There’s no hiding the fact that the current state of American politics is rife with hostility – divided along partisan lines, propelled by misguided, misinformed activism and an onslaught of disillusioned complacency. As our Nation further divides into ‘red states and blue states,’ our public policy and civil discourse suffer.
Though, what we have all seen in recent headlines regarding Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill, HB 1557, is yet another example of overtly partisan posturing and a stab into the heart of democracy. When pundits, politicians, and so-called advocates postured for the camera and flexed for the tweets, the American people lost an opportunity for important, needed, complex conversations on issues impacting American students and families.
Wordplay and Democratic Delay
As is the case with many so-called ‘hot button’ issues (abortion, guns, school boards, CRT…the list goes on), the real issue at hand in HB 1557 is lost in the clouds of heated rhetoric and dangerous hyperbole.
To my friends on the Left, their use of hyperbolic messaging against this bill – regardless of their motivation – is a failure of democracy. For instance, the word ‘gay’ does not appear at all in the text of the bill and the phrase ‘sexual orientation’ appears only twice. Also of important note, the bill applies only to the youngest groups of students – kindergarten through third grade. Couple these facts with the onslaught of misplaced activism displayed on media networks, activists, leaders, and media elites failed the American people by creating a faux crisis.
Though, let me be very clear, any piece of legislation that even seems to discriminate against or single out a single group should be analyzed with the strongest, most ethical scrutiny. The language of the bill may not explicitly harm or discriminate against any LGBTQ+ student, concerns regarding the broad, vague language are aptly valid – vague legislation can have massive consequences.
I also find grave concern with the fact that HB 1557 allows parents to ‘decline…consent’ to mental health services (although, the bill follows this with a clause stating that it ‘does not prohibit a school district from adopting procedures that permit school personnel to withhold such information from a parent if a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect”).
The bill’s Republican supporters have argued that the legislation is necessary to help protect America’s youth “from so-called ‘sexualization’ in our public schools.” Though, many opponents of the bill, and some Republican outsiders such as GOP strategist, Gavin Smith, say these claims are “blatantly wrong and hypocritical.”
Those who admonished the controversial legislation with such a hyperbolic, click-bait name failed gay students – they failed democracy. Those on the Left who misconstrued the Parental Rights in Education Act as some war on gay teens are the liberal equivalents to the bewildering conservatives shouting about their guns being snatched from their hands. In fact, many of the plaintiffs in a suit against the state, following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signing of the bill into law, are high school-aged students that would not be impacted by the sexual orientation and gender identity instruction provisions of the bill.
Of note, a similar bill, with over twice the number of pages, has been filed in Ohio. HB 616 is perhaps a more appropriate opportunity for critics to suggest conservatives are attacking minority students as the bill is much more specific in its language – such as its explicit ban on curriculum that “promotes any divisive or inherently racist concept.” The Ohio bill is much more limited in terms of parental rights in public education, which may suggest that the conservatives behind the bill have much more bigoted motives than found in Florida’s HB 1557. Though, we should all be worried that the Left has ‘cried gay’ too soon – making real organizing efforts against the bill all the more difficult.
HB 1557, as written, is about much more than LGBTQ+ rights, rather the motivation of the bill rests upon growing support amongst conservatives for policies instituting more parental voice into school activities and students’ education. That is a conversation worth having, and one the American people were unable to adequately host amid the turmoil and inflated outrage that has only contributed to further dividing Americans into groups of Left & Right – Blue & Red.
Those students and advocates suing the state against the bill fail to address the very blatant student mental health risks this bill poses by allowing parents to decline mental health treatment – failing Florida students by ignoring the opportunity for conversations on student mental health.
Those Republicans using this bill to gain admiration from homophobic and bigoted voters – leaning into to hate LGBTQ+ students face across the Nation daily – have failed morally. Representation matters and feeling safe in schools is such an important part of effective education. Specifically targeting minority students is an irresponsible and abusive use of legislative power – although, I don’t believe this bill does that.
Tyler Morgan, an Eastern Kentucky public school teacher who recently resigned from his job following backlash for his vocal support of diversity and a pride flag in his classroom, has embodied this idea of representation in daily life. “I firmly believe more work needs to be done in Kentucky…to ensure that more resources are provided to make sure all students feel safe, secure, and seen,” Morgan wrote in a Facebook post following his resignation.
A War with No Winners
All of that to say, our democracy is – and has been at risk. Our democracy will only further stagnate, and our public policy will suffer so long as our political discourse occurs only in 140-character tweets and primetime headlines. So long as policymakers pit Americans against each other by misconstruing and distorting the truth for their own deceptive ambitions, solutions are ignored, dialogue obliterated, and democracy mocked.
Is HB 1557 a good bill? No, it is overly broad, a risk to student health, and ultimately a haphazard political token. That does not excuse the media and liberal leaders from their outright dangerous, irresponsible rhetoric misconstruing the actual language and implication of the bill.
What we have all witnessed the past several weeks – and for quite some time, really – is a growing complacency amongst American voters and an emboldened strategic mindset amongst political elites that have instilled such a strong sense of identity politics into our national discourse. When we reach the point where our public policy is only achieved along party lines – when conversations happen in micro-dialogue bolstered by hostility – the democracy enshrined upon us by our Constitution will be no more.
Fear-stoking has no home in a democratic society. We cannot continue to use our differences to pit ourselves against our American neighbors. What makes us different, makes us great and there are no winners in [partisan] war.