Florida’s new law, the Parental Rights in Education act, prohibits sex education in the early grades and requires teachers to inform parents about students’ mental health. All the debate and fanfare over its passage still seems to end with both sides mostly talking past one another.
Opponents dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” law, arguing it prevents LGBT students and teachers from being their true selves and thereby harming them. As such, Disney, a host of celebrities, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his partner Chasten have loudly denounced the bill.
Supporters dubbed it the “Anti-Grooming” bill, arguing that it prevents students from being sexualized, alienated from their families, and made vulnerable to sexual predators. It does so by empowering parents and giving them more influence over what their children learn in the classroom.
Although I fully support the bill (along with the majority of Americans), both sides’ framing tends to obscure the main question at hand: what is best for the students?
Even though it seems unfathomable that any individual or organization would oppose a bill that prevents grooming, many oppose this bill because they believe it hurts students. They believe it’s best for kids of all ages to feel completely comfortable and safe in expressing their gender and sexuality. This may mean keeping it a secret from the student’s parents, and cultivating an environment that actively affirms these identities.
I’ve seen this firsthand as a high school English teacher. On occasion, a student would come out as gay or transgender and request that counselors and teachers keep this a secret from his or her parents. At school, we’d then use these students’ preferred pronouns and requested names.
That doesn’t seem like a huge deal, perhaps, but that wasn’t all. These students frequently had other struggles, either emotional, academic, or interpersonal.
The majority of the time, these struggles were either the cause or effect of their newfound identities and lifestyles that everyone kept secret. Thus, a parent might have a daughter struggling with severe depression and sexual assault, and fighting with her friends, all of which happened around the time she identified as a boy, but the parent never heard anything about it.
The push for teaching sexual education and gender ideology as early as possible is part of this idea of “helping” LGBT students. I have heard other teachers and education gurus argue that if we don’t do this, we are unconsciously stigmatizing LGBT students. Tolerating students’ sexual identities and keeping their secrets simply isn’t enough; if must be celebrated and directly taught so these students can feel happy with themselves and their peers can better support them.
Even though I can respect the intentions, the logic of this argument always bothered me. I believe it fails in three critical ways.
First, it assumes parents can’t be trusted. In nearly all cases, the truth is completely the opposite. Parents love their children—after all, that’s why they have them, take care of them, and send them to school—and they are essential partners in their children’s education.
Teachers and counselors wouldn’t keep a child’s phone addiction or aggressive behavior a secret from parents. Similarly, they shouldn’t keep a child’s transgenderism a secret from her parents. Parents need to know so they can better understand and help their child, and their child can better feel loved and understood.
Second, it assumes that children of all ages, even those only a few years out of diapers and sippy cups, are mentally equipped to handle concepts like sex, sexual orientation, and gender fluidity. This is not the case at all.
Rather, kids exposed to these ideas suffer enormous confusion and encounter serious social difficulties. There’s a reason there’s a mental health crisis among today’s kids, and robbing them of their innocence by introducing adult concepts well before they’re adults is a big part of it.
Third, it is incredibly divisive and disruptive. By its very nature, a policy of affirmation and advocacy immediately casts those who dissent in any way as villainous bigots.
What existed before was a neutral policy that basically of avoiding these topics, sticking with academic content, and building up a common identity through school spirit and high standards. One could be Bible-thumping Christians or Marxist pansexuals, and still members of the same school community. Now, even family and friends are vilified if they express any doubts about certain labels and lifestyles.
People are right to be concerned about today’s students’ welfare, especially after what students were put through for the past two years. As teachers would attest, students desperately need community and guidance.
But this doesn’t happen through superficial inclusivity and taking a side in the new culture war. It happens when children are allowed to be children; when they can learn about themselves and others in a safe environment with an adult who wants to help them become better people.
Despite what critics say, Florida’s new law and others like it will help with this. In the end, it’s key to remember that the welfare of children is what everyone should prioritize and be able to agree upon.