“Children do not constitute anyone’s property: they are neither the property of the parents nor even the society.
They belong only to their own future freedom.”
As part of the recent wave of legislation targeting LGBTQIA people, especially trans minors, Florida passed a law advertised by its proponents as protection for parental rights, HB 1557. It has inspired similar provisions in other states such as HB 332 in Alabama. It’s worth looking into what it really does and what it’s probably meant to achieve.
The bill has a number of provisions, many worded vaguely enough that it turns into something of a Rorschach test for political leanings. Much of the commentary on the bill in the media has been about the classroom discussion aspect of it, with detractors calling it the “don’t say gay” bill and proponents insisting that it is simply common-sense restrictions on age-inappropriate lessons. In reality, the bill is a lot worse than the “don’t say gay” nickname would have you believe, even though the wording doesn’t ban the word gay in all cases. The provision about classroom discussion is as follows:
The bill prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.
It’s unclear what constitutes “classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity.” Is noting that a character in a book is a girl discussion of gender identity? Does this allow a double-standard where straight, but not gay, couples can appear in a story? We’re left guessing what the actual effect on classrooms will be.
The enforcement mechanism is to allow parents the ability to sue schools for what they believe to be violations of this law. This will mean that it’s possible for schools to comply with any reasonable reading of the law, and still face time-consuming and costly lawsuits from parents who have different ideas of what is or isn’t age-appropriate. Knowing this, schools are likely to adopt policies designed to prevent this, by going further than the literal text of the law. This is likely the intention of the vagueness and certainly the effect. As Cato Institute explains (quoted by Rebecca Watson):
Vague laws involve three basic dangers: First, they may harm the innocent by failing to warn of the offense. Second, they encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement because vague laws delegate enforcement and statutory interpretation to individual government officials. Third, because citizens will take extra precautions to avoid violating the law, vague laws inhibit our individual freedom.
With such a vaguely worded law, the intentions of the proponents become important additional context. One of the sponsors of HB 1557, Dennis Baxley gave his reasoning as reducing the amount of people coming out:
Proponents of the bill may say they merely want to protect parental rights, but the sponsor of the bill revealed his true intentions on Monday. State Senator Dennis Baxley said that he was deeply uncomfortable with what he sees as a “real trend change” in society. “My son’s a psychiatrist and I said, ‘Why is everybody now all about coming out when you’re in school?’” Baxley said on the Senate floor. “And there really is a dynamic of concern of how much of these are genuine types of experiences and how many of them are just kids trying on different kinds of things.” Indeed, Baxley believes that when kids come out, “overnight, they’re a celebrity.”
Traditionalist gender ideology sounds fragile. If a kid will turn out gay by hearing about the existence of gay people, then it’s only a matter of time before that happens. The Dennis Baxleys of the world should calm down and let old ideas that are apparently hanging by a thread fail on their merits.
The provision about classroom instruction, which (as we can see) isn’t about preventing grooming or age inappropriate sex ed, is just one line of this law. It gets worse. The law also has provisions to prevent children from entrusting information about themselves to faculty without it being disclosed to their parents:
The bill prohibits a school district from maintaining procedures that require school district personnel to withhold from a parent, or encourage a student to withhold, information related to a student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being. School district procedures may authorize school district personnel to withhold information only for a reasonable belief that disclosure would subject the student to abuse, abandonment, or neglect.
This constitutes mandated outing. No one knows more than the LGBTQIA child themself who is safe to come out to and it’s important that they have all the tools they need to navigate this thorny landscape. For some, their parents are safer to come out to than school faculty. For others, it’s the other way around. This bill substitute’s the child’s specific knowledge with the judgment of government employees. That last line, an allowance for exemptions in the case of suspected abuse, is important and I’m glad it’s there. However, it’s unlikely to prevent all cases of abuse or neglect due to disclosure.
If a child already prefers their parents not knowing, that is sufficient grounds to respect their wishes. This provision puts the kid at the mercy of faculty who might not fully understand the situation or even have the child’s interests at heart. Outing is always unethical behavior even if you don’t believe you’re putting the person in danger. This law mandates said unethical behavior on the part of school faculty.
This is important because LGBTQIA children get abused by unsupportive parents in a number of ways. Some are kicked out of the house, or run away to avoid problems at home. According to a 2017 study by ChapinHall, LGBT youth have a 120% higher rate of homelessness. True Colors United, a charity that works with homeless LGBTQ youth, estimates that 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ in their 2015 analysis.
Others are subject to cruel and tortuous conversion “therapy,” which is not banned statewide in Florida, though bans at the local level exist, such as in Miami. Those not subject to conversion therapy are often at least subject to negative comments, deliberate misgendering, or otherwise being punished for the crime of being themselves. In short, this law enables abuse.
Another provision of the law that warrants more attention is how it allows micromanagement of the use of all school services related to health. This won’t just affect LGBTQIA children. The law specifies any change in use of services must be notified and further, allows parents to opt out of services ahead of time.
At the beginning of each school year, a school district must notify parents of all healthcare services offered at their student’s school and provide parents the opportunity to individually consent to, or decline, each service.
This law was made with transgender children in mind, so that parents can block aspects of social transition related to school administration, and that itself verges on abusive conversion therapy. However, that also means that any child going to the nurse or school counselor about something that might not be safe to disclose to their parents can no longer do so without their parents finding out, unless they can plead to them that said disclosure will lead to abuse. Did they tell a counselor they were getting abused at home? The kid is now at the mercy of that counselor that their parents don’t find out. Did a nurse diagnose a minor with pregnancy or an STD? The enforcement mechanism spelled out in this bill can make some faculty fear the wrath of parents who find out something was withheld from them.
The ability to opt-out of services could mean that parents can override their child’s preferences by withholding potentially necessary medicine from them. Say the parent is an anti-vaxxer but their child isn’t. The wording of this law suggests that parents will be able to opt out of vaccination should that be provided at the school. Public schools don’t function as informed consent clinics for medical transition, but banning things that aren’t even happening with respect to trans children is par for the course, and serves the propaganda function also intended by these bills.
This law provides powerful tools to bigoted or abusive helicopter parents, who wish to extend their totalitarian control over their children’s lives outside the bounds of their own roof, at taxpayer’s expense and without putting the effort into homeschooling. Rather than being a law that prevents “grooming” as DeSantis’ press secretary absurdly claimed, it actually enables child abuse. Rebecca Watson notes in her post that the stigmatization that goes with these laws and the anti-gay propaganda itself is also a vector of abuse:
Despite this, Florida’s new bill really could significantly change the number of children who are “groomed” by predatory adults: it could increase that number. Here’s how: predators look for easy prey. And when it comes to a pedophile hoping to abuse a child, the easiest prey is a child who is ashamed – ashamed of their own body, ashamed of their own sexuality, ashamed of any discussion of sex. Experts agree that one of the best ways to protect a child from being groomed is open and honest communication. Here’s a fact sheet from Michigan State University that points out one way to protect your child is to teach them “early and often” about consent and respect in relationships. An educated child is a safer child, and a child who isn’t afraid to speak up to a trusted adult, like a parent or a teacher, is a safer child.
So what happens when we raise kids to think of homosexuality or transgenderism as “naughty” topics that are off-limits in school? The same thing that happens when we decide that they shouldn’t learn about their own bodies, or about sex: when a predator abuses them, they take on the shame and believe the groomer when they tell them they need to keep it a secret. What happens when we muzzle teachers and threaten them with lawsuits if they answer kids’ questions about relationships, gender, and sexuality? Then those kids lose the ability to bond with an adult outside the home who they know they can go to for help if they need it, for instance if they’re being abused at home.
The mascot of the bill, January Littlejohn, is a woman expressing horror that her child was able to be out as non-binary at school but not home. In her speeches (such as this one), she repetitively misgenders her own kid, suggesting that they made the right call in terms of where it’s safer to come out first… missing entirely from this picture are the opinions of this 13 year old child.
In American politics, policies that affect children are discussed in terms of which group of adults are given more autonomy. We hear about the importance of parental rights with regard to the parent’s right to raise their children how they wish without government interference. We hear from teacher’s unions about how teachers having better work conditions is in the interest of children, who are our future. While parents and teachers are humans who do deserve rights, the interests of children should be understood from their own subjective perspective.
In political science and economics, there is a concept of “principal-agent problem,” the tendency of those supposedly acting in the interest of another party in reality acting more in their own interests first. Proponents of parental rights like to create a false dichotomy between parents raising their own children and the state raising their children instead. Left out is any idea that minors themselves should have a say. The adults in a child’s life are, at best, imperfect agents.
While it is true that parents usually know their kids better than other adults and that’s a good reason for some parental autonomy insofar as it is instrumental in the children’s rights, we must never forget that parents are their own, separate individuals with their own interests, which may well clash with that of that of their children. We can’t cling to the utopian beliefs of conservatives that child abuse and neglect is an edge case and instead recognize the reality that people regularly abuse whatever power they have over other persons.
But even when an agent means well, there are also shortages in terms of knowledge. The experience for trans people is one of epistemic injustice. To use some concepts from public choice theory, cis (non-trans) people are rationally ignorant about transgender issues. That is, as they have no particular plans about transitioning, medically or otherwise, and have never had to question their own gender, they face few penalties for ignorance about trans issues. This is why the importance of autonomy for trans individuals is most important. While people of all sorts make poor decisions on their own behalf, good decisions on someone else’s behalf are yet harder to come by. Nobody knows better than the trans individual what is in their own interests and a century of failed experiments in gatekeeping and ineffective, tortuous conversion therapy bears this out.
Just like this law was made with transgender children in mind but could negatively impact cisgender children as well, liberation of the oppressed means liberation for all. Telling gay children that it’s okay to be gay means also telling straight children that we’re building a society in which you can be confident that your heterosexuality is a genuine facet of your true self and not a facade you were coerced into. That we are defanging the schoolyard homophobic slurs flung at those who don’t conform to rigid gender norms.
Affirming trans identities means affirming all identities. A cisgender individual can be confident in their gender once they can know that they had every freedom to be otherwise. Having options that aren’t for you takes nothing away from the one that is. And any new guidelines against misgendering would not only protect trans children, it would protect cis boys from stereotypical PE teachers, misgendering them in a misogynistic way for not running fast enough.
The final authority on an LGBTQIA child’s identity is the child themself. However much censorship and restrictions in autonomy may advertise themselves as about “protecting the children,” they are clearly about protecting adults from their own anxieties. However much differential there may be in judgment capacity, a child is their own person with their own rights that cannot be overridden for the sake of an adult’s aesthetic preferences.
Parents, such as myself, have rights as persons but, with respect to our children, we have duties instead. Abridging our parental autonomy for a yet more distant authority would also be bad – laws and provisions preventing parents, children, and physicians from pursuing hormone blockers or medical transition for minors for instance. But this isn’t a matter of parental rights, it’s a matter of parental autonomy being instrumental to children’s rights. Taking children from parents they wish to remain with violates their preferences and in this case, it would also violate their preference in favor of medical transition. One of our duties is to protect the rights of our children and the first step in protecting rights is to not violate them yourself.
The regime being put forward by anti-LGBTQIA forces is not even one of respecting parental autonomy. It’s just one of conservative governments and conservative parents having special privileges to force their will upon LGBTQIA children. Abusive parents and governments can be partners in crime, such as when law enforcement brings runaway children back to their abusive homes. People who wish to bully queers out of public view or out of existence should not be humored, they shouldn’t even be given an inch. Society has a ways to go before all beings are equally free and these traditionalists cannot be allowed to rob that of us, much less create a darker future of oppression and spiraling authoritarianism.