One Step Forward and Two Steps Back

In the past month, Florida’s Senate has passed a bill to forbid instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through to third grade. Officially called the ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill, the legislation essentially seeks to erase the presence of the LGBTQ+ community in education, thereby forcing students to suppress their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Not only this, but, if the bill goes into law on July 1st of this year, as it is scheduled to, it will enable parents to sue schools or individual teachers who discuss LGBTQ+ topics, supposedly in the interests of ‘protecting’ their children.

In reality, however, the bill is not simply seeking to prevent children from being educated about gender and sexual orientation before they are ‘mature’ enough to understand it, but is demonizing the LGBTQ+ community by implying that their very existence is a taboo topic that needs to be regulated.

In fact, in its attempt to erase the existence of LGBTQ+ people from education, the ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill bears an uncanny resemblance to Section 28, a series of laws introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government that prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities across Britain, most notably in schools and educational institutions. Although Section 28 was finally wiped from the statute books in England in 2003, the passing of the ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill in Florida almost 20 years later serves as a harsh reminder that homophobic and transphobic attitudes persist, even the in 21st century.

Although some point to the bill’s vague language to suggest that it has been misinterpreted, and that its contents constitute nothing more than an attempt to increase parental involvement in education, it has faced fierce opposition, particularly within the White House itself, with Press Secretary Jen Psaki calling it ‘discriminatory,’ ‘horrific,’ and ‘a form of bullying’ against LGBTQ+ children and families, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg claiming it will increase suicides among LGBTQ+ youth, and Hilary Clinton referring to it as the ‘latest example of the performative cruelty that defines the GOP brand today’. What is concerning, however, is the limited legal success that politicians, and others, have had in fighting the bill, despite the widespread criticism it has attracted. Although Disney have now decided to publicly denounce the bill, and despite the fact that there have been student school walkouts and public demonstrations, these have been largely ineffective, which ultimately speaks to the futility of trying to resist what is essentially an entrenched system of repression.

The marginalisation of LGBTQ+ people in the US is not, however, confined to Florida. Not only are other states poised to follow the same path as Florida, with Kansas, Tennessee and Indiana already considering similar measures, but more than 150 anti-LGBT bills have been introduced at the state level so far this legislative session, the majority of which focus on access to healthcare and transgender participation in sport.  For example, Iowa has recently banned transgender women and girls taking part in girls’ sports at public schools and, in Texas, a new executive order has been issued by Governor Greg Abbott to launch child abuse investigations into parents seeking gender-affirming medical treatment for transgender children.

Ultimately, although last year saw the new Biden Administration revoke Donald Trump’s ban on Transgender people serving in the military, progress at the national level is being undermined by various state-level efforts to push legislation that could be harmful to LGBTQ+ students. Biden’s attitude may be promising, but such is the political system in America that every state is a sovereign entity in its own right and, as such, is able create, enforce, and implement its own laws. Little can be done, therefore, to stop the discriminatory ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill becoming law, despite public opposition to it.

Moreover, the bill could also be seen to reflect moves in other countries to adopt bans on ‘gay propaganda’. In Russia, for example, where LGBTQ+ peoples have always faced legal and social challenges not experienced by others, federal laws were passed in 2013 that banned the distribution of ‘propaganda’ to minors which promotes ‘non-traditional sexual relationships’. Similarly, Hungary has passed a new law that bans ‘promoting’ homosexuality to minors, and, although it has now been overturned, the Ukrainian Parliament previously passed a bill banning any kind of public discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity. The ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill is not an isolated piece of legislation, then, but part of a growing movement across the world that seeks to marginalize and exclude lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender-diverse persons from all aspects of society through the passing of discriminatory laws and policies.

The worrying regression of LGBTQ+ rights extends far beyond these anti-gay propaganda laws, however. In the past month alone, the Guatemala Congress has voted to ban same-sex marriage and the teaching of sexual diversity, and Singapore’s highest court has refused to overturn a gay sex ban. Not only this, but, despite the fact that LGBTQ+ rights in the UK are some of the most advanced in Europe, a UK court has, in the past week, blocked the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda in what has been seen as a huge blow to LGBTQ+ equality. More generally, being LGBTQ+ remains illegal in 71 countries worldwide, many of which do not recognise same sex marriage, have banned same-sex couples from adopting children, and prevent people from legally changing their gender. In fact, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments are so deeply embedded today that one Russian church leader even blamed the recent Ukraine invasion on ‘sinful’ Pride parades, despite there being no discernible relationship between the two. Essentially, although progress is being made in some countries, there appears to be a link between growing rights in some countries, and the worsening or removal of rights in others.

For members of the LGBTQ+ community, like myself, this is an extremely uncertain time. The fight for LGBTQ+ liberation is far from over and, although there exists an extensive network of activists and organisations who are campaigning ruthlessly to secure the rights of LGBTQ+ peoples across the world, the harsh truth is that, at this current moment in history, human rights are not a reality for all. In a world when every advance is accompanied by a backlash, discrimination is becoming an inevitable part of everyday life for more and more people. Moving forward, then, policymakers across the world would do well to remember that LGBTQ+ rights are human rights and that, by denying these rights to their citizens, they are violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) – an act that will no doubt invite widespread condemnation.

This article has been re-published from the St Andrews Foreign Affairs Review with the permission of the author.

The original article can be found here