents to file lawsuits if they believe the law is violated. The wording is so purposefully vague that teachers will be afraid of even hinting at sexual orientation or gender identity at all, lest they face a lawsuit.
And that’s the goal.
This bill is a terrible, traumatic blow to students who are LGBTQ or who have gay, lesbian or transgender parents, as they’ll be unable to even discuss their own lives in the classroom, forced into the loneliness and isolation of the closet. And it’s horrific for teachers and others who are gay or transgender, silenced from talking about themselves and their families.
How could it be that in 2022, when the vast majority of Americans — and Floridians — support LGBTQ equality, something like this could happen? The short answer is that Christian nationalists don’t give up, and the rest of us often become complacent. The longer answer requires history as a guide.
Over 10 years ago, Tennessee tried to pass a “Don’t say gay bill,” promoted by Republican state senator Stacey Campfield, which would have banned discussion of sexuality “not related to human reproduction.” It imploded in spectacular fashion after Campfield’s homophobia went national — including after he came on my SiriusXM program in 2012 and made reckless and ridiculously false comments, inluding saying that “AIDS came from the homosexual community — it was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot, if I recall.”
Campfield was turned away from restaurants in his home city of Knoxville and lots of other places, and was the butt of jokes on late night television. The national publicity at that time was something that many more Republicans — even in red states like Tennessee — feared more than they do in today’s MAGA-driven GOP. The bill had passed the Tennessee Senate, but failed in the House. An attempt the following year also failed.
There was, however, another reason that the bill was doomed to fail: It wouldn’t likely hold up in court. Similar laws in other states, which had been dubbed “No Promo Homo” laws — which specifically banned discussion of homosexuality in schools — had passed as far back as the ‘80s and ‘90s, and were facing court challenges by LGBTQ advocates. As Christina Cauterucci at Slate notes, the challenges led legislators in several states, including Alabama and Arizona, to repeal the laws over the next few years (though Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma still have them on the books), and eventually a federal court ruled:
In 2020, a federal judge overturned a South Carolina law that made it illegal for public school educators to discuss “alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships” in contexts other than sexually transmitted infections. The ruling stated that the law discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation and thus violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
But we’d be foolish to believe that Christian nationalists would give up there.
In my 2015 book It’s Not Over, I wrote about how religious right groups just go back to the bias laboratory to mix up another poison potion to use for their purposes. We’ve seen them do this on abortion and so many other issues when they at first don’t succeed. Gatherings like CPAC and the Values Voter Summit — the bias laboratories — are indeed where they meet to discuss further strategies to force their discriminatory agenda on America by inverting what scholar Jay Michaelson calls the “victim-oppressor dynamic,” turning themselves into the victims.
In 2013 and 2014, religious right activists were beginning to more solidly develop the “religious liberty” or “religious freedom” exemption to LGBTQ rights at such conferences, which I reported on at the time, having attended them. And that has now developed into a strategy that this far-right U.S. Supreme Court has fully embraced (and it should be noted the Supreme Court was beginning to embrace such exemptions even when Justice Kennedy was on the court, in the infamous Hobby Lobby decision.)
That was one new strategy to withstand court challenges. Another, as we saw in Florida, is to simply change the language of the bills. Instead of singling out “homosexuality” or “transgender” they word the bill to say there is to be no discussion of “sexual orientation” or “gender identity.”
From a legal standpoint, they can claim they are thus not discriminating or singling out a group, even as everyone knows exactly what they mean — and no one is going to complain when heterosexuality is discussed. Indeed, Tennessee, last year, finally got its own “don’t say gay” passed by changing the language in exactly the same way the Florida bill is written.
But the GOP gives away the truth with their own comments, because they just can’t help promoting the hate. In defending the bill in recent days, DeSantis warned about “transgenderism or something injected into classroom instruction.” DeSantis’s spokesperson Christina Pushaw tweeted that anyone who opposed the bill is “probably a groomer,” comparing homosexuality to pedophilia in one of the most vile attacks anti-LGBTQ hatemongers have made for decades. (She later responded to calls for her resignation by saying it was from her private account, as if that matters.)
And Florida state senators gave it away even further. As the Miami Herald noted:
It took a debate on the Florida Senate floor on Monday for the true views of at least one of the politicians behind House Bill 1557 to emerge: There are just too many gay kids nowadays. That, apparently, is why bill sponsor Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala, thought it was appropriate to legislate against his discomfort with what he called a “real trend change” in society.
Baxley actually claimed LGBTQ kids — who face ridicule, bullying and violence — were coming out to be “celebrities.” Or rather, he was claiming that kids, no matter their true sexual orientation, were claiming to be gay in order to get attention. Astounding, but this is how bigotry warps reality.
Another senator, Ileana Garcia, insisted that “gay is not a permanent thing, LGBT is not a permanent thing.” This is right out of the “conversion therapy” playbook and is driven by nothing but hate and virulent homophobia and transphobia. So it’s quite clear what these bills are about. And it’s not where most Americans are in 2022.
But, as I noted earlier, today’s MAGA-fueled GOP doesn’t care about polls, or embarrassment — it’s all about feeding the radicalized base. That’s certainly what DeSantis is doing as he’s making his run for the presidency in 2024, hoping to get the Trumpifed GOP to give him the GOP nomination. In that vein they don’t care if corporations defend LGBTQ rights either, and in the case of Florida, Disney rolled over anyway, having a more conservative CEO at the helm.
GOP leaders and Christian nationalists are also less worried about courts seeing through their veiled attempts— their changes in the language of a bill or their hiding behind “religious liberty”— because they’ve packed many state courts with extremists just as Trump has packed the federal courts with the same.
Before Trump’s election I and others were warning that too many people were complacent on LGBTQ rights after winning marriage equality — it was in fact the premise of It’s Not Over — and that we’d soon see a sweeping backlash. That backlash has been ferocious, focused on harming transgender girls, criminalizing queer families and forcing all LGBTQ youth back into the closet.
The protests this week in Florida, school walk-outs by thousands of students across the state standing up to the “don’t say gay” bill, were an inspiration and the only high note of the week. We all need to take a cue from them, march, protest, and make a lot of noise as we fight for our lives.