Bilinovich: Florida lawmakers are resurrecting a decades-old moral panic

Beau Bilinovich, Development Editor

Moral panics are nothing new. There have been many cases throughout history: the persecution of women accused of practicing witchcraft, the national outrage over Elvis Presley’s dancing, the fear that Dungeons and Dragons was encouraging kids to join Satanic cults.

We can now look back and realize the absurdity of these moral panics; Elvis Presley is now universally known as an icon and Dungeons and Dragons is seen as a harmless role-playing game. Yet, even when we have clear historical evidence of the risks of moral panics, many people, especially politicians, still rally around the fervor of outrage and disgust.

The recently signed Parental Rights in Education bill—the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, as its detractors have dubbed it—is a clear example of moral panic. The main driving force behind the legislation is the worry that public schools are indoctrinating students with ideas about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Again, these concerns are just being recycled from decades past. In 1978, Proposition 6 was added to a California ballot referendum, and would have permitted the firing of teachers and other school personnel on the basis of being LGBTQ+. This latest effort also draws from the late social and political campaign of the ’70s called “Save Our Children, Inc.,” spearheaded by Anita Bryant, infamously labeled LGBTQ+ people as being a threat to children.

For Florida legislators and Governor Ron DeSantis, these faux worries have resurfaced in the exact same way. The law is a rationalization of bigotry and encourages pearl-clutching parents to feel justified in their disdain for anything perceived as untraditional. The law utilizes a valid and serious issue—the safety of children—to peddle fear. In this sense, the law is no different from “Save Our Children, Inc.,” except for a change in wording. The basic sentiment is the same.

As much as the Florida GOP would like to argue, the legislation will not protect children. If anything, it will have the opposite effect.

One of the law’s provisions would give parents the ability to decline any specific health service, mental or physical, offered by the school. This is a tremendous risk to all kinds of students who suffer from mental health issues, but the risk is most significant for specific groups.

As a 2021 Trevor Project survey found, 42% of LGBTQ+ youth considered suicide over the past year. In addition, 48% said they wanted to seek mental health counseling but were unable to. Allowing any parent the option to withdraw their child from health services that may save their life does not protect them; it actively endangers them.

The right of a parent to control their child’s education should not result in their child suffering. Children have rights too. But Florida lawmakers have been swept up by a raging moral storm and have lost sight of what truly matters.

The law also serves as an example of the nation’s lacking commitment to comprehensive sexual health education. Many states are still instructing students based on outdated and ineffective abstinence-only programs. Florida has now taken action in restricting such education to an even greater extent.

Well-taught and informative sexual education programs are crucial for students’ health and wellbeing, especially when taught early on. Education inclusive of LGBTQ+ individuals and identities makes students feel more respected and supported. And in Oregon, where students, starting in kindergarten, learn about topics such as consent and healthy relationships, the teen pregnancy rate is lower than the national average—the same is true of California and New Jersey.

Florida, however, is moving in the opposite direction. Depriving students of the information necessary to make healthy and safe choices only risks their well-being. Governor DeSantis is creating a hostile environment founded upon the bigoted notion that discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity threaten children. The truth of the matter is quite the opposite.

We’ve succumbed to moral panic too many times throughout history, bearing witness to the consequences after the fact. This time, let’s make the right decision and learn from our mistakes.