Florida lawmakers have passed a bill that would bar teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom. The parental rights in education bill, labelled the “don’t say gay” bill by critics, would also prevent teachers and school counsellors from giving support to LGBTQ+ students, without first getting permission from their parents.
Florida follows other states with similar statutes. Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi have outlawed any mention of same-sex relationships in their sex education curriculum. Tennessee and Montana permit parents to remove their children from classroom discussions on sexuality or gender identity. But Florida’s bill goes a step further by allowing parents to sue school districts for damages if they believe a teacher has broken the law.
This bill has strong echoes of section 28, the 1988 law that prevented local authorities in the UK from promoting homosexuality. As state schools were at the time led by local authorities, section 28 prevented schools from teaching the acceptability of homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship”.
Teachers believed they would lose their jobs if they gave advice and support to LGBTQ+ students, or challenged homophobic language and bullying. LGBTQ+ teachers were left in fear, believing that their identity alone was grounds for dismissal from their job.
The legacy of section 28 shows the long-term impact legislation like this can have on students and teachers. Section 28 emerged from the Conservative party’s 1987 election campaign, based around family values and a “parents know best” agenda. The Conservatives portrayed the opposition Labour party as pro-gay, and school teachers, who traditionally voted Labour, as a danger to children.
Florida’s bill is similarly suspicious of teachers and advocates parental vigilance. Ron DeSantis, Florida governor and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful, stated: “Parents must have a seat at the table when it comes to what’s going on in their schools.” This is reminiscent of a comment in 2000 by Conservative MP Theresa May, who voted to keep section 28 in place: “Most parents want the comfort of knowing section 28 is there.”
Research shows that section 28 left a damaging legacy for the LGBTQ+ young people who were students at the time. Many are still scarred by the absence of any pastoral or mental health support at the most challenging period of their adolescence. As one student who went on to become a teacher said:
I thought I was the only person who was gay at my school. I couldn’t talk to my teachers, though I didn’t know why until years later … I now try to be the role model I never had at school, but I know some parents are not happy.
LGBTQ+ teachers are similarly, deeply affected. Fifteen years after section 28 was repealed, I surveyed LGBTQ+ teachers who had taught under the law and compared their responses with LGBTQ+ teachers who entered teaching after section 28 had been repealed. I found that teachers who worked during the section 28 era remain more cautious, vigilant and anxious in their school workplaces than those LGBTQ+ teachers entering the profession more recently.
My research showed that LGBTQ+ teachers’ principal fear remains that parents of students they teach will associate their identity with hypersexuality and paedophilia. One teacher with experience of section 28 said:
I know that I have a responsibility to LGBT+ kids in school and it upsets me when I see them struggling like I did … but I worry what parents will think of me if I try to help. Sometimes I feel like I’d be viewed as a predator or something.
64% of LGBTQ+ teachers who taught under section 28 have experienced a serious episode of anxiety or depression linked to their sexual or gender identity and role as a teacher. This compares with just 31% of the overall teaching population.
The LGBTQ+ teachers who had not worked under section 28 were much more confident to be themselves at school. One teacher new to the profession said:
I should be able to bring my whole self to work. I couldn’t stay at a school if I had to keep details of my private life a secret. If anyone had a problem with me I’d expect my headteacher to back me 100%.
Florida’s bill still has to make its way through the rest of the state’s legislature (and the governor’s desk) before it becomes law. LGBTQ+ advocates have begun to mobilise in opposition to the bill, just as opponents of section 28 did 34 years ago.
Florida should look to the UK before passing “don’t say gay”. It took 15 years to repeal section 28 and will take many more to repair the damage done to a generation of LGBTQ+ young people and teachers.