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How Florida’s Newly Enacted ‘Parental Rights in Education’ Law Actually Protects Gay Students

· 8 min read
How Florida’s Newly Enacted ‘Parental Rights in Education’ Law Actually Protects Gay Students
The signing of the HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education Act, into law, March 29, via @GovRonDeSantis Twitter

The White House has denounced a new Florida law as “cruel” and “harmful.” In an interview with CNN, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay cabinet member in American history, agreed that the law is “dangerous.” His husband Chasten, a best-selling author, was even more emphatic, declaring that “this will kill kids.”

The law in question does not lower the driving age to 12, permit teenagers to own guns, or eliminate funding for research on pediatric cancers. Instead, Florida’s newly enacted Parental Rights in Education law requires that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade three, or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

Another provision dictates that schools “may not discourage or prohibit parental notification of and involvement in critical decisions affecting a student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.” This latter provision has not attracted nearly as much attention (or criticism) as the former. But as discussed below, it will likely have a bigger impact on students—and a highly beneficial one.

Notwithstanding the legislation’s official title, media outlets, advocacy groups, corporate officials, and Democrats have taken to denouncing it as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. That framing is disingenuous and cynical.

Context is crucial here. In the early 2010s, American policymakers at both the state and federal level began putting pressure on school districts to defer to students’ gender self-identification—i.e., their declared status as boys or girls. The official rationale for these efforts, as articulated in bureaucratic guidelines and court rulings, was centred on mental health.

Lawsuits filed under Title IX (the 1972 law that prohibits discrimination “on the basis of sex” in education) involved children who’d been diagnosed as gender dysphoric, with courts being asked to view plaintiffs’ claims through the lens of medical need. And the judges proved amenable. “Treatment for gender dysphoria consists of transitioning to living and being accepted by others as the sex corresponding to the person’s gender identity,” one District Court judge said in 2016, regarding a Wisconsin case. “If left untreated, gender dysphoria may result in serious and debilitating psychological distress including anxiety, depression, and even self-harm or suicidal ideation.”

During an early phase of gender-dysphoria treatment, known as “social transition,” students are recognized according to their claimed gender in all relevant aspects of school life—including bathroom use and sports participation. This often means that schools must not only change their official policies in regard to sex-separated accommodations and activities, but also the way they teach students about human behavior and biology.

Although court orders on behalf of transgender students are typically tailored to the circumstances of the plaintiffs, advocacy groups such as the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network have leveraged them to bring about much broader forms of institutional change. These groups have (correctly) counted on the fact that school boards are afraid of lawsuits; and even a single complaint or accusation can lead to a costly and embarrassing civil-rights investigation, or massive out-of-court settlement.

As a result, schools now face strong incentives to take the gender self-declarations of their students at face value—with or without a medical diagnosis. Failure to create a “safe” environment, it is thought, exacerbates the mental-health problems of gender nonconforming students, leading to high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. A common claim is that a failure to instantly “affirm” a student’s trans identification will send him or her hurtling down a dark path to suicide. (There is a lack of good evidence for such claims, yet they have become embedded in the received wisdom of many activists and educators.)

The problem here is that even before a student goes on puberty blockers (let alone pursues surgical interventions), mere social transition can have permanent consequences—notably, for those trans children who would eventually desist to their natal sex identity. While activists present social transition as a sort of safe experimental zone in which children and adolescents can “explore their gender nonconformity,” emerging research—including a study by Dutch experts who pioneered pediatric transition practices—suggests that social transition may itself contribute to the persistence of gender dysphoria. This would mean that, in some cases at least, a school encouraging social transition would actually be exacerbating or at least prolonging symptoms of gender dysphoria.

This brings us back to the Florida law. Both controversial prongs—the one limiting classroom instruction for young students, and the one requiring parental notification and involvement—serve to implement checks on schools’ de facto gender-affirming procedures. And as noted above, it is the latter provision that deserves more attention.

The standard narrative among many activists is that schools should keep their students’ cross-gender behavior secret if they believe that parents will not support it. This narrative is supported by groups such as GLSEN, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Human Rights Campaign, the ACLU, Gender Spectrum, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. And to be fair, it is true that there are cases of parents who dismiss the very idea of gender transition out of hand, irrespective of the grief that will come to their dysphoric children. But in most cases, parents aren’t being phobic; they simply want to know whether their child is being encouraged to begin what could become a painful, risky, and expensive process that can leave the child scarred and infertile. In some cases, this may be a price worth paying to address a gender dysphoric child’s suffering. But in other cases, it’s not.

Parents know their children better than anybody at school, and they deserve to be at the center of this kind of decision. They are in a much better position to evaluate whether a child’s gender-related distress is a symptom of some other disturbance, trauma, or mental-health issue; or is truly indicative of a lifelong struggle with dysphoria. If reserving all skepticism, and simply taking a child’s gender declarations at face value, is what activists mean by being a “supportive parent,” then most parents, fortunately, are “unsupportive.”

In some cases, it is only the involvement of the parents that can stop the transition process in its tracks, and allow a child time and space to process his or her feelings. As noted above, schools face strong incentives—legal and financial—to affirm their students’ gender self-identification, while it is families that will be left to address the fallout if the decision is incorrect. The Florida law aims to align the incentive structure of school officials with this reality.

The claim that the Florida law is homophobic is ironic—or rather cynical—given the studies showing that cross-gender identification in prepubescent boys is a better predictor of being gay than of being “trapped in the wrong body.” Reliable studies on natal females with no pre-adolescent history of dysphoria do not yet exist. But anecdotal evidence, coupled with the testimonials contained on online forums devoted to de-transitioners, suggest that many young women with same-sex attraction are being pressured to interpret their as-yet unsettled feelings as evidence that they are transgender. A recent webinar hosted by Genspect (which self-describes as “a voice for parents with gender-questioning kids”) featuring de-transitioned panelists brought this reality vividly to light.

In fact, “Don’t Say Gay” would actually be a more appropriate description for current transgender policies in schools, given the manner by which these policies encourage children and adults (albeit unintentionally) to interpret proto-gay or -lesbian feelings and behavior as evidence of being trans.

In most cases, as discussed above, the school officials implementing these policies are merely being risk-averse. But it is also important to note that the educational bureaucracy in many areas contains real gender ideologues. As Abigail Shrier has reported, some teachers have actively encouraged children to find their “true” inner trans or queer selves. Thanks to the court rulings and administrative guidelines that signal boost their campaigns, these in-house activists have outsized power relative to teachers, principals, school board members, and parents with different values and viewpoints. And in videos of school board meetings where gender identity policies are discussed, one can often see advocates of “affirming” policies try to suppress concerns by reference to legal requirements.

It is important that ordinary parents become involved in these political battles, and not be intimidated by activists who seek to gaslight them as bigots. Nor should they be dissuaded by the claims of public interest groups, which, as political scientists have noted, are prone to taking extreme positions on issues that most citizens would recognize as requiring moderation and pragmatism.

Schools In Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools, published by the HRC, indicates that it is never too early to start a gender transition or to discuss issues surrounding gender identity in the classroom. Like the Model Local Education Agency Policy on Transgender and Nonbinary Students produced by GLSEN and the National Center for Transgender Equality, it insists that students should participate in athletics based on their gender identity—a policy that, according to a recent poll, most Republicans and Independents oppose and that only a razor-thin majority of Democrats support. (And this poll was taken in 2021, well before the negative publicity surrounding trans swimmer Lia Thomas’s controversial NCAA swimming title.)

A good illustration of the disconnect between advocacy groups and public sentiment is the recent controversy in Texas and Virginia over Gender Queer: A Memoir by the “non-binary” author Maia Kobabe (who uses “e/em/eir” pronouns). The book, which has made its way to school library shelves across America, is a graphic memoir that depicts explicit scenes of adolescent masturbation and oral sex. One has to see it to understand the lengths to which schools are willing to go to appease LGBT activists. (Needless to say, Kobabe has maintained that the book is essential for ensuring the mental health of gender nonconforming students, even calling it “lifesaving”).

Students who want to read the book can buy it on Amazon or borrow it from a friend. For those who fear being “outed” to their parents, there is always the option of getting in touch privately with the myriad LGBTQ advocacy groups operating at the local, state, and national levels. Their shelves are brimming with books such as this. The point of putting it on a school bookshelf is to signal to other students how they should think about sexual development.

Critics of the Florida law worry about its vague language, and the chilling effect it may have on educators. Yet gender activists themselves have leveraged radically expansive interpretations of words such as “safety” for many years as a means to make their case, often ghoulishly accusing their opponents of consigning children to lives of misery, cut short by suicide. By comparison, the drafting of the new Florida law is direct and sincere. And it will benefit the state’s students, never mind the efforts of those who would falsely smear it as an artifact of homophobia.

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