Earlier this month, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law House Bill 322, colloquially dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, preventing public school teachers from discussing the LGBTQ+ history or people in public elementary schools.
It stood out for two reasons: Alabama was only the second state to pass such a law in 21 years, after Florida passed a similar measure in March. But more importantly, Ivey had just signed the previous year to repeal a similar law.
At least 20 states have introduced “don’t say gay” laws this year, which have made waves across the country. But in a handful of states, versions of the legislation have been around for decades.
Since 1992, Alabama’s Education Code has required teachers to emphasize “factually and from a public health perspective that homosexuality is not an acceptable way of life for the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under state law.”
Ivey did not issue public statements when she signed the repeal, which was first passed by the Legislature, but her signing seemed in step with the times. A year ago, “Don’t Say Gay” laws that were passed in the 1980s were considered archaic, LGBTQ+ advocates said, with many having been repealed over the years. After marriage equality became the law of the land in 2015, seven states passed laws requiring curricula to include LGBTQ+ history and life.
Republican lawmakers say the new wave of curriculum bills allow parents to decide what their children learn about sexuality at a young age; Florida’s new law prohibits discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity until the end of the third grade, when parents must be told if their children might learn about LGBTQ+ issues. But this year, with 15 states now banning anti-trans sports, LGBTQ+ advocates say Republican lawmakers aim to outdo each other for political gain.
“Republicans need to put a conservative dot on the board, mark their anti-LGBT credentials and say, ‘Look, I really campaigned on this. Or, “I really went to the mat for this anti-LGBT policy,” said Adam Polaski, communications director for the Southern Equality Campaign. “Unfortunately, opponents of LGBT equality have often taken their fight to schools.”
Texas lawmakers have expressed interest in pursuing a “don’t say gay” bill like the one in Florida and Alabama, even though the state has had similar regulations on the books since 1991. In Texas, the State code still states that educational materials for persons under the age of 18 “declare that homosexual conduct is not an acceptable way of life and is a criminal offense.”
According to the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), which tracks LGBTQ+ politics nationwide, 19% of the country lives in a state with an LGBTQ+ program ban. Most are in states whose laws predate those of Florida and Alabama. Yet most Americans are largely unaware that Florida is not the first state to pass such a law, the attorneys said.
Oklahoma passed the nation’s first bill banning teachers from talking about homosexuality as part of an AIDS sex education measure in April 1987, and Louisiana followed suit in July. South Carolina passed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill in 1988. Texas and Arizona passed theirs in 1991. A total of nine states have passed laws banning schools from teaching about “gay.” ‘homosexuality’ from 1987 to 2001, when Utah adopted his version.
Many of them were written in sex education codes. For example, Louisiana still has a books law that states, “No sex education course offered in public schools in the state shall use sexually explicit material depicting male or female homosexual activity.”
However, this is not the case in all states, said Logan Casey, senior policy researcher and adviser for MAP.
“Many of these laws are intentionally written vaguely so that they can be applied even more broadly than the explicit letter of the law suggests,” Casey said of the laws written up to 2001.
Mississippi’s sex education law requires teachers to simply teach the state’s current law of sexual conduct and lists “homosexuality” alongside sensitive topics such as “forced rape, statutory rape, establishment of paternity” and “child support”. Mississippi state law does not protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination.
Casey said the bills are relics from the AIDS crisis, when panic over homosexuality dictated the school curriculum. It also dates back to the infamous “Save Our Children” campaign led by activist Anita Bryant in the 1970s to overturn anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people in Miami, Florida.
“Once the HIV epidemic entered the scene, a group of states began to consider and enact laws prohibiting the teaching of sexuality and homosexuality in public education, channeling energy of this ‘Save Our Children’ campaign and fear and prejudice during the HIV epidemic,” said Casey.
Five states repealed their “Don’t Say Gay” bills between 2006 and 2021, when Alabama repealed its law.
Those familiar with the old school curriculum laws expressed surprise that Florida’s latest bill sent shockwaves across the country. Advocates say part of that surprise is that the “Don’t Say Gay” statutes have been revived after two decades. They also add that local groups have become smarter about fighting the measures.
Vivian Topping, director of advocacy and civic engagement for the Federation for Equality, a coalition of state LGBTQ+ organizations, said local Florida organizers have been working overtime to ring the bells. alarm regarding their “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“They created TV ads and really brought together national partners to create a stir about what was happening in Florida,” she said in a statement.
Supporters say the current push for “Don’t Say Gay” bills is political. Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ decision to push the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida is less about children and more about the Republican’s presidential ambitions.
“DeSantis has damaged our state’s reputation as a welcoming and inclusive place for all families, he has made us a laughing stock and a target of national derision,” Smith said in a statement. “Worse, it has made schools less safe for children.”
DeSantis argued that his bill allows parents to decide what their children learn.
“Parents’ rights are under increasing attack across the country, but in Florida, we stand up for the rights of parents and the fundamental role they play in raising their children,” DeSantis said in a statement.