Florida House Bill 1557, widely known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, was signed into law by Governor Rick DeSantis this week. Because it prohibits educators from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in their classrooms, the bill quickly attracted national attention and local resistance.
The Jed Foundation (JED) strongly opposes this legislation, not only because of the danger it imposes on LGBTQ students in Florida, but because it directly interferes with access to mental health services on school campuses, setting a precedent that threatens all young Americans.
JED recognizes that LGBTQ youth are already at a higher risk of suicide and mental health concerns than their non-LGBTQ peers. LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide, and 42% seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth. However, research shows that a sense of acceptance from adults in their lives reduces the likelihood of suicide. By prohibiting open dialogue, the new legislation prevents LGBTQ youth from being seen and heard. It can also be a barrier to exploration and questioning, which is an essential part of safely establishing gender identity and sexual orientation.
But, despite its moniker, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was about more than the attempted erasure of non-cisgender, non-heteronormative individuals and lifestyles. Its other sections directly undermine access to mental health care—for all students.
Its language allows for a “review” of current school counseling standards. Presently, the state framework gives students the right to “advocate for and affirm” their sexuality, gender, and family type, with language borrowed from the American School Counselor Association. It is likely that this vital protection will disappear in order to facilitate the “Don’t Say Gay” aspects of the legislation.
Additionally, schools must inform parents of the health care services available at the start of each academic year for Kindergarten through Grade 3. Parents then choose whether or not the school can screen their children for those services. If they don’t allow the screening, parents effectively prohibit their children from reporting issues and getting help. If they do allow the screening, parental consent is once again required in order to initiate any services; otherwise, their children will be unable to receive recommended and potentially vital care.
Furthermore, it stipulates that all parents must be notified when any school-aged children pursue services related to “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.” While there is a caveat that this could be skipped if counselors suspect abuse or neglect, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Therefore, the new legislation is likely to deter the most vulnerable students from seeking support.
Finally, it would enable parents to sue schools for violating any part of this legislation. The threat of such lawsuits could lead to de-prioritizing the needs of students in favor of avoiding litigation.
JED’s evidence-based work in schools has proven that access to counseling and other mental health services is essential when it comes to protecting the mental health of young people and preventing suicide. Equally important is establishing a climate of support, dignity, and trust where students feel safe to ask for help. Enabling parents to opt out of these school-based support systems will have devastating mental health consequences on thousands of students.
Additionally, passage of this legislation sets a precedent for similar laws to proliferate across other states, preventing countless young people from seeking the mental health care they need. The potential negative consequences cannot be overstated.
We are concerned by the restrictions this new legislation imposes on support systems and dialogue, its singling out and erasure of LGBTQ individuals, and the risk that its prohibitive screening and disclosure policies pose to all students.
JED opposes the legislation for all of these reasons, and we condemn Governor DeSantis’ decision to sign the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law. To those impacted, please know we will not stop speaking out against hate, and we will continue advocating for your schools to embrace policies, programs, and systems that keep students safe. For those looking to champion and enforce equity in their own communities, we offer our Proud & Thriving Framework for reference, as well as our online resources regarding gender and sexuality for young people, their parents, and educators.