The Florida Board of Education voted Wednesday to extend a ban on classroom teachings about sexual orientation and gender identity all the way through 12th grade, an action requested by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The rule expanded on the governor's infamous "Don't Say Gay" law enacted last year expressly prohibiting instruction on the topics for students in kindergarten through third grade.
The new amendment adopted by the state board bans any classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in pre-kindergarten through third grade. For fourth through 12th grades, instruction on the topics is prohibited unless the lessons are either "expressly required by state academic standards ... or is part of a reproductive health course or health lesson for which a student’s parent has the option to have his or her student not attend," according to the amendment.
A spokesperson for the pro-LGBTQ+ group PFLAG said the ban was so broadly worded that it would prohibit nearly all teachings related to sex and gender—something DeSantis and Republican lawmakers surely hadn't considered.
"Everyone has a sexual orientation and a gender identity," Laura McGinnis noted. "It looks like this rule would make it impossible to do much instruction at all."
But beyond the technicalities of the wording, the original prohibition targeting gay and transgender instruction and this broad expansion urged by DeSantis, who is eyeing a 2024 presidential bid, represent something far more sinister than the Republican Party's decades-long effort to deprive LGBTQ+ individuals of basic civil rights. The ban is instead an effort to entirely erase queer Americans from the map.
Over the past several decades, Republicans have lost battle after battle in their effort to relegate gay and transgender Americans to second-class citizenship. The courts have broadly upheld the legally protected rights of LGBTQ+ individuals to live and work free from discrimination and harassment. Over time, conservative zealotry has marginalized Republicans on issues both at the ballot box and in the court of public opinion.
The issue of same-sex marriage is a perfect example of how the GOP's anti-gay bigotry became a prominent political loser for the party over the course of a decade. When a majority of states adopted marriage bans in the mid-aughts, roughly 60% of Americans opposed the freedom of same-sex couples to marry, according to Gallup.
But as the bans took effect and voters began to get further educated on the harms they were causing to no good effect, public sentiment evolved rapidly on what had been considered a highly divisive social issue. By the time the Supreme Court struck down the discriminatory bans nationwide in the summer of 2015, some 58% of the country supported marriage rights for same-sex couples—a near-total reversal of fortunes.
Republicans eventually scrapped their high-profile attacks on same-sex marriage and trained their sights on transgender Americans, specifically enacting laws that sought to police which bathrooms trans individuals could use.
Once again, GOP bigotry against an even more vulnerable population proved to be a loser at the ballot box. Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory provided the best example of the GOP's political miscalculation on the issue when he signed an anti-trans "bathroom bill" in 2016 and promptly lost his reelection bid in a year where Republicans trounced Democrats up and down the ballot nationwide. McCrory has since repeatedly failed in his attempts to rehabilitate his political career.
Republicans in red states are once again obsessing over policing bathrooms, with a new round of anti-trans bills passing in Arkansas, Iowa, and Kentucky. Those states will likely lose in the courts along with paying a steep price in revenues lost for their bigotry and eventually conclude that they should cut their losses, as Republicans did in both North Carolina and Texas.
In the meantime, Republicans have once again tweaked their formula with a new focus on LGBTQ+ issues in educational settings such as classrooms and libraries. Now, instead of perpetually losing the battle to deprive LGBTQ+ individuals of freedoms right by right, marriage by marriage, and bathroom by bathroom, Republicans have graduated to a scheme of simply eliminating their existence altogether.
One method of doing that, fashioned by DeSantis and Florida Republicans, is by prohibiting any acknowledgment whatsoever of LGBTQ+ individuals. Though the new rule specifically outlaws "instruction" on sexual orientation and gender identity, it blurs the lines between teaching and discussion, and is clearly intended to suppress any speech related to LGBTQ+ individuals, effectively erasing their existence altogether.
Indeed, just before the original law took effect in 2022, a gay male teacher said he cried the night before the beginning of the school year in August 2022.
“As a gay teacher, as a queer male, it’s been painful for me, it’s been very painful and very upsetting,” Michael Woods told The Guardian. “It’s had a chilling effect, because I’m really questioning myself, about what conversations I can have and there’s really no clarity on it.”
In advance of the new school year, some school districts also implemented new rules prohibiting teachers from wearing rainbow clothing or featuring pictures of their same-sex spouses on their desks.
But the bill also has the insidious consequence of turning kids, parents, and the teachers themselves into informants on each other. Parents now have the right to bring complaints against teachers and lawsuits against school districts. In some cases, schools are also alerting parents if their child is in certain classes with another student who is open about their gender identity. And soon, Florida Republicans plan to add a feature about policing pronoun use.
Employing average citizens to inform on and police each other is a classic authoritarian tactic and Florida Republicans aren't the only GOP lawmakers using it. Tennessee Republicans recently passed a bill encouraging students and staff members to report professors who taught about racism, slavery, and other "divisive concepts" in their 2022 classes.
As historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat notes in her newsletter Lucid, unleashing citizens to police one another weaponizes them against each other, creating an environment of distrust that ultimately empowers the government.
One outcome of this psychological pressure is widespread self-censorship, which is a survival strategy for those living in regimes and makes the state's job of indoctrination much easier. Both propaganda and silence feature in authoritarian campaigns to retrain minds, emotions, and behaviors. Some ideas must be repeated obsessively in the media and daily life, and other ideas must ideally be no longer heard at all in public —self-censorship factors in here.
It's no accident that the transformation of the GOP into an autocratic entity during Donald Trump's presidency accelerated the Republican war on education. All of the fronts of this ongoing war draw on authoritarian history: the book bans, the censorship of curriculums, the surveillance of syllabi and lesson plans, the demonization of professors, teachers, and librarians as perverts and radical leftist indoctrination machines, the assertion of "parents' rights" as a cover for right-wing activism, and the establishment of pathways for a culture of informing to take hold.
Last year, Texas Republicans unleashed their own version of vigilante justice when they allowed citizens to sue anyone who had provided an abortion or aided and abetted one.
Florida is similarly turning its citizens against each other in the realm of education, stifling free speech on LGBTQ+ issues.
And just as Texas Republicans used the tactic to eradicate abortions, Florida Republicans have begun the erasure of gay and transgender Americans.