Florida's ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill Draws Protest and Rally From LGBTQ Advocates


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — South Florida educators rallied on Tuesday to show state legislators that while the odds may not be in their favor, they won’t go down without a fight regarding anti-LGBTQ bills in schools.

Hosted by Safe Schools South Florida, local and state leaders spoke out against several bills, focusing on HB 1557/SB 1834, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, in particular. The measure, which would prohibit teachers and school districts from talking with students about gender and sexual orientation, is moving quickly through the legislature.

Most recently, representatives in the House Education & Employment Committee passed the measure with a 15-5 vote. Next it goes to the House Judiciary Committee, where it could be revised before a vote on the house floor.

The bill’s sponsors say the bill is needed to give parents greater control over their child’s curriculum, dubbing it Parental Rights in Education.

LGBTQ+ parents say it would prevent their kids from being able to talk about their families in class.

Nathan Bruemmer, the state’s LGBTQ consumer advocate for Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, spoke at the rally about his efforts to post LGBTQ+ resources on a state website after the Florida Department of Education removed anti-bullying resources from its own.

“Some of these fights are gonna be tough, but we’re not making it easy,” Bruemmer said. “We’ve got to start saying it loud and proud. It’s OK to say trans. It’s OK to say non-binary. It’s OK to say queer. It’s OK to say bi. It’s OK to say pan. It’s OK to say ace. It’s OK to talk about who we are in the state of Florida and to know our history.”

Bruemmer, who grew up attending Florida public schools, shared how he was once outed for his transgender status. Ten years later, he returned to teach in the same school district, and was outed again.

“That was a very pivotal moment for me, because it was time for me to step into my own and to transition and to live my life as a proud and out transgender man.”

Tom Lander, chairman of the Safe Schools South Florida board of directors, spoke to the crowd, sharing a similar experience teaching in schools spanning 39 years.

“Only in the last nine years I was able to teach as an open gay teacher,” he said. “And why did I teach openly, finally? I got over the fear because my students deserve to have role models.... I want every student — gay, straight, lesbian, trans — to be safe.”

He encouraged the crowd of more than 100 people to join him in chanting “We say nay to Don’t Say Gay.”

Debbie Hixon, a Broward County School Board member, wore a rainbow mask to the rally. “I do not support this bill. I am behind you,” she said to the crowd, adding that she would seek out legislators to ask them not to support the bill. “Because it doesn’t support our students. I hope that we are able to work together to get this stopped.”

Don Festge, a teacher of 31 years at North Miami High, said he’s had more than 100 LGBTQ students in his classes.

“I’ve seen what it’s like for students and kids to have to go through elementary and then high school trying to be themselves, but also trying to hide it and not be able to be who they are,” he said. “I’ve had students come to me first to tell me they were afraid to come out because their parents wouldn’t accept them.

“School is a place for our students to be safe and to feel welcomed, and this bill will kill that,” he said. “Students won’t have the opportunity to feel safe and comfortable talking to their teachers.”

The Rev. Darrell Watkins, executive senior pastor at Sunshine Cathedral, appeared with his husband to talk about how religion has been misused to hurt people.

“There is no justifiable reason to legislate discrimination against LGBTQ people of any age,” he said. “No child should grow up being told that their very existence isn’t worthy of mention. Don’t Say Gay suggests that something is wrong with being a person of same gender attraction or someone who cannot confirm to gender binaries.

“Once again, cis, male, white, Christian dominance is taking the form of legislation and hiding behind the mask of virtue. To erase and obliterate gay kids and gay history is to vilify and victimize LGBTQ children,” he said. “It’s an institutional and governmental form of bullying, and our queer children have been bullied enough.”

Many speakers talked about their kids, and how they worry they wouldn’t be able to talk about their families. That included Todd Delmay, one of Florida’s pioneers who sued the state to win the right to marry someone of the same sex only seven years ago.

Delmay, who is running for a seat in the Florida House, appeared with his husband Jeff and their 12-year-old son, Blake. He told the story of Blake bringing a picture of his family to his kindergarten class, and how the bill would discourage that.

“It’s an exercise in telling the world who you are, and finding a safe space that is outside of your own family,” Delmay said. “But if this law were to pass, that would be illegal. It would erase his family from the entire conversation. His ability to speak about who he is and what his family looks like when he gets home would be impacted, and we cannot allow that to happen.”

A handful of young LGBTQ+ students spoke out against the bills as well, including Oliver Echevarria, who last year fought against the state’s transgender athlete ban. It was the first legal action from Tallahassee in decades that sought to legislate gender and sexual orientation, paving the way for this year’s slew of anti-LGBTQ bills.

Echevarria joked about how nearly all of the women in his family are lesbians, and the crowd laughed and clapped with him. But then he brought up a serious question.

“The thought of them [legislators] saying no to any of them, even if I was to bring up my mother — what are they going to say? Don’t come to open house?” he asked, rhetorically. “They can’t just turn us away at the door. They’re not bouncers. They can’t do that to us.

“We are people just as much as they are people. And our history matters as much as our people matter. Our children matter. We are the future,” he said, urging the audience to think back to the smiles on people’s faces as soon as gay marriage was legalized in 2015. “You cannot replace that pure joy of knowing that you are free in a country to finally love who you want to love.”