But its pathological potential exceeds any concerns for the mere abuse of power. This law could destroy lives. I know. I’ve seen this show before.
A Cynical Use of State Power
The provisions of the law are wide ranging. It begins with prohibitions against the discussion of gender and sexuality in the first three grades and to those older when “inappropriate.” In fact, what the language of the statute dictates is that any discussion of gender and sexuality will turn on cisgender, heterosexual terms. Discussion itself is not banned, only its parameters and content have been proscribed.
There is no small amount of duplicity in this.
The statute is intentionally cast in vague terms. The failure to define what constitutes “inappropriate” discussions for students beginning in the fourth grade means that the law will serve to chill free speech about those issues in all succeeding grades through this use of intentionally vague statutory language.
The law also requires informing parents when students have received any kind of counseling, making confidentiality with the student impossible. For kids wrestling with sexual orientation and gender identity questions, this cuts off one of the few trustworthy sources of counseling many might receive. The inordinate incidence of suicide and homelessness in such children evidences what can happen in such cases.
The worst aspect of the bill provides a right of action for any parent to sue school districts should they believe that its employees have violated any of these provisions. It also requires the districts to absorb the costs of such lawsuits, no matter how frivolous they might prove to be. In a state where schools are underfunded to begin with, requiring school districts to absorb the costs of litigation could potentially bankrupt them.
This is nothing short of criminal.
Exacerbating the harmful impact of this law is its cynical peddling to the public under the rubric of “parental rights.” That’s clearly an appeal to populism, pitting parents against a supposed “elite” (or worse yet, the incredibly tired – and, true to form, vague - reference to “woke”) policy makers who run school districts. In my experience of school boards over the last six decades, this alone evidences how completely out of touch these white male politicians are with reality. Florida’s local school boards may be described in a number of ways but possessed of a high level of consciousness is rarely among them.
This dissembling is deliberate. And as M. Scott Peck has observed in his People of the Lie, it is when wrongdoing is combined with deception that we begin to talk about evil.
What is clearly missing in this cynical calculus is any respect for the rights of the teachers upon whom we rely to educate our children. The corresponding right of the citizenry to have an educated - rather than indoctrinated - public (the actual purpose of public education) is also missing. Finally, the rights of any of the students involved who are, in the end, the most vulnerable of the parties in this entire savage calculus, are absent from the law’s provisions.
It is telling that, for the most part, none of these interested parties were involved in the decision making in Tallahassee. I found myself wondering the other day what it must be like to be the group of people that have been targeted by such discriminatory legislation. But I don’t have to wonder about that. I know first-hand what that experience is.
Walking Into a Hornet’s Nest
In the fall of 1976 I came to a small town on Florida’s west coast to teach language arts and social studies in the middle school there. I had a freshy minted undergraduate degree from the University of Florida where I had minored in Journalism and Political Science while majoring in History and Secondary Education. A true child of the 60s, I had come to help change the world.
To say I was naïve would have been an understatement. I had presumed that the world needed to be saved and that this small town to which I had come would welcome my efforts on their behalf. In retrospect, there was also no small amount of faulty presumptions - much less grandiose thinking - in all of that.
The timing of my arrival could not have come at a worse moment. As I was struggling to figure out my own sexuality, our state erupted in a moral panic over what was then just beginning to be referred to as gay rights. Miami-Dade County had just removed the ordinances from its city code that made gay bars illegal (for most of the 20th CE homosexual acts were second degree felonies in Florida). In what county leaders perhaps saw as a compensatory act, they then voted to create an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public assistance based on sexual orientation.
In response, Florida’s religious right, which has always had a major presence in its politics, erupted. Led by Florida Orange Juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant, petitions to place an initiative on the county ballot in a special election to revoke the ordinance soon began circulating. Bryant called the initiative “Save Our Children” deliberately confusing sexual orientation with allusions to pedophilia. Not surprisingly, when voters went to the polls that fall, the Human Rights Ordinance would be repealed by a 2-1 margin. The ripple effects of this highly publicized movement would impact people across the state and the nation.
A Classic Moral Panic
I wouldn’t know what a moral panic was for another couple of decades until I studied this phenomenon in a Sociology of Deviance course I took at Cal-Berkeley while in seminary. As I read about this phenomenon, I immediately recognized that Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” crusade in 1977 had all the classic aspects.
Moral Panics designate a scapegoated group which social theorist Stanley Cohen described as “folk devils:”
[I]ndividuals who are socially alleged or defined to be responsible for bringing a threat to society. Unlike other malicious characters, folk devils are entirely evil and are stripped from anything positive or anything that could possibly contribute to their likeability. They are simply the embodiment of a "bad guy" and are deemed the antagonists in a moral panic drama.
There is always a yawning gap between the supposed dangers alleged and any actual dangers in a moral panic. Exaggeration, hyperbole and isolated anecdotal evidence become the stock in trade of the Moral Entrepreneurs, the individuals and groups who promote the panic.
In turn, the Media play an essential role in the rise of moral panics to public consciousness through repetitive reporting which includes distortion of words and events, predictions of the dire consequences of failure to act and the creation of caricatures that signify the designated scapegoats to be a danger to society.
Once the moral panic has sufficiently roused public alarm, the agents of societal control with institutional power (lawmakers and law officers) feel both compelled as well as empowered to act. The result is a crusade against the demonized “folk devils” who have been reduced to things, no longer bearing the marks of human beings and no longer entitled to human dignity.
In 1977 Florida that would mean the passage of two major laws penalizing gay people. The first was a prohibition on same sex marriage that would stand until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s law along with that of virtually all of the other states in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. The other was a prohibition on same sex couples adopting children, a law which would be ruled unconstitutional by a Florida District Court of Appeals in 2010 and revoked by the legislature in 2015.
During the raucous sessions of the Florida Legislature at the height of the Save Our Children moral panic, Florida’s politicians increasingly turned their attention to Florida’s teachers. While Anita Bryant was busy calling gay people “human garbage” from whom we needed to “Save Our Children,” Florida’s ostensibly progressive governor, Reuben Askew, readily signed both the marriage and adoption bans adding that he would not want his children taught by “known homosexual[s].” In the meantime, legislators would make headlines with quotes demanding that Florida’s gay teachers “Go Back in Your Closets.”
As if any would have ever dared to have been out in the first place.
Daily life for gay teachers in Florida came to mean enduring vicious caricatures of ourselves in the papers each morning and hearing ourselves pilloried on broadcast media by blustering moral entrepreneurs each night. It meant enduring sharp increase of slurs from emboldened bigots in public and learning not to answer one’s phone after dark to avoid obscene phone calls. The ripple effects of the moral panic brewing in Miami and Tallahassee were widespread and deeply demoralizing.
Bills of Attainder – Singling Out Scapegoats
A year later, I left public school teaching to begin law school at my alma mater, University of Florida. In Constitutional Law classes, we learned of the prohibition in our Constitution against bills of attainders, laws which single out individuals or identifiable groups of people for punishment. We also studied the significant case law around the 14th Amendment and its equal protection clause barring discrimination against less powerful minorities.
In theory, our constitutional law stands foursquare against the abuse of state power - what Framer James Madison called a “tyranny of the majority” – to impose laws which dehumanize those less politically powerful. Constitutional democracy is more than a mere majoritarian exercise in which the powerless can be voted off the island at the whim of the powerful.
But, in fact, our caselaw reflects a long history of such abuses of power beginning with the genocidal displacement of indigenous peoples, the protections of chattel slavery written into our Constitution whose ongoing legacy plagues us to this day, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in WWII and in laws aimed at LBGTQ people like the one just enacted here in Florida. The actual practice of our law often stands in stark contrast to its noble ideals. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill is a classic example.
But neither the current “Don’t Say Gay” nor the “Save Our Children” moral panic targeting gay people in Florida which proceeded it is hardly original. In 1956, white male politicians had begun to realize that their quest to keep Florida racially segregated would fail in the face of Supreme Court decisions ruling such laws unconstitutional. A new scapegoat onto whom the Shadow of the racist, white male ego could be projected was needed.
A common tactic in Southern resistance to desegregation was to declare civil rights activists to be communists. Organized by the state legislature, a self-described “investigatory” committee was formed under the leadership of Charley Johns, a former governor who had returned to the state senate. This Red Scare witch hunt would cross the state to remove books from university libraries and grill professors about the content of their teaching. (Sound familiar?) If it was determined the professors were a little red (i.e., pinko), they were hounded out of their jobs.
By 1958, the Johns Committee had located a more profitable scapegoat, switching gears to target gay teachers at Florida’s public schools and colleges. In a tortured twist of logic which arose from the socially sanctioned homophobia of the time, those who were accused of being gay were presumed to be easily manipulated by communist agents and thus a threat to national security. Professors and students would be picked up in the middle of the night by local police and grilled without legal representation. They were pressured to inform on others who might be involved in behaviors that UF President J. Wayne Reitz would call “a complete aberration.”
This homophobic hysteria would lose steam by the early 1960s about the same time that Florida’s public facilities were finally ordered to desegregate. In 1965 the legislature stopped funding the committee’s activities ending a decade of persecution of the designated “folk devils” du jour and a resulting chilling effect on the educational process in Florida. That hysteria would lie dormant awaiting new opportunities to rear its ugly head in Miami-Dade County in 1977 and more recently in Tallahassee this year.
There is No “There” There
Like Bryant’s “Save the Children” crusade and the Johns Committee crusade before it, the current moral panic has posited a danger that does not exist in reality. There has been no evidence produced that teachers are talking about sexuality to children in grades one to three. Similarly, there are no reports of students being counseled to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. Whatever rights parents might have in the process of public education have been cynically marshalled to prevent predatory practices which simply are not occurring.
It’s the stuff of classic moral panics.
Like every bill of attainder, this law singles out identifiable groups of citizens for punitive treatment - folk devils to demonize - simply because of who they are. And as my own experience demonstrates, its ripple effect has enormous potential to harm unforeseen victims at the hands of those whose bigotry has been legitimized by state power holders and who now feel empowered to act upon the same.
This law will require LGBTQ teachers to be dishonest with others about who they are and to deny the realities of the lives of LBGTQ students and families. It will require people who know better to lie to those to whom they owe the truth about matters central to their personhood. And it will gaslight many who are trying to come to grips with their own identities, telling them that what they know to be true about themselves is false.
Such demands always come at a major cost to the souls of all the parties involved.
This law has been pursued by inordinately ambitious moral entrepreneurs seeking political gain at the expense of the very humanity of the powerless. But it also comes at a huge cost to the legitimate interests of the nation’s third largest state facing actual crises of environmental degradation, sea levels rising from climate change, gridlocked highways and underperforming schools, all largely ignored by politicians busy shoring up their “base” through culture wars.
As a grateful retiree, I am not directly affected by this new law. But this deceptively packaged law deeply troubles me as a former teacher. In all truthfulness, having parents involved in the education and welfare of their children I taught would have been a largely unknown luxury during my time in public schools. But that is not what this bill encourages. Rather, it creates an adversarial relationship pitting parents against teachers.
There are no winners in such contests.
As a fourth generation public educator, were I just coming out of undergraduate today, knowing what I know, the chances I would enter public school teaching in Florida would be negligible at best. And as a sixth generation Floridian, I must sadly acknowledge that if I had no generational ties to this state, I would never choose to live here. Indeed, as I vicariously experience once again being the target of yet another Florida moral panic, I sometimes wonder how long I can stay.
Moral Panics inevitably have very human costs. Many of them are immediate but many are also unforeseeable. That makes them much more dangerous. In the end, moral panics leave indelible scars on the souls of those whose lives they touch.
As citizens, we are all complicit in the harm done in our names by those to whom we have given political power. The reputation of our state has suffered enormous harm in this debacle. To paraphrase John’s Gospel, increasingly the rest of the nation wonders, “Can anything good come out of Florida?”
But our teachers deserve better. Our children deserve better. And when our citizens exercise our responsibilities, we will deserve better. Now is the time to do better.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2022