On March 28, 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law HB 1557, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Among other provisions, the bill prohibits schools from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation with children in kindergarten through third grade.
To some Wellesley students, the bill came as a shock. Alexa Fronczek ’25 is from a more liberal area of Florida and has interacted fairly infrequently with more conservative areas.
“It kind of amazed me that this was able to be pushed through the process,” Fronczek said. “This kind of showed me that the state isn’t as blue as I think it is — like, at all — if this is going through.”
However, others were not as surprised.
“Based on the research that I was doing last year … nothing that has happened after that is surprising,” Emma Sullivan ’24, who is from Southwestern Florida, said. “It has been truly, I feel, years in the making of trying to reduce gay people to a mythology and something really dangerous for children.”
According to Sullivan, the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative activist group founded in their hometown, has been protesting education about evolution, climate change and more for a number of years. Sullivan believes that the Don’t Say Gay bill is partly a manifestation of the group’s efforts.
After the passage of HB 1557, a number of states have introduced or passed similar bills, including Alabama and Ohio. Many Wellesley students from Ohio feel strongly against Ohio’s bill, HB 616, which was introduced approximately two weeks ago. Wendy*, a junior from Ohio, explained that the bill is a “double-whammy.”
“You can’t talk about gender and sexuality until third grade, and then after third grade until 12th grade, it puts limits,” Wendy said. “Also, you can’t talk about anything ‘divisive’ regarding race, and teachers can lose their licenses and schools can lose funding.”
To them, the bill hits especially close to home, as their family knows the lawmakers who introduced it.
“My heart goes out to all the kids currently in the school systems because I’m out of Ohio — I’m not personally affected anymore by these, at least in this current time frame — but I can’t imagine being a gay or trans kid in schools right now in Florida and Ohio,” Wendy said.
Jess Stoker ’23, who lives in a town near the legislators who introduced the bill, explained that Ohio has been gradually moving towards more regressive policies over the past decade, and it has been exacerbated by the current governor’s administration.
“Ohio has gone from being this purple state, being considered more neutral because it had been balanced, to being more and more right leaning,” Stoker said. “And I do think that’s in part because Governor Mike DeWine ran his whole campaign saying ‘I will do whatever Trump wants me to do.’”
Even before the introduction of these bills, schools around the country have had varying levels of education on queer and non-white history. Stoker remembers not learning about the AIDS epidemic until hearing about it from a friend, and Sullivan said that they didn’t learn a more complex narrative of American history until taking college classes.
“As a queer person, it was already difficult … to discuss sexuality and gender identity, and that was stuff that I didn’t really feel comfortable discussing, even in my private high school environment,” Lila Joffe ’25, who is also from Ohio, said. “At the school that I went to, these bills wouldn’t have an effect, but they [would] have an effect on the overall culture.”
Sulllivan added that the educational environment in Florida will also be impacted by the passage of HB 1557.
“There will be no incentive to be a gay educator in the schools or any opportunity to feel like you can be safely out as queer as a faculty member in any of these spaces, which is super discouraging to me, as someone who would have loved to go back and work in the Florida schools at some point in my career,” Sullivan said.
Moreover, many Wellesley students believe this wave of Don’t Say Gay bills will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the state’s youth, especially queer individuals.
“It’s going to make people think that the ways that they want to identify and the people that they want to be with and love — they’re gonna think that that’s wrong, and their schools are not even going to tell them that this is a way of being that exists,” Joffe said.