Teachers and students at MAST Academy are speaking out against several culture war bills signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ such as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” prohibiting instruction on homosexuality and gender identity in Florida public schools.
Meanwhile, the parents of three transgender children are trying to get a federal judge in Tallahassee to block a new law that bans gender-affirming care for minors, another signature policy of DeSantis as he nears his presidential campaign.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle on Friday heard arguments from an attorney representing the three families in a case that argues they are being stripped of the right to make medical decisions for their children.
At MAST, the governor’s self-described “war on woke” found plenty of opposition.
“People in my community, myself included, they’re going to hurt. They’re going to hurt people at this school, a lot of people at this school. Just not being able to talk about yourself, to be open about yourself, it changes a lot of people’s lives,” said MAST Academy senior Enzo Fouquet, who leads the Gay Straight Alliance at the honor school on Virginia Key.
“A lot of people say ‘Oh, it’s not that big of a deal’ but it is a big deal, especially when school, for a lot of people, is just the only place they can go, and if teachers –in high school– when people are almost adults, can’t even discuss people as basic as who they like, then what does this say about us in a society?”
The State Board of Education voted to limit discussion of gender or sexual orientation to students in kindergarten through 12th grade, although the regulation — which goes further than the law DeSantis signed– has yet to put into effect.
Several MAST teachers say the rules will hinder education.
“I feel like it is doing a lot of harm to young people, and as an educator I feel like it is my responsibility to create a classroom culture in which all students feel welcome, they feel- they’re seen, and are understood.” said Mayling Ganuza, a humanities teacher.
“All it does is put a target on on certain children that are already facing a lot of bullying, and discrimination,” Ganuza said.” If he’s trying to protect children, he’s really not. In reality, he’s harming children.”
Opposition to the new laws appears to be widespread at MAST. There is no organized Republican group at the school, and students with conservative views declined to comment on whether they supported DeSantis’ actions.
Florida’s ban on gender-affirming treatment, signed this week by DeSantis, prohibits the prescription of puberty-blocking, hormone and hormone antagonist therapies to treat gender dysphoria in minors. It also bans gender-affirming medical procedures or surgeries for minors.
The law also bans the use of state money for gender-affirming care and places new restrictions on adults seeking treatment. Among those restrictions are a requirement that people meet face to face with a doctor — not a nurse or nurse practitioner — and not through telemedicine. Private organizations that provide such care could be risking any state funding they receive.
Transgender medical treatment for children and teenagers has increasingly been subject to restrictions or outright bans from Republicans across the country.
Lynn Paisley, a Spanish language teacher, was more blunt about the wave of new legislation.
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“It kind of reminds me of McCarthyism,” she said. “I grew up during the Anita Bryant era, where everything went back to this very, very prejudiced way of looking at gay people,” she added . “Educators are the best people to educate students, not politicians.”
In interviews, several educators and students seem to believe the Don’t Say Gay bill and other laws could lead to increased rates of bullying, harassment, and mental health issues among LGBTQ+ youth.
Fouquet, the student leader, feared it would damage families.
“If you’re a family with trans kids, you’re just going to leave. There’s nothing here for you. It really hurts people, tangibly hurts people. And, it’s going to make our universities worse as well if these types of bills start to impact higher education, which makes Florida a worse state for everyone in the long run,” Fouquet said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
ANASTASIA IVANOVA is a sophomore at MAST Academy and part of the KBI's student journalism program. She is a staff writer for her school newspaper, The Beacon, and loves traveling, appreciating art, consuming and producing writing, and developing a greater understanding of the world.