Politics

How a lawsuit over a teen spurred Florida Republicans to pass the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

But on that September day in 2020, after Littlejohn picked her teen up from school, she was struck by an offhand comment the 13-year-old made: The teen said “it was funny” when school staffers asked what gender restroom they preferred to use in response to their new name.

This conversation proved to be a tipping point for the Littlejohns, who sued Leon County Schools in 2021 claiming that school officials helped their child transition to a different gender without informing them. The lawsuit was filed by the Child & Parental Rights Campaign, a public interest law firm that was founded in 2019, in its words, “to respond to a radical new ideology overtaking families.”

The lawsuit and the issues it touched on galvanized Republican lawmakers to introduce and eventually pass one of the most contentious pieces of legislation to come from Florida, according to interviews with a dozen state lawmakers, advocates, parents, school officials and others involved in crafting the measure. Lawyers with the Child & Parental Rights Campaign say they helped Florida Republicans shape the legislation, a connection that has received little attention.

“I didn’t see it coming, which is why I try to warn parents,” January Littlejohn said in an interview.

POLITICO is using “they/them” pronouns to refer to the teen so as to not reveal identifying information about them. The teen could not be reached for comment.

Titled “Parental Rights in Education,” the legislation sparked uproar among supporters of the LGBTQ community, officials from both parties and some of the largest corporations in America, including Walt Disney Co. Opponents, including President Joe Biden, maintain it could further marginalize some students and lead to bullying and even suicide. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis came to be a loud and vocal defender of the measure, which was routinely mocked by late night comedians and was even highlighted during this year’s Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday.

“This is another stain on Florida’s history,” said Sen. Shev Jones, a Democrat from the Miami area who is the state’s first openly gay senator. “Classrooms should be places of inclusion, where every Florida child can learn safely and ask questions. But not in Ron DeSantis’ Florida.”

DeSantis held a bill signing ceremony at a Pasco County charter school on Monday where he lauded Littlejohn for “standing up” to the school district.

“When you listen to January tell her story about what they did with her child, without her knowledge or consent, I don’t think there’s very many parents in the state of Florida that think that’s OK,” DeSantis said before signing the measure into law. “I can tell you I don’t think that’s OK.”

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Origins of the bill

The most contentious element of the “Parental Rights in Education” bill prohibits teachers from leading classroom discussions on gender identity or sexual orientation for students in kindergarten through third grade. It also bans such lessons for older students unless they are “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

The legislation additionally requires schools to notify parents if there is a change in services for a student or any additional monitoring for their “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.” It builds on the state’s “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” which is meant to spur parental involvement in education and has been used by DeSantis as a means to thwart local mask mandates for students.

The push for the bill began with behind-the-scenes discussions among Florida House Republicans as they learned last year about a series of LGBTQ student “support guides” used in some school districts, according to interviews with five lawmakers. The Littlejohn lawsuit, for one, takes aim at a guide used by school officials in Leon County.

The guides are meant to serve as a resource for schools and families to help support LGTBQ students and offer guidance to teachers for how to handle issues on campus. But the Littlejohns — and Republican lawmakers — contend that the plans can go too far to keep parents in the dark about their children.

The Leon guide that the Littlejohns objected to, in one example, specifies that school employees should not “out” a student to their parents if they believe the student may be LGBTQ, warning that it “can literally make them homeless,” meaning their parents will kick them out of the house. Another support guide that caught the attention of lawmakers in Martin County says that “it is never appropriate to divulge the sexual orientation of a student to a parent” barring the “the very limited exception involving the imminent fear of physical harm,” which could include physical abuse. The Martin guide is under review due to the new legislation, according to school officials.

State Rep. Chris Latvala, a St. Petersburg Republican and chair of the main education committee in the state House, saw the guide put out by Martin County at the end of the 2021 legislative session and asked legislative staff about it. “Can you look to see to see if this really going on in our schools?” Latvala recalls telling his aides.

Around the same time, Latvala said, he also became aware of the lawsuit against Leon County, which increased interest in approving a bill that would guarantee that information be shared with parents. Latvala turned to Rep. Joe Harding, a first-term Republican from the small North Central Florida town of Williston, to help carry the bill forward.

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“It wasn’t something he had to be sold on,” Latvala said about Harding, a father of four young children, including two who are in school.

Both Harding and Latvala maintain the push for the legislation did not come from outside groups, including the Child & Parental Rights Campaign. Vernadette Broyles, president and general counsel of the Child & Parental Rights Campaign, however, said the group gave suggestions to lawmakers for ways to “tighten the language,” especially with regard to aspects touching on parental rights.

Florida GOP lawmakers frequently cited the Littlejohns’ lawsuit as they debated the bill during the recent legislative session, and January Littlejohn, who has also appeared on Fox News to denounce schools withholding information from parents, testified during each hearing.

“In this case, it’s 100 percent a legislative-driven bill,” Harding said.

But it became apparent after the Virginia governor’s race, where Republican Glenn Youngkin beat Terry McAuliffe in large part by pushing parental rights in education, that Florida Republicans had tapped into a growing sense of frustration from parents, Harding said. He recalled hearing from parents in his own district after he filed the bill and it started to draw attention.

“It became an issue that is a rallying cry for our caucus because, in my opinion, this is a fault-line issue that we Republicans are on the right side of,” Harding said. One House Democrat, Rep. James Bush from Miami, did vote in favor of the bill, while eight GOP legislators in the House and Senate voted “no.”

Broyles of the Child & Parental Rights Campaign, which also brought a similar parental rights lawsuit in Clay County and is pursuing additional cases across the country, says the school LGBTQ guides at the center of their lawsuit are being “surreptitiously” introduced at schools in Florida and elsewhere without parents being in the know.

“It should be obvious to anyone that schools are not competent, qualified or authorized to make that kind of decision,” Broyles said in an interview. “The parents have to be notified.”

Broyles has spoken in very stark terms about issues of transgender students and school. During a conference in 2020 hosted by the Eagle Forum, a group founded by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, Broyles gave a presentation titled “The Transgender Threat To Our Kids and Our Culture” in which she called rules allowing transgender bathroom laws “tools of indoctrination” that “compel kids to normalize a radical new belief system.”

Near the end of her 20-minute presentation, which is posted online, Broyles displayed a projected slide with the title: “The transgender movement is a vehicle for censorship and state power,” calling the consequences of the “agenda” an “existential threat to our culture.”

National impact

Opponents of Florida’s legislation group it as one of the dozens of anti-LGBTQ proposals gaining traction in statehouses across the U.S., ranging from bills focused on bathroom use to rules banning transgender athletes from playing girls’ sports.

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The Human Rights Campaign, for one, says it’s tracking at least 583 LGBTQ bills introduced in 33 states this year. Among those, the LGBTQ advocacy group describes 313 proposals as “harmful” and 137 as “anti-trans.”

While the Florida bill has been coined “Don’t Say Gay,” Cathryn Oakley, the Human Rights Campaign’s state legislative director and senior legislative counsel, says the measure is “very much about trans youth.”

This legislation and similar proposals fuel a false sense, according to Oakley, that students will stray from their LGBTQ identities if they never learn the proper words to express themselves or see role models in books or elsewhere.

“This is about trying to erase the entirety of the LGBTQ community,” Oakley told reporters last week.

In the Littlejohn case, which is currently awaiting a 2023 jury trial, the parents say their child’s comment about which bathroom to use led them to dig deeper about what was happening at school. Eventually, they learned that school officials had been meeting with the teen for weeks about their gender identity, asking questions like whether the 13-year-old was more comfortable rooming with boys or girls on overnight trips.

All the while, the Littlejohns say, the school kept them in the dark.

Attorneys for Leon County Schools attempted to have the lawsuit thrown out, arguing that the local LGBTQ guide “strives to ‘ensure that students are healthy, present, and positive members of a safe learning community.’” They contend that no employee “coerced, encouraged, or forced” the teen to meet about their gender orientation or keep anything from their parents.

Leon school officials took the unusual step of addressing ongoing litigation to contradict claims made in the Littlejohn lawsuit.

“From the moment Mrs. Littlejohn first emailed her child’s teacher to inform our staff of the situation, this has been handled together in partnership with clear communication,” said a Leon County Schools spokesperson. “We understand that outside entities have now become involved, but the family clearly instructed the school staff via email to allow their child to ‘take the lead on this’ and to do ‘whatever you think is the best.’ Additionally, our superintendent met with the family and committed to amend any vague or unclear policy language—of which we have created a committee and are working on currently.”

The Littlejohns claim in their lawsuit, however, that school leaders in Leon County are “unjustifiably” assuming all parents will disapprove of their children’s gender identity.

“It paints all parents as dangerous to their children,” Littlejohn said. “Not only is it a lie, it’s a wedge — it’s pushing a narrative to separate children from their families.”

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