But Broxson was dead serious. And Tuesday’s hearing could not have been less comedic as it then came to public comment regarding a provision of the bill that has caused it to become known as “Don’t Say Gay.” A section headed “Student Welfare” says in part:
“A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”
Had this been a committee controlled by Democrats looking to extend mask mandates or require COVID-19 vaccines in school, the room would have likely been filled with a vitriolic crowd with pitchfork vibes demanding “freedom” from face coverings, no matter what the science says, no matter how many lives it costs.
The committee is controlled by Republicans, and few of the bill’s supporters were prompted to sign up for a chance to speak on behalf of something already sure to be approved. All save three of the speakers were opposed to the measure.
At first it seemed that a 30-second limit on each statement would minimize their impact. But the time constraint would instead intensify the testimony. And what the opponents had to say was all the more powerful for arising from love rather than hate, legitimate grievances rather than conspiracy theories, deep empathy rather than homophobia disguised as morality. Only flinty-hearted bigots could have failed to to be moved by their collective call for justice and actual freedom.
Sen. Joe Gruters called up speakers in turn and ran the clock. The first was Kate Danehy-Samitz, co-founder of Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida. She sought to apply reason and facts.
“The human race is a beautiful enigma and it’s complex, and that complexity should be celebrated and protected,” she began. “The people that are pushing this forward are pushing it forward with the intention of protecting children, and that is a noble and misguided effort, because out of 10 students, four identify as LGBTQ and out of those four, half of them are going to develop suicidal thoughts…”
“Let’s wrap it up,” Gruters said.
“Yes, sir,” she said. “This bill, all it does is demonize the existence of the LBGTQ community. That is unacceptable and it’s a direct negation of the oasis of freedom that Florida should stand for.”
“Thank you, Kate,” Gruters said. “That was, just to let you know, a minute. So, if I let everybody have a minute, then only half of you will be able to speak.”
The next speaker was Susan Parker, the other co-founder of Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida. She described herself as “the daughter of two women” and suggested what a difference the right teacher would have made in her youth.
“If there would’ve been a teacher when I was a young kid, I would’ve had more friends and I would’ve had an understanding that my mom was not going to hell,” she said. “She was a great woman and I would’ve had more time with her, not to be angry at her because of ideology such as you guys are pushing on me.”
More speakers came. A young woman said, “When I was growing up, being gay wasn’t talked about in school at all. Whenever relationships and sex were discussed, which was already very limited, it never reflected what I knew about myself or what I imagined my life to look like.”
She went on, “I started to feel like I was the only person in the world who was like me, because I wasn’t taught about anyone like me [while] learning about sexuality and gender. When I was that age, it would’ve saved me a lot of late nights, praying to God to make me normal. No kid should have to wonder if they’re normal, like I did.”
“That’s three one minutes in a row,” Gutters said.
Kimberly Cox of Southwest Florida Women’s Group introduced herself as “the proud parent of a non-binary teenager.” She cited the high suicide rate among LGBTQ kids. She also noted that she had been to the legislature on other days to speak out against anti-abortion measures.
“And now for this seems like you guys care that it’s born and it has a heartbeat, but God forbid it should turn out to be a lesbian or a gay or a trans or a member of that community,” she said. “You don’t care about their heartbeat then, do you?”
A student from Leon County stepped up and said the bill made LGBTQ seem like “a curse word.”
“When kids are young, when they aren't allowed to talk about it, it seems like it won't be accepted,” she said. “If you make it seem like it's a curse word, it seems like it isn't accepted. That'll make bullying come even more.”
She described a disastrous chain reaction.
“You need to be able to trust your teachers to get a good education, because when you can’t trust your teachers, you can’t learn,” she said. “And that’s when the grades start dropping. That’s when the suicide rates go up.”
A speaker who now runs a trans support group noted that life is hard for those who feel different from other kids.
“I knew I was different by age 4 and I was getting in trouble for wearing my mother’s clothing at age 4… I first tried to kill myself at age 11 and I’m up to six attempts now…”
The speaker continued, “I know almost no trans person who has not attempted suicide at point in their life. And by letting children know as early as possible that they are not different, that they are valid, you can save lives.
Passing this bill will end lives and that blood will be on your hands.”
Among the parents who spoke was the father of a fifth grader. The father spoke a of time when his son was in kindergarten and took in a family photo. The father wondered what have happened if the Don’t Say Gay bill had been in effect and somebody in the class had asked why his son had two dads.
“The teacher would’ve had to say, ‘Well, go home and talk to your parents,’” the father said. “That would’ve shamed my child. It would’ve shamed every child and made them think that there was something wrong with my family.”
He made a declaration of true parental rights.
“My parental rights state that my child should be able to grow up in a safe, loving, and nurturing environment. And this bill doesn’t do that.”
Another speaker was a Brevard County mom of two, the oldest a 5-year old boy.
“To my children, I am mama,” she said.
She added that she is married to a woman.
“We’ve been married for eight years and we love our children very much,” she said. “If this bill passes, you’ll be taking away my child’s ability to be proud of his family publicly while at school. You are telling my 5-year-old child that I, as his parent, am not age appropriate for him.”
The most powerful moment of her allotted 30 seconds came when she had to pause to compose herself.
“If my child is bullied at school because of who he is or because of who I am, he will have absolutely no recourse and no support at school,” she said. “Please reject this bill. Thank you.”
Another parent, Dan Van Trice of Saint Johns County, did not indicate his sexual orientation.
“I’m here as a father of two 7-year-old boys, both in first grade,” he began.
He said the boys had come along “so they can see how legislation is done.” He recounted a question one of his boys had asked him.
“First thing my child said to me this morning is ‘Papa, am I gonna be allowed to talk about my family with my friends at school?’” Van Trice reported. “And I said, ‘Well, we’re trying to keep that right for you.’”
Van Trice went on, “As part of their curriculum, they’re asked to bring in pictures of their family to school, which they put on the bulletin board. And they get up and they speak about their families.”
He then made a point that seems to escape those who contend that the question of gay or straight should not be raised in school. The act of putting up the family photos does that, whether the parents are of different genders of the same.
“By doing that, they’re bringing up sexual orientation,” he said.
At the same time, the photos teach an important lesson that the Republican majority of the Education Committee should have learned before they voted to approve the Don’t Say Gay bill.
“It’s not about sex. It’s about the families,” Van Trice said.
If SB 1834 becomes law, the flinty-hearted legislators who supported it should face some kind of penalty episode at the polls.
Maybe they would in some other state than the oasis of freedom.