HB 1557 Raises Controversy over Barring LGBTQ+ Conversation in Schools


Rhianwen Watkins, News Editor

TW: suicide

House Bill 1557, nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by LGBTQ+ individuals and activists, just passed the Florida State Senate last Tuesday. The bill seeks to grant parents more power over what their children learn in school, but many have disagreed with aspects of the bill that they consider to be discriminatory towards LGTBQ+ youth.

According to the bill, “A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”

This implies that discussion of LGBTQ history, social issues, literature, health, etc., would be off limits in the classroom.

The bill’s vague definition of “primary grade levels” could potentially apply to all grades up through grade 12.

Students are already developing an understanding of themselves and the world around them from a young age through books, TV, and people around them, according to Lu Butterfield-Ferrell, associate director of The Beauregard Center for Equity, Justice, and Freedom at University of New Hampshire (UNH).

“By introducing many different ways of being, whether that is different races, genders, sexual orientations, sizes, abilities, we are normalizing a diverse set of experiences that allows students to be their authentic selves,” they said.

Laura LaVallee, English teacher at Portsmouth High School, said that her class has lots of discussions around sexual orientation and gender identity, and that she wants her students to know that discussions like these shouldn’t be “taboo” or “off limits.”

“As teachers, despite what some people say, our job as educators isn’t just to teach our students our subject. We are guiding our students to be critical thinkers and to become better human beings which includes encouraging them to accept people for who they are regardless of the differences they may have from you,” she said.

The bill also states that parents may take legal action against teachers or schools if they find out that their child has been exposed to discussion around LGBTQ+ topics in the classroom.

“Teachers should not have to teach with fear that “Big Brother” is constantly watching,” said LaVallee. “Teachers must be treated as professionals and trusted that we are teaching material in an appropriate way.”

She added that having educators continue to teach in a “morally conscious” way is important, as students’ lives may depend on it. This bill would mean that if teachers do this, they would be risking their careers to support their students.

According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ youth are four times as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual and cisgender peers. An estimate of 1.8 million LGBTQ+ youth experience suicidal thoughts each year, which is equal to at least one suicidal thought every 45 seconds. The Trevor Project emphasized that LGBTQ+ youth are suicidal not because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, but because of the lack of acceptance and support they receive from society and those around them.

Another aspect of this bill would allow teachers and school counselors to expose students’ identities to their families who may not be accepting of them.

“There is a reason why a student would share something so personal with you. Students sometimes discuss their sexuality with their teachers because they need help or guidance,” said LaVallee.

She added that students may confide in a teacher because they are afraid of what the reaction might be at home.

“Sometimes school is the only place where students may feel a sense of safety and comfortability in being their authentic selves. If teachers or administrators are allowed to publicly out students to parents, guardians, school administrators, it could put students in a lot of danger if those folks are not supportive,” said Butterfield-Ferrell.

This can lead to a break in trust between teachers and students and leave students feeling unsafe both at home and in school, added Butterfield.

This bill would also extend prohibition of queer topics to health and sexual education classes.

According to Dawn Zitney, wellness educator and counselor at UNH Health &Wellness, sex education is only comprehensive when it is inclusive of all identities, shame free, and medically accurate.

“Any sex education classroom that doesn’t do this isn’t following best practices in sex education and is failing our students’ health care and educational needs. We are denying students their humanity when their identity and lived experience is banned from classrooms,” she said.

Zitney added that including LGBTQIA+ identities into sexual education reduces heteronormativity, homophobia, transphobia, and reduces stigmas associated with queer sex. “If schools don’t provide students comprehensive sex education than they will seek to learn about sex in other ways, and one of those ways is through pornography, which I haven’t heard any parent say they want their child learning about sex through porn,” said Zitney.

She said it’s important to increase the amount of sex education and meet the needs of young people so they can “grow into healthy sexual citizens who have personal agency and respect for others.”

Zitney added that there has been no research that supports the idea that learning about sex leads to increases in students being sexually active.

“If this bill is passed, my heart will break for youth in the LGBTQ+ community, their family members, and their friends,” said LaVallee. “This is an incredibly harmful message to send to the students who politicians are supposed to protect as elected officials and as adults. I cannot wrap my head around the fact that this is still a conversation in 2022.”

Photo courtesy Point Foundation.