Much of the outrage over Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, HB 1557, is aimed at what many see as its censorship clause: The bill “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels”—namely, until fourth grade. While some LGBT kids, or kids with LGBT parents, have interpreted this as forcing them to deny their existence—thus protesters shouting “We say gay”—others note that it says nothing explicit about homosexuality or transgender identity. As a conservative Christian said to me, “It could just as easily be called the ‘Don’t Say Straight’ bill.”
But some believe the bill is actually called “Don’t Say Gay” and not the “Parental Rights in Education” bill—in part because much of the media is calling it the former. And if they do know, they assume it’s a cynical cover for Republicans’ real aim: to erode the rights of trans and gay people, and transform the classroom into a petri dish of traditional, patriarchal Christian values.
Because we are living in such partisan times, many people denouncing this bill aren’t actually reading or considering what’s in it, and thus are missing something crucial. While it’s true that its overly broad censorship clause could be wielded in some frightening ways that could affect gender and sexual minorities, some of HB 1557’s tenets are addressing concerns of both liberal and conservative parents.
The bill aims to make sure parents have rights such as accessing school records, and “prohibits school district personnel from discouraging or prohibiting parental notification & involvement in critical decisions affecting student’s mental, emotional, or physical well-being.” It prevents schools from encouraging “a student to withhold from a parent such information.”
Why would “the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding upbringing & control of their children” be necessary to vote into law when the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects parental rights?
Because some schools have been keeping information about children’s gender identity and mental health from their parents. Parts of this bill address a nonpartisan and very real issue: whether a school can secretly socially transition a child.
For example: January Littlejohn, a licensed mental health counselor, was kept in the dark that her 13-year-old daughter, who suffered from anxiety and was questioning her gender, had met secretly with teachers and administrators to assume a new name and pronouns. Together, child and teachers filled out a transgender support plan, detailing preferred bathrooms and whether to bunk with boys or girls on overnight trips; she found out only when her daughter told her later. “[My daughter] became more angry, more withdrawn, very sad all of the time,” Littlejohn said. “This did not fix anything for her. It got much worse.”
Now the Littlejohns are one of two families that have filed lawsuits against Florida school boards for facilitating their children’s secret social transitions, not only without telling the parents, but deliberately keeping it from them. In one case, the school hid not only the child’s gender identity from parents, but a suicide attempt. Parents have also filed lawsuits in California and Wisconsin.
Children are regularly asked their pronouns and allowed and encouraged to choose them for themselves—and many believe it is their right to do so. But social transition—assuming a new identity, including those pronouns—is actually a serious mental health treatment and a “huge decision” that should be made by the family, said Dr. Erica Anderson, a clinical psychologist specializing in gender, who is trans herself. Secret social transition is, essentially, performing a psychological intervention without parental knowledge or permission, even if parents need to sign permission slips for field trips.
But the practice is enshrined within many states’ school guidelines, which require school employees to use a student’s chosen pronouns or name but allow—and sometimes compel—withholding them from parents. Indeed, a Ludlow, Mass. teacher was fired for revealing students’ social transition to their parents.
In Iowa, “A student has a right to keep his or her status as a transgendered [sic] student private at school.” California schools must respect a transgender student’s wishes, including “not sharing that information with the student’s parents.” Some teachers provide a “transition closet,” so kids can assume secret gender identities (albeit through stereotypes about clothing), away from parents. In Hawaii, “Disclosing [a transgender identity] to other students, their parents, or other third parties may violate privacy laws, such as FERPA,” the guidelines read.
But the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, is designed to help parents protect their own children’s privacy from others. “FERPA does not in express language or intent create a divide of privacy between children and their parents,” said Mrs. Littlejohn’s lawyer, Vernadette R. Broyles. Thus, even if social transition was the best course for a child, schools have no authority to facilitate it secretly, and not all teachers want to. If once schools were sued for not being willing to facilitate a child’s desire for a particular bathroom or locker room, now they are being sued for facilitating those desires behind parents’ backs. It is an overcorrection. The pendulum must swing back toward the middle.
We should assume that those keeping critical information from parents are doing so to support those kids, and indeed many LGBT adults were rejected by families when they came out, and some had teachers who provided a safe haven. But there is also a culture of parental demonization at work here, in the form of a narrative, oft-repeated by organizations like the Trevor Project and adopted in schools, that parents are potentially dangerous, denying treatment out of bigotry rather than concern for their children’s mental health. “Outing a student, especially to parents, can be very dangerous to the student’s health and well-being,” read the guidelines Littlejohn’s child’s school used, continuing that the action could lead to homelessness. Most parents, like most teachers, are trying to do what’s best for kids. The problem is: it’s quite hard to know what that is.
There’s little consensus over how to treat kids with gender dysphoria, distress at an incongruence between biological sex and gender identity. Though some describe social transition as a completely reversible intervention, in reality, it was “Relatively unheard-of 10 years ago,” according to a 2019 paper, which notes that “early-childhood social transitions are a contentious issue within the clinical, scientific, and broader public communities.”
Multiple studies show that most prepubescent kids with gender dysphoria desist, and many grow up to be same-sex attracted. “Because most gender dysphoric children will not remain gender dysphoric through adolescence, we recommend that young children not yet make a complete social transition,” notes the book Treating Transgender Children and Adolescents.
Still, social transition “can minimize the risk of depressive symptoms, poor self-esteem, self-harm, and suicidal ideation, gestures, or attempts,” per a 2017 paper, even as it noted that “little evidence that psychosocial well-being varied in relation to gender transition status.” Another study found that socially transitioned children supported by parents have “developmentally normative levels of depression,” though higher anxiety than average. Some socially transitioned kids may grow into happy trans teens and trans adults, or they may desist.
But sometimes social transition exacerbates complicated mental health problems, as it did for Littlejohn’s child. Studies show that family support is critical to LGBT children’s mental health. But affirmation is not synonymous with support, nor is cutting parents out of the picture. Doing so drives a wedge between vulnerable kids and their parents at a time when they need them most, pitting parents against kids, and schools against families.
Meanwhile, the little and unclear research we have is of socially transitioned kids in supportive families. We don’t have research on kids secretly socially transitioned by teachers and administrators, hidden from parents, and it’s unreasonable to assume that this intervention would have the same effect on a different population. School personnel, untrained in helping gender dysphoric kids, may overlook children’s depression, anxiety, autism, trauma and/or eating disorders, seeing them as symptoms of GD—as may be the case for some—rather than the source of it.
It would be best to leave education to educators, medicine to doctors, psychological interventions to therapists, but few such professions seem to be rising to their challenges. Children are having mental health crises at unprecedented levels in the pandemic era, and some schools function as support centers, focusing more on social justice than reading, writing and arithmetic. How should they navigate that some families, regardless of political party, have different beliefs about gender identity and sexuality? Whose version of reality gets taught? How do we move forward when ideologies pull us in opposite directions? And how do we overcome the political polarization that has us serving those ideologies over the needs of kids?
The truth is that the Republican bills restricting access to health care for trans kids in other states, like Texas and Idaho, are just as guilty of violating parental rights. Both sides should stop interrupting parental authority and support families staying close and intact. Just as some families with trans-identified kids are fleeing Texas for bluer states, some blue state residents are heading to Florida, where they feel their kids will be safer. The great gender migration is a sign of how poisonous this debate has become.
It’s amazing that we need a bill to mandate what should be a given: Parents need to be involved in their kids’ mental health treatments. Children’s mental health, parental rights, and support for LGBT kids should all be possible if that’s our goal. Schools need to figure out how to work with parents, not against them, and encourage family connection, not dissolution. And knee-jerk neoliberals should read a bill like HB1577 with an open mind, and listen to the families who support it. Because we do all have one thing in common: We want to do what’s best for kids.
FYI: I pitched this piece to NYT, Washington Post, Time, Common Sense, FAIR, The Bulwark, NY Mag, USA Today, The Atlantic, CNN, WSJ, Unherd, Tablet. Only two outlets bothered to even say no. Thank you for reading it here—I’m sorry I couldn’t share these ideas with a wider audience.