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What Is the “Don’t Say Gay” Law Really About?

Plus, the big Disney vs. DeSantis showdown in Florida

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On Monday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation that prohibits much classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity. The law is called “Parental Rights in Education,” but its critics—which include Democrats, Hollywood, and many outspoken employees of the Walt Disney Company—call it “Don’t Say Gay.” What does the law actually say? And how has it created a firestorm at Disney? In this episode, Derek talks to Dana Goldstein, a New York Times reporter, about the details of the law. Then he talks to Matt Belloni, a cofounder of Puck News and the host of the Ringer podcast The Town, about what the debate within Disney says about the future of the culture war and corporations.

Part of Derek’s conversation with Dana has been excerpted below.

Derek Thompson: What I thought we might do is walk through this bill line by line. And that’s not hard because the bill is pretty short. It’s seven pages, 163 lines. I’d like to go line by line through the most important parts of this bill and have you explain to me what this law literally says? So does that sound OK?

Dana Goldstein: Yeah, let’s do it.

DT: All right. So I think we should start with the passage that earned the bill the nickname “Don’t Say Gay.” I am quoting now from this bill: “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through Grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” Dana, what does this mean?

DG: Yeah, so I think it’s obviously open to interpretation, but the most obvious thing it means is that if a K-through-3 teacher is doing a lesson, it should not touch on issues of sexual orientation or gender identity. And what would that mean in practice? A book where a character has two moms or that, you know, mentions a gay historical figure—the fact that that person was gay means it would not be the book that the teacher would read aloud to the class. I think that the second part of this, that in all grades—including grades above Grade 3—you would have to make sure that such discussions would be “developmentally appropriate.” That is something that would be very debated. I mean, I think people disagree about what’s appropriate for a 13-year-old, for a 16-year-old. And so that would be something that I think parents, teachers, students even, are going to debate. And the vagueness of that really raises questions about how this law would be interpreted.

DT: So it’s important to say, this law does not literally say, “Don’t say gay.” What it does is potentially create the kind of legal atmosphere designed to discourage teachers from including gay characters or the issue of gay people in any classroom instruction. And it’s important, I think, that the word “instruction” is not defined. Lots of these words aren’t defined. No matter where you come down on sexuality or gender identity, this is an unbelievably vague piece of language. Like, you might as well have a law that says “sexual education must be good sexual education,” or that “classroom instruction on sex ed may not be in a manner that is not good.” Like it is so absurdly vague that, tipping my hat to my colleague Adam Serwer here, I wonder, is the vagueness the point? Is the point of the vagueness to create such a large space for potential litigation that it makes teachers feel like they’re in the danger zone just walking up to the line of including gay people in their instruction.

DG: Yeah. Some of the legal experts I spoke to certainly thought that the vague language was a very deliberate choice, and many people I spoke to about the bill used the term “chilling effect”; that when you have such broad language, especially maybe in a community that might be more conservative, you would create among educators—not just teachers but also counselors being a really important group that are singled out by this bill—you create a fear of touching on these issues. And another thing I just wanted to mention is that there’s a preamble to the bill and there’s the text of the law itself. And lawyers mentioned to me that the preamble is often a place that they’ll tell their clients to look at that language for the intent of the bill. And that’s really important with this bill because the preamble has a different phrase, which is “classroom discussion.”

Now “classroom discussion” is potentially even broader than “classroom instruction.” Classroom instruction may be a lesson plan that a teacher draws up to, say, read a certain book with her students, but classroom discussion could be much different. I mean, you could imagine a scenario where a teacher with young children is reading a book about families and a little girl raises her hand to say, “Well, in my family, there’s two moms,” or, “In my family, there’s two dads.” Now, if classroom discussion of sexual orientation is banned, how is the teacher supposed to respond by the letter of this law? Are they supposed to sort of ignore that or not react warmly and affirmatively to that child? That’s something that a lot of people are wondering about.

This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guests: Dana Goldstein and Matt Belloni
Producer: Devon Manze

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