Censorship within public education has been a repetitive issue. It seems like every year, a school board or federal entity takes it upon themselves to dictate what educational materials belong in classrooms and which ones do not. However, Florida’s legislators have recently crossed the line with the creation of a new proposed bill designed to completely silence any discussions of sexuality or gender identity in primary schools at the expense of students’ education and society’s social progression.
Despite being rooted in homophobia and unacceptable levels of censorship, the bill, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, has continually moved forward within the legal process. After passing through multiple committees that deemed the bill acceptable, it was handed off to the Judiciary Committee for review, which places it dangerously close to passing. Joe Harding, member of the Florida House of Representatives, is the primary sponsor of the legislation. According to the bill’s text, written by Harding, its main intention is to strengthen parents’ control over their children’s education and return the parental right to make decisions on what material is reviewed in schools. Thus, the bill encourages parents to take serious legal action against school districts that violate the rules of the proposed bill, adding a significant monetary consequence to already underfunded public schools to ensure complete compliance from teachers and staff.
However, parents are not the most reliable sources, and personal biases may prevent them from discontinuing a generational cycle of ignorance. The purpose of education has always been about ensuring the development of a person by supplying them with the necessary information and resources to properly grow and mature into a functioning member of society, and sexuality and gender identity are a natural part of development. A child normally enters the first stage of gender identity development around the age of two as they begin to notice the physical differences between sexes. By the age of three, they are starting to become familiar with their own sex label, and, by the age of four, they have a general sense of their gender identity. These are crucial learning years for children and they should be given a reliable, unbiased, and fully informed space to learn about and safely discuss sexuality and gender identity. Choosing to ignore and silence these discussions surrounding a critical portion of a child’s forming identity is harmful to the education system as a whole and directly goes against what schools were designed to do by breeding ignorance and stunting students’ development.
Historically, implementing measures to prevent dialogue regarding sexuality and gender identity has not delivered favorable outcomes. Take, for example, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” bill created by President Bill Clinton in 1993. The bill ended the ban on members of the LGBTQ+ serving in the American military by creating a “compromise” where these individuals were welcomed into the services at the expense of hiding their identity. If they were discovered to be gay by colleagues or administrators, they were immediately discharged, which created a sense of fearfulness and shame in soldiers who were forced to hide their identity. Similar to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, this legislation ultimately reinforced the stigma surrounding homosexuality by supporting silence and intensifying the preconception that being gay is something to be ashamed of and kept hidden. While the bill was repealed by President Barack Obama in 2010, it seems reactionary politics have now come full circle with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and its reversion to previous discriminations.
Furthermore, the bill makes the argument that sexuality and gender identity are “inappropriate” topics to discuss in primary school. However, there are various ways to introduce complex topics like sexuality and gender identity to children in an age appropriate manner that is conducive to learning and development. Silence is the opposite approach. Dr. Wanjiku Njoroge, an adjunct professor at Yale and program director of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the following in response to the question of discussing race with children, “In the absence of these conversations, silence is powerful: If they hear nothing about race, they figure out that there’s something different about that topic. And that difference can become imbued with negativity.” Similar logic can be applied to sexuality and gender identity. Children should feel supported in their identity, not apologetic for it.
Overall, censorship in public schools would do a great disservice to future generations and the education of these children. School is designed to be a place of learning; discourse and discussion are vital to development. Ultimately, no government official or otherwise should be able to stand in the way of a child’s education and the production of well-educated individuals.
Art by Angela Liang for the UCSD Guardian.