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Analysis: Focus on ‘parental rights’ chips away at gay rights

Critics have labeled it the “Don’t Say Gay” law and warned it will negatively impact LGBTQ students. As with so much in LGBTQ rights, the law is steeped in the evolving attitudes and acceptance of the transgender community.
Officially called “Parental Rights in Education,” the law requires school districts to notify parents of students of any changes in mental health services or counseling. Supporters of the law say counseling should never be conducted without a parent’s consent. Critics fear it will have the effect of outing kids to parents who are not accepting. Read CNN’s full report.

You can tell a lot about this bill by who was invited to speak at the signing ceremony held by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday.

There were no gay parents, angry that the state and schools now view their relationships differently.

There were no LGBTQ students, who may be discouraged from being themselves at school. Many of them have been protesting the bill.

Instead, there was the mother of a 13-year-old in Leon County, Florida, angry at her child’s school.

January Littlejohn helped galvanize support for the law after saying she was not told about Deerlake Middle School’s gender-affirming plan for her child.

The story that helped create the law

Littlejohn spoke alongside DeSantis on Monday and said she learned from her child that the school had asked which bathroom the teen wanted to use. The family was not affirming the child as transgender at home.

The school’s plan, she said, included calling the child by a chosen name at school rather than the one given by Littlejohn and not informing Littlejohn of the change.

It’s a story Littlejohn has shared repeatedly in the past as she and her husband sued the school district (the case is ongoing) and she became an activist in favor of the new law.

‘New, shiny, glittery identity’

In a speech from November 2021, she goes more in-depth and describes how the school made her feel like the outlier in her child’s upbringing.

“We were the only people in her lives not affirming this new, shiny, glittery identity that we thought would ultimately lead to her self-harm,” Littlejohn said.

At another point in the speech, she argued the school had essentially taken away her ability to parent.

“It is my job to protect my child, and the school took that away from me,” Littlejohn said. “The time to take back our parental authority in schools on every issue is now.”

What should parents be told?

How to constructively support transgender children at home and in school is the subject of much debate, including in the medical community. Suffice it to say the new Florida law suggests a minor child should not have the ability to speak in confidence to a counselor at school.

Littlejohn said Monday at the bill signing that the district’s decision not to share information about her child drove a wedge between them.

“It sent the message that she needed to be protected from us, not by us.”

Protecting kids from whom?

Now the state is sending the opposite message, that children need to be protected from schools — something that aligns with the political argument Republicans are banking on heading into the midterm congressional elections in November.

A clip from the bill signing DeSantis shared on Twitter ends with him arguing there is a sort of secret agenda in schools, and all but suggesting educators want to turn kids transgender.

“And just so you know, the Left, they want that to happen to all other families,” DeSantis says in the clip. “They don’t want any protections for parents. They think that they should just be able to take your kid and do whatever the hell they want with them.”

DeSantis signed the bill surrounded by students from a charter school, some of whom were holding signs that read: “Protect Children / Support Parents.”

CNN’s Steve Contorno covers Florida politics and wrote earlier this month about how LGBTQ Floridians once thought DeSantis could be an ally at a time when Republicans in the state were appearing more tolerant. That perception has now drastically changed.

Efforts nationwide

Versions of this law and others have been considered in dozens of states. Courts have blocked Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s attempt to direct state authorities to investigate parents who get gender-affirming medical care for their trans children.

The Texas and Florida measures have received the most press, but CNN’s Giselle Rhoden looks at examples in Iowa, Tennessee and Oklahoma.

These laws clearly appeal to a committed Republican base, but they are far from universally popular. In an ABC/Ipsos poll from earlier in March, just 37% of Americans said they would support legislation that would prohibit classroom lessons about sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary school.

Another look at same-sex marriage and adoption

Inclusion at school is not the only place where gay and transgender rights are under scrutiny.

CNN’s Dan Berman noticed that Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case in which a 5-4 majority granted the right of marriage to same-sex couples nationwide, kept coming up at the Supreme Court nomination hearing for Ketanji Brown Jackson last week.
“Republicans have cited the ruling as an act of judicial overreach, stemming from previous decisions that guaranteed a right to privacy (one of the underpinnings of Roe v. Wade),” Berman told me. “It’s also a reminder that the rights of same-sex couples are also under attack, with lawsuits over religious freedom and adoption rights giving the court — should it choose — the ability to limit what marriage means for the LGBTQ community.”

Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican, seemed to argue that by creating a right to marry, the court had trampled on the rights of people who hold “traditional beliefs.”

He asked Jackson if she agreed “it creates a circumstance where those who may hold traditional beliefs — like something as important as marriage — that they will be vilified as unwilling to assent to this new orthodoxy?”

It’s a very different and more conservative Supreme Court today than the one that decided the Obergefell case. The questioning by Cornyn and a few other Republican senators suggested conservatives could now move to challenge the Obergefell decision — which for many, had felt permanent.

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