Florida's latest slate of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is not just an attack on queer people. It's also an attack on children and a thriving pluralist society.
May 17 was the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. It was also the day when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed five new bills into law, under a so-called “Let Kids Be Kids” package that would better fit the title if certain childhood traumas, like lockdown drills, weren’t considered part of doing business in today’s United States. The actual “protection” here follows the same logic of failed abstinence-only education: If a child is never allowed to discuss LGBTQ+ topics in school, and if the government restricts the ability of LGBTQ+ people to exist safely in public, then surely the “problem” of LGBTQ+ people will go away.
To these ends, House Bill 225 broadens state control over the Florida High School Athletic Association. It does this by concerning itself centrally with the work of ensuring consistency of standards for participants during interscholastic events between charter and state schools. The background to this bill is the presumption that this athletics board can no longer be trusted to make decisions about who gets to play in which team for youth sports, and the local reading of this bill is that it will be used to enforce stricter divisions between participants at any age on the basis of simple genes.
House Bill 1069 broadens requirements for flagging library and school materials to include challenges from anyone in a given school district, empowers school staff to refuse to use preferred names and pronouns that they deem contrary to genetic sex, and encourages them to report on a wider range of matters related to a child’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being to their parents. In practice, the matter of reporting a child’s full emotional and physical life increases pressure for school staff to “out” an LGBTQ+ child to their parents. The bill also pushes an already extreme restriction on comprehensive sex ed (before, up to Grade 8) to include only what is deemed “appropriate” for Grades 9 to 12, too.
House Bill 1438 is even murkier in practical scope. It has been recognized as plainly targeting drag shows and a wide range of upcoming Pride Month events, by incentivizing venues to stop hosting them at the risk of losing their licenses if any child gains entry to said “adult” entertainment. However, it also offers a much broader definition with respect to what might be considered inappropriate: not just shows with “lewd content”, but any act deemed “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community of this state as a whole with respect to what is suitable material or conduct for the age of the child present”. Under the current Floridian climate, this could include shows with any queer content at all, as suggested by a recent state investigation into a teacher who on May 3 showed her class Disney’s Strange World, which has a son with a crush on another boy.
Senate Bill 254 bans gender-affirming care to all under 18 years old, and allows Florida courts to grant temporary emergency jurisdiction to a parent of a child whose joint-custody provides them with access to gender-affirming care in another state. (That is, if they have ever received that care, or are now “threatened” with receiving it.) The bill also denies the use of state funds by any “governmental entity” for gender-affirming care at any age.
And House Bill 1521 blocks trans people from using restrooms in public buildings that do not accord with a strict reading of genetics, irrespective of how much they might look like someone with a different genetic makeup. This situation suggests that many people will be policed for whichever stall they use, simply on the basis of not “looking” the part, and in practice means that many queer people will avoid using public facilities entirely. Although the bill does not cover private businesses, its reach amounts to a broader cultural push to normalize policing of who belongs in multi-stall facilities, as also in public life.
Not just an attack on LGBTQ+ people
To be clear: these and related bills have been reported as anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, because they are. But HB1521 also invites cultural attack on anyone who does not look sufficiently feminine or masculine while deigning to use a public facility. Plenty of people who would not identify as trans will be (and already are) questioned for their use of public rest facilities as well. Similarly, the increased push for school staff to report on a fuller range of students’ behaviors to their parents invites greater scrutiny (if not outright pathologizing) of any gender variance from traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity.
This, then, is also an attack on seeing children as human beings in their own right. It is absolutely true that childhood development is a complex topic that merits serious conversations about appropriate oversight and curation. When, if ever, should a child be circumcised? When should a child face more serious charges for an act of violence? When should a young person be considered mature enough to join the military, or a football or hockey team, or a ballet school; or to sign themselves into long term loan arrangements; or to agree to lifelong membership to a given faith community? How young is too young for a child to learn how to protect themselves from an active shooter?
READ: “A tale of two gun countries”
But the concerns raised around gender and sexuality are carefully siloed by right wing media and politicians from every other issue of choice and exposure in childhood development, and that selectivity makes all the difference.
When it comes to whether a child should ever being allowed to talk about, say, their own LGBTQ+ family in a school setting, or to learn about the full range of human beings who exist in our world, many of the same arguments arise that were used against homosexuality not so very long ago. Back then (and among extreme religious groups today) it was claimed that a child couldn’t possibly know they were gay because they were “too young to be thinking about relationships”: even while “playing house” and having “puppy love” play dates, and while their parents took them to weddings or even purity balls.
Such traditionalist biases have been given fresh license around trans panic, wherein many on the political right, from mainstream to overtly white Christian nationalist, have dishonestly configured the current conversation about trans identity around a stark either/or: if “something” isn’t done soon (i.e. banning the mere mention of transness), the other side will surely be “chopping body parts off eight-year-olds” before long.
This dishonest framing, and attendant “Gish Gallop” of fear-mongering anecdotes on social media as in mainstream politics, then yields genuine fear among many well-intentioned but perhaps less-informed parents, who are also trying to figure out how to guide their children through modern life: a life with war and immigration traumas that might be affecting their children’s classmates. A life with climate change disasters blasting from TV sets in the doctor’s office and on local radio on the car ride over. A life with rising homelessness, and other blatant signs of suffering that come up when taking the kids to the park.
It is a lot. And people entrusted with the care and raising of children need all our support in the form of compassionate political attention to the issues directly affecting their futures.
But that’s not what we have with trans panic. Right wing extremists want very much for us to believe this all-or-nothing binary has been crafted by the “woke left”: that progressive movements, by “going too far”, have forced them to this extreme. That medical, sports, school, and state institution advisory boards cannot be trusted to make the right decisions anymore, so top-down government bans are necessary to protect us from ourselves.
Authoritarianism arises, in part, when we cede a pluralist society of thriving, nuanced discourse and its multiple centers of dedicated policy experts to the paranoia of a few.
Do not let this be one of those times. A child is not a blank slate from 0-18, and the question of their growth from full dependence to a more dynamic and direct collaboration in broader civic states is a critical part of humanist practice. Conversations about how best to protect our youth matter. Policy that mitigates their senseless death and traumatization does, too.
Which is why the greatest cruelty in these latest laws, along with the wave of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment preceding them in recent months and years, is their denial of these deeper and far more democratic conversations. Authoritarianism is winning in Florida—for now.