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Florida Senate to vote on measure that critics dubbed 'Don't Say Gay' bill

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, Florida lawmakers are expected to approve a bill that bans any school instruction dealing with sexual orientation or gender identity. Governor Ron DeSantis casts this as support of parental rights to have those discussions at home, if at all. Critics say the measure targets LGBTQ families and label it the Don't Say Gay bill. News coverage of this bill has extended to "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

COLIN JOST: Yeah, yeah. Like, teachers can't speak about gay people in history or if a kid has a gay family member.

KATE MCKINNON: Wait, what?

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen has been following this debate in Florida. Hey there, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is so hotly debated. I guess we should get back to the text of the legislation. What would the bill actually do?

ALLEN: Well, there are some non-controversial provisions in the bill, things about giving parents access to their children's education and health records. But really, the controversial part of it says that teachers may not do any instruction or sexual - on sexual orientation or gender identity in grades kindergarten through third grade. Supporters of the bill, including Florida's Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, are clear what they're concerned about.

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RON DESANTIS: Clearly right now, we see a lot of focus on the transgenderism, telling kids that they may be able to pick genders and all that. I don't think parents want that for these young kids.

ALLEN: This bill allows parents who feel that there's been a violation of the law and that teachers have been instructing kids about sexual orientation, they can then sue the school district and get damages if their concerns aren't addressed.

INSKEEP: And can we talk about what the bill is called? The critics say it's the Don't Say Gay bill. I get the impression that supporters are offended by that phrase. But you're not supposed to talk about these things, right? Is it an inaccurate description, Don't Say Gay?

ALLEN: Well, you know, it's a very catchy phrase that's helped raise the profile of the bill, which clearly does - the bill clearly does target the LGBTQ community. Yesterday, members of the community had their own rallying cry for lawmakers.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) We say gay. We say gay. We say gay.

ALLEN: That was dozens of young LGBTQ activists who came from throughout the state who were at the Capitol in Tallahassee yesterday. And the measure, while it bans any classroom instruction involving sexual orientation, supporters of it will say that's not the same as don't say gay. You know, if the word gay comes up in the classroom, that would be OK. You can't instruct students about it. Here's a sponsor in the state Senate, Republican Dennis Baxley.

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DENNIS BAXLEY: Here you've got a bill that doesn't use the term gay, that the media has taken and advertises as the Don't Say Gay bill. And there's nothing about that in the bill except extrapolating a mission that they're on.

INSKEEP: OK, so the measure does not explicitly ban the word gay, but it bans instruction in these areas and raises the possibility of lawsuits against teachers. If proponents of the bill say they don't want to ban the word gay, what exactly do they want to accomplish?

ALLEN: Well, over the weekend, Governor DeSantis's spokesperson sent out a tweet describing it as a, quote, "anti-grooming" bill. And that's further inflamed the debate. Here's Democratic Senator Tina Polsky.

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TINA POLSKY: She called it a grooming bill, meaning that gay people or teachers talking about gayness are pedophiles and are grooming children for molestation. It's horrendous the way this bill has been interpreted, and that's because it's not defined.

ALLEN: A lot of the criticism from Democrats was about the vagueness of the bill. Under questioning, Republicans conceded that it applied not just to K through third grade, but that it bans discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in any grade that's not, quote, "age-appropriate." And that, Democrats say, could open the way to lots of lawsuits.

INSKEEP: Oh, since it's not defining what age-appropriate - what age that is.

ALLEN: Right.

INSKEEP: What happens next?

ALLEN: Well, the Republican majority has the votes to pass it, and it then goes to the governor, who says he'll sign it.

INSKEEP: Greg, thanks so much.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.