US States to Limit Discussion of Sexuality in Classrooms

16 August 2022

Students in the southern U.S. state of Florida returned to school last week under a new law that some social activists have criticized.

The law is called the Parental Rights in Education Act. The law says it supports the "right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children."

But critics call it the "Don't Say Gay Law." They worry about the bill's effects on gay students and their families. The law limits discussion of sexual and gender orientation subjects in classrooms with young children.

FILE - A sign-carrying anti-gay protester is surrounded by a sea of Pride umbrellas during the Pride parade in Winston-Salem, N.C., June 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Skip Foreman, File)
FILE - A sign-carrying anti-gay protester is surrounded by a sea of Pride umbrellas during the Pride parade in Winston-Salem, N.C., June 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Skip Foreman, File)

Under the law, students in kindergarten through grade three may not be taught about sexual or gender orientation. The law also bars public schools in the state from teaching about sexual or gender orientation that is not "age appropriate or developmentally appropriate..." The law also permits parents to bring legal action against school systems if they disagree with what they teach.

"We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in March, when he signed the law. He called teaching sexual subjects to very young students a way to "sexualize" young children.

The group Parents Defending Education is based in Virginia. It says on its website that subjects like sex education and critical race theory are "not only at war with basic American values, but also with childhood."

Critics of the Florida law say it is unclear and difficult to understand. The Florida Department of Education says the part of the law that limits discussion to age appropriate or developmentally appropriate materials will go into effect when guidance is released from the state.

Will Larkins is a high school student in Florida. The New York Times published an opinion piece he wrote about the new law. He said it will make teachers less likely "to talk at all with students about gender identity and sexuality..." He added: "For many of my friends in dangerous situations because of their sexuality or gender identity, school has been a space where they could be themselves."

President Joe Biden's administration called the law "discrimination, plain and simple" in a July statement. The statement added that it "encourages bullying and threatens students' mental health, physical safety, and well-being."

The Biden administration also expressed concern about "dangerous nationwide" activities of Republican lawmakers. It said they are "targeting LGBTQI+ students, educators, and individuals..."

On its website, NPR said that more than 12 states have introduced legislation similar to Florida's bill. A law passed in Alabama that also bans discussion of gender and sexual identity before fifth grade.

Eva Goldfarb is a sex educator and professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She told VOA that the bills are an "all-out assault on sex education." She said sex educators have been wrongfully accused of sexualizing young children, and that instruction is already age-appropriate.

"The purpose of sex education is to protect young people from being sexually exploited and having bad sexual health outcomes," she said.

Goldfarb added that it is important to have early, age-appropriate discussions of subjects like sex and gender identity. She said they will be prepared to discuss those topics in more detail when they are in high school.

"The reason you need to start sex education in elementary school is...for the same reason you start teaching math in elementary school," she said. "No one would say, let's first start teaching algebra in eighth grade without first teaching addition and subtraction and multiplication."

Christine Soyong Harley is the director of Washington D.C.-based SEICUS, a sex education organization that supports teaching gender and sexual orientation. She said that when students do not receive teaching on these subjects in school, they often turn to the internet or social media services like TikTok for more information.

She said some information online can be informative, but it is often misleading or incorrect. Soyong Harley also said internet searches for sex and gender topics often expose kids to pornography.

She said 73 other bills have been introduced that protect "parents' rights" and limit discussion of "divisive concepts." That could mean anything from sexuality, to discussions of racism or American history.

"These are bills that attempt to weaponize parents' religious beliefs or personally held opinions to coerce schools" to accept teachings that fall outside of normal ideas, Soyong Harley said.

I'm Dan Novak.

Dan Novak wrote this story for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

gay –adj. sexually attracted to someone of the same sex

(sexual or gender) orientation — n. how someone thinks about their sex or sexuality

indoctrination — n. to teach someone to fully accept certain ideas, beliefs or opinions

encourage — v. to make something more likely to happen

bully — v. to frighten or threaten someone

LGBTQI+ — n (abrev.) lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, queer, intersex, plus

exploit — v. to use someone in an unfair or harmful way

pornography — n. media that show people in a sexual way or carrying out sex acts

coerce — v. to force someone to do something