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Settlement in ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Lawsuit Allows Non-Curriculum Discussion of LGBTQ+ Topics

Demonstrators protest against the Parental Rights in Education Act outside Flagler Palm Coast High School in March 2022. ⓒ AskFlagler

A groundbreaking new settlement between the Florida Department of Education and civil rights attorneys establishes key clarifications to the Parental Rights in Education Act, known by critics as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law. Passed in 2022, the law was designed to limit classroom instruction about gender identity and romantic orientation among other topics. The issue was taken up in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, leading to Monday’s sweeping revision of the law.

Supporters argued it protected school-age kids from being exposed to inappropriate sexual content, while opponents contested it was written vaguely in order to disenfranchise Florida’s LGBTQ+ students. Now, thanks to a settlement that’s being championed by both sides of the issue, many of the critical areas of the law which were unclear and left open to interpretation are now more tightly clarified.

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What’s Been Clarified

L-R: Former Education Chancellor Jacob Oliva, Governor Ron DeSantis, and Education Secretary Manny Diaz Jr. were among top Florida officials who supported the Parental Rights in Education Act. Oliva once served as Flagler Schools Superintendent. ⓒ Florida Department of Education & Office of Governor Ron DeSantis

One of the key impacts of the settlement is the provision that the topics in question, such as gender identity and romantic orientation, can be discussed by teachers and students in the classroom. The law still bars these topics from being included in classroom curriculum, but the idea that teachers may lose their jobs merely for mentioning a same-sex spouse are largely curtailed. Furthermore, library books with LGBTQ+ story-lines will be allowed to remain in place barring other disqualifying factors, and books in the curriculum may make incidental reference to characters or individuals who are LGBTQ+.

It’s now also been clarified that the law applies equally to heterosexual topics and LGBTQ+ topics alike, alleviating a criticism that the policy would be applied disproportionately to non-straight people and issues. Further still, school districts are explicitly allowed to establish protections for students against bullying on the basis of their gender identity or their orientation, the same way they’re protected for their race, ethnicity, age, genetic conditions, or religion.

The Parental Rights law was highly controversial when passed, on the back of Governor Ron DeSantis offering his wholehearted support of it as a key piece of his social policy. Florida legislative Democrats fought the bill bitterly, but were unsuccessful in preventing its passage or mitigating its text. DeSantis entered into a long and bitter conflict with The Walt Disney Company over their public opposition to the legislation, leading to numerous lawsuits and the dissolution of a special government district previously overseen by Disney.

Local Impacts

L-R: U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, First Lady Jill Biden, President Joe Biden, Jack Petocz, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. Petocz received a White House invite for his pro-LGBTQ+ activism in Flagler County.

Protests broke out across Florida as the bill advanced through the legislature, many of them led by youth activists. One such activist was Jack Petocz, at the time a student at Flagler Palm Coast High School. Petocz, who is gay, was suspended for distributing Pride flags against the warnings of school administration.

He’d go on to gain national recognition including a meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, and he now works with Gen Z for Change and the Youth Action Fund while attending Vanderbilt University.

“I am proud of the unrelenting advocacy of organizers from across Florida who have fought nonstop against anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment,” Petocz said after the settlement was announced. “Unfortunately, the Don’t Say Gay bill is still in effect, transgender Floridians are constantly under threat, and progress remains at a grinding halt. I hope that today’s momentary victory catapults this movement into future successes, ensuring our home is welcoming and affirming to all.”

Will Anything Change?

Officials in the state government are celebrating the outcome of the settlement, but resisting the notion that the law has changed. Factually speaking, it hasn’t. Some in DeSantis’ administration are arguing that the settlement outlines what the law was always meant to accomplish. This law, the Parental Rights in Education Act, is about instruction,” said DeSantis’ Communications Director Bryan Griffin on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Kids remain safe in Florida from radical gender and sexual ideology being forced on them by adults without the knowledge of their parents.” Griffin’s sentiments were echoed by Florida Education Secretary Manny Diaz, who re-posted the remarks.

“We fought hard to ensure this law couldn’t be maligned in court, as it was in the public arena by the media and large corporate actors,” said DeSantis’ General Counsel Ryan D. Newman. “We are victorious, and Florida’s classrooms will remain a safe place under the Parental Rights in Education Act.”

Still, opponents like Petocz disagree with the idea that nothing meaningful has been changed. “To everyone that has marked Florida as a no man’s land for queer people,” he continued, “today’s victory illustrates that when you stand firm in your convictions and fight tooth and nail, we can disrupt the system of oppression.”

Written By

Chris Gollon is a Flagler County resident since 2004, as well as a staple of the local independent music scene and avid observer of Central Florida politics, arts, and recreation.

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