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  • IHS Staff

Cultures of Silence, Cultures of Abuse

The supporters and opponents of “Don’t Say Gay” (DSG) bills introduced in almost half of US states can agree on one thing — that the other side’s beliefs amount to state-sanctioned child abuse.

It may be impossible to tell how far the harmful reach of these laws will extend. What is easier to predict is how these laws will stigmatize members of an already at-risk community, by attempting to silence their voices and the voices of people who support them. Based on nearly 75 years of research and experience in child maltreatment, it’s no surprise that cultures of silence and cultures of abuse seem to go hand-in-hand. These laws are dangerous and likely to create harm to children and to entire communities where they take effect.

General Provisions and Current US Landscape of “Don’t Say Gay” Bills

Florida was the first state to pass a “Don’t Say Gay” bill when Governor Ron DeSantis signed the “Parental Rights in Education” Act into law in late March 2022. Florida’s law provided both an ideological foundation and a process framework for similar bills introduced in other states in the months that followed.

Currently, the number of states where DSG bills were introduced is well over twenty (20).[1] In six states, the law officially censors discussions of LGBTQ+ people and issues in school curricula: Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. In another five (5) states, LGBTQ+ issues in school curricula trigger a requirement of parental notification, thereby allowing non-consenting parents to opt their children out of lessons: Montana, Arizona, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Florida. [2] In the first five months of 2022, at least 280 school curriculum censorship bills have been introduced, which is already more than were passed in the previous two years combined.[3]

The specific provisions of each state’s DSG law or bill vary slightly, but all seek to prohibit schools from teaching or discussing topics related to gender identity or sexual orientation.

Although the word “gay” is not generally present in bill language, the bills do contain various prohibitions on discussing or providing materials to students about sexual orientation or gender identity. They also generally prohibit curriculum-based or teacher-led instruction and prohibit providing guidance or support to students related to sexual orientation or gender identity.

Language in three of the bills illustrates these points:

FLORIDA - “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.” OHIO - “No school district, community school, STEM school, nonpublic school that enrolls students who are participating in a state scholarship program, or any employee or other third party representing a school district or school shall […] With respect to a student in any of grades kindergarten through three, teach, use, or provide any curriculum or instructional materials on sexual orientation or gender identity.” MONTANA - Notification requirement along with parental right to withhold children from attending lesson/event for ‘human sexuality instruction,’ which means “teaching or otherwise providing information about human sexuality, including intimate relationships, human sexual anatomy, sexual reproduction, sexually transmitted infections, sexual acts, sexual orientation, gender identity, abstinence, contraception, or reproductive rights and responsibilities.”

What types of activities and materials are actually prohibited by these laws? Many of the statutes are purposefully vague, so the exact intent remains undefined, but language shared across many state bills suggests that one thing that would be almost universally prohibited is teacher-led instruction about gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Some states’ bills provide an exception based on specific curricula or guidelines created by a state oversight committee. Most states did not provide hard deadlines for when these curricula would be completed or guidelines would be set. States that have attempted to set hard deadlines seemed to have made them no sooner than a full year out.

What is less clear is how much further these prohibitions could stretch. Consider how some states include language in their bills clarifying that teachers aren’t the only ones whose actions will be affected. Also targeted in some states are “third parties” who would likewise be prohibited from “instruction” on gender identity and sexual orientation. Ohio’s DSG bill mentions third parties specifically, while Montana’s law uses the phrase, “a person, entity, or any affiliate or agent of the person or entity.” Considering the vagueness of the language, the list of persons potentially defined as a “third party” in Ohio or Montana is realistically unending and could include anyone from an author of a children’s book addressing issues intended to normalize aspects of the banned topics to speakers at special school events or even parents who volunteer as chaperones for field trips.

Some state laws include additional provisions that give parents even more reason to rage. For example, Florida’s law requires parental notification regarding children’s mental and physical health as it relates to sexuality, to the degree that is will likely erode the confidentiality required for an effective school counselor/student relationship. This provision basically requires that in situations where a child confides in school support or mental health personnel, these professionals would have to “out” the child to their parents. Some DSG bills also give parents the right to opt-out of certain health screenings regularly performed by schools, such as tests for communicable diseases, thereby further threatening to undermine children’s health.

Finally, DSG bills generally have some form of penalty that can be assigned to school districts, schools, teachers, or some combination of the three. Penalties range widely in severity and include a variety of provisions like mandating revocation of professional licenses, fining offending schools, or withholding earmarked state-issued education funds from school districts where violations occur. Equally important as the penalty itself is the fact that these bills create avenues of access for angry parents to bring lawsuits and complaints against school districts and educators. Even if a defendant district or teacher is not charged with violating provisions of DGS bills, the experience of being forced to defend against a claim can itself prove to be time-consuming, expensive, and will likely cause a significant unnecessarily disruption to the flow of life for all parties involved. Educators and school districts are likely to liberally define vague provisions of DSG laws and may even be more restrictive than necessary in order to avoid even being subject to a complaint in the first place.

Why are so many of these types of bills being introduced across the US?

As some news outlets have reported, these laws are technically not new. Some states have had laws like this for decades. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many states passed laws related to sexual education in public schools, informing teachers and school districts which topics were appropriate for including in a curriculum and which were not.

Alabama provides an interesting and useful case study of this earlier wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Passed by the Alabama legislature in 1992, Senate Bill 72 (SB 72) covered topics like abstinence-only sex education, anti-drug-use curricula, and prohibitions against teaching about homosexuality — except to say that it was immoral and socially unacceptable. SB 72 required educators to emphasize that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public,” and that “homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”

SB 72 remained a part of the Alabama Code until 2021 when Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed off on its repeal. At the time, the rationale behind repealing the law seemed obvious to commentators. The Supreme Court had ruled 15 years prior in 2003 that bans on homosexual conduct were unconstitutional. In the intervening 15 years, LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and supporters worked hard to help the public understand that laws like SB 72 were both stigmatizing and dehumanizing. Repealing SB 72 seemed like the only ethical thing to do.

Still, only a year after repealing SB 72, Governor Ivey signed a new bill into law that was functionally the same as SB 72, but this time, sought to achieve its goal through more subtle and covert language. Tacked-on as an amendment to a bill prohibiting differently gendered bathrooms, Alabama’s DSG law was enacted with complete disregard for the same dehumanizing or stigmatizing effects it would have on LGBTQ+ youth as its predecessor SB 72 had, all without ever explicitly mentioning immorality alongside homosexuality. This time, the law mandated silence.

As policy analysts at Movement Advancement Project (MAP) point out, the introduction and reintroduction of DSG bills is likely part of a coordinated effort by lobbyists and politicians to exploit parents’ fears and frustrations stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic to radically reshape our educational system to fit their needs.[4] The same political groups are also pushing to prohibit gender-affirming care and labeling it child abuse – a practice that, according to a statement from the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, is not only blatantly false but also potentially harmful.

Legislative proponents and parental group supporters of DSG bills call them necessary to prevent state-sanctioned grooming and sexualization of children

Proponents and supporters of DSG bills claim that what is motivating them are attempts by ‘woke’ schools and teachers to sexualize children as young as four years. In early March of this year, Governor DeSantis defended the rationale behind Florida’s DSG bill, claiming that children across the nation were being forcefully sexualized by inappropriate school curricula. Meanwhile, teachers and other school and community officials responsible for curriculum development and implementation forcefully contest there is no such trend, and that these assertions could not be further from the truth.

Regardless, supporters of DSG bills continue to compare homosexuality and gender fluidity to grooming children and child sexual abuse. Stories about concerned parents and clashes between parents and school board members are ubiquitous on the news. Parents groups from across the country see DSG laws as indispensable weapons in what they call campaigns of state-sponsored grooming and state-sanctioned child abuse. Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Ron Desantis, tweeted in response to opponents’ renaming of the Parental Rights in Education Act to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by accusing opponents of the bill as promoting the grooming of children for sexual abuse:

“The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill. If you’re against the Anti-Grooming bill you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 48-year-old children.”

To be clear, child sexual abuse professionals define grooming as “a set of behaviors and manipulations that adults use to make it easier to introduce and complete sexual interactions with a child, without having to use physical force.”[5] Grooming is about manipulation and power, engaging children to meet an adult’s own sexual needs. It has absolutely nothing to do with gender identity or sexual orientation.

Press secretary Pushaw later attempted to clarify and defend her tweet, stating that the new Florida law does not single out LGBTQ+ topics, but instead, covers all topics related to sexuality. It isn’t hard to see the logical fallacy of Pushaw’s defense, though. Hetero-normal topics are, as the name implies, the norm. What is normal is not generally in need of being defended; it does not suffer from the same malady of susceptibility to exploitation and subjugation as things outside of the norm do. In other words, these laws are not passed to keep a high school teacher from casually mentioning his wife or daughter during classroom instruction. They are passed to prevent a teacher from casually mentioning his husband or his nonbinary daughter during classroom instruction. [6]

NPR News interviewed first-grade teacher Paula Stephens from Clearwater, Florida, who expressed a similar concern for how this law could affect classroom discussion. Stephens said that although sexuality is not something that has ever been a part of the curriculum for discussion in her first-grade classroom, families, and issues related to families both are. Now, she worries that because of Florida’s DSG law, some of the children in her classroom will be prohibited from sharing about their families, or else she and the school district may risk facing a penalty.

Opponents of DSG laws and social welfare advocates say the real intent of such laws is to stigmatize members of the LGBTQ+ community and LGBTQ+ youth and the community

Many opponents of DSG laws say that the laws themselves are more akin to state-sanctioned child abuse than anything being taught in school. They state that these laws exist to further stigmatize and alienate children with fluid gender identities or who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. DSG laws, like the Florida law, are a classic example of “a solution in search of a problem are a classic example of “a solution in search of a problem.” To illustrate the truth of this statement, at the time that Florida’s DSG law was passed, opponents point out there were no Florida schools attempting to teach any curriculum related to these topics in the first place. Opponents of these laws generally agree with supporters of the laws in that sexual education for children should be appropriate for their age, and that how and when to teach children about sexual identity and sexual orientation definitely warrant more discussion.

Opponents of the DSG laws also contend that the laws are not about ensuring all children have access to healthy, age-appropriate information. Instead, they point to the de-facto chilling effect such laws are likely to have on even speaking the words “trans” or “gender-neutral.” Written ambiguously and attached to hefty social and financial penalties, these laws will likely cause school personnel to overreact so as to avoid being burdened by lawsuits, fines, and the withholding of the earmarked state funding that is a life-line for so many school districts in so many states.

LGBTQ+ rights groups point to the sections of DSG bills that prohibit school instruction and curricula about gender identity or sexual orientation as particularly concerning. Based on the shared language of these bills, it is likely some will result in a ban not only on in-classroom, instructor-led teaching, but also on educational materials and other support services aimed at creating a more inclusive environment for all students. There is a potential prohibition against any material even remotely addressing topics that are socially labeled as “abnormal” gender identification or sexual orientation. In other words, the legislation could lead to classroom bans on books featuring LGBTQ+ or gender-neutral parents or on any reading material that talks about or uses alternative or non-gendered pronouns. Not only would this stigmatize children and all other members of the LGBTQ+ community served by that school district, but it could also have very real consequences on the physical health of these children and others living in the community. A 2021 survey of over 35,000 LGBTQ+ youth conducted by The Trevor Project showed that 66% of those surveyed said their mental health was negatively affected by state legislative debates about transgender people, and 42 percent seriously considered attempting suicide last year.

Cultures of silence and cultures of abuse go hand in hand

Attempting to silence LGBTQ+ voices by attempting to erase the topic from schools will likely have a negative effect on the amount of abuse and trauma in our culture. If we examine the experiences of other minority and at-risk groups, both historically and across different sectors of society and human services focus, cultures that attempt to silence marginalized groups of people and cultures where abuse can befall marginalized peoples go hand in hand. When silence is used as a way to stigmatize people who are situated differently or people who may make you feel uncomfortable, it’s definitely not unlikely that these laws would have the effect of creating an environment where abuse is more likely to happen.

When discussing how these laws could harm children, opponents discuss the chilling effect that they would likely have on certain types of active classroom activities, like teacher-led learning or classroom discussion, but it would also likely have a chilling effect on passive opportunities for children to learn, too. It’s likely that certain books or other media would likely be banned due to the fact that all of these bills have severe monetary penalties attached. As discussed above, many bills include “third parties” as those who are prohibited from “instruction” in schools, and that could mean that the ban could reach so far as to include authors of children’s books meant to normalize certain aspects of the banned topics. These books, and other materials like these books, are important tools for creating a more inclusive environment for all students. If bans of these types of items begin to materialize, the chilling effect of this legislation could extend to any and all materials that are even remotely related to “abnormal” gender identification or sexual orientation. For example, the legislation could lead to classroom bans on books with LGBTQ+ or gender-neutral parents, or on any reading material that talks about or even uses alternative or non-gendered pronouns.

What happens if a teacher or school does something prohibited under these DSG bills would likely add to the chilling effect. Each state law or bill provides some avenue for aggrieved parents to pursue to bring lawsuits or complaints against school districts, schools, and teachers, or some combination. These new methods of deputizing parents to levy complaints are almost like a “silver bullet” of silence all on its own. The likelihood that these new laws could lead to disgruntled parents filing frivolous lawsuits against school districts is very high, and this would cause taxpayers to waste money paying for districts to defend themselves in court. To prevent having to post more levies, schools would likely go far beyond what even the most conservative court may say is prohibited under DSG bills or laws in order to avoid the risk of being weighed down to upset parents.

Cultures that deploy tactics of silence in order to manipulate – like in the situations described above – and cultures where abuse runs rampant go hand in hand. To illustrate this connection, research could be pulled from a multitude of topic areas, including domestic violence, genocide, or trauma studies, but let’s stick with what we know best and discuss how silence could potentially have deleterious effects on child abuse prevention, intervention, and treatment.

Silence allows child abuse to thrive and for child abuse perpetrators to thrive. It does not allow child abuse interventions or prevention to thrive. In schools, when children are presented with curricula and materials that are gender-sensitive and sexually inclusive, “the goal may be to prevent sexual abuse because we know that children in the LGBTQIA+ community are at higher risk to be abused for a wide variety of reasons,” said Victor Vieth, chief program officer for education and research for Zero Abuse Project.

Considering Vieth’s points, it seems particularly harmful to Florida’s abuse prevention efforts that the state’s DSG law requires that professionals notify parents regarding children’s mental and physical health, especially related to sexuality. The practice is likely to erode the confidentiality required for an effective school counselor/student relationship. Under the law, parents also have the right to opt-out of certain health screenings regularly performed by schools, further threatening to undermine children’s health.

Silencing at-risk youth may also lead to failed interventions and treatments for at-risk youth or those who have already been abused. Mandatory reporting laws help to identify many cases of abuse that may otherwise slip through the cracks. All reporting laws, including mandatory reporting, largely rely on educated reporters, including children, who can and sometimes do, self-report. Legislation that makes it harder to provide important information about sexuality to at-risk youth – and to the professionals who care for them – makes it harder to keep those youth safe. Children who are abuse survivors and receiving treatment for their trauma are also harmed by the social stigma that results from silence – essentially a denial of their lived experience. Lori Poland, executive director for the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect (EndCAN), explains how recognizing and supporting the voices of survivors of child abuse creates a sense of community, which in turn helps to foster true healing. Without that voice, it’s as if a piece of the abuse survivor is being erased, and it’s harder to heal from trauma when a core part of the survivor’s identity is disavowed or ignored by society.

Our children are made better by diversity, and we are all nurtured and protected by a society that promotes widespread belonging. Legislation that interferes with attempts at connecting us with people both like us and unlike us deprives us of meaningful relationships that both transform us in positive ways and extend our humanity. The economic penalty provisions in these laws against teachers and school districts harm all the children, families, and communities that depend on schools to be the foundations of growth, learning, and community cohesion. Even so, the outcomes for children and families who identify themselves with groups that are singled out and subjected to such systematic discrimination are affected more severely and simply by the fact that these laws exist. In the United States, rates of suicide and other mental illnesses are dramatically higher for members of minority groups and LGBTQ+ individuals. Outlawing their voices, their stories, and seemingly, their very existence seems likely to increase the rate and severity of the trauma they already suffer from being ‘othered.’

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[1] [2] Although from a legal standpoint, it would be fascinating to see what would happen if someone tried to bring a case against a school for something depicting hetero-normal topics or situations, but that’s a discussion for another day!

[3] Movement Advancement Project. March 2022. Policy Spotlight: Curriculum Censorship & Hostile School Climate Bills. [May 24, 2022]. [4] Movement Advancement Project. "Equality Maps: LGBTQ Curricular Laws." Accessed 05/25/2022. [5]

[6] Although from a legal standpoint, it would be fascinating to see what would happen if someone tried to bring a case against a school for something depicting hetero-normal topics or situations, but that’s a discussion for another day!

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