In an impassioned and tearful testimony this week, Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones pleaded with his colleagues to vote against the state legislature’s controversial Parental Rights in Education bill, known to its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Like other LGBTQ+ advocates, Jones, who is the state Senate’s first openly gay member, argued that the bill, which prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity that is not “appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for children, would likely force LGBTQ+ students further into the closet and stigmatize the experiences of people who are not heterosexual or cisgender.
“I don’t think y’all understand how much courage it takes for these children to show up everyday,” he said, referring to the swaths of school-aged children who had gathered at the state capitol that day to protest the bill. Thousands more were staging similar demonstrations at schools across the state.
The bill passed Tuesday by a vote of 22 to 17 after hours of grueling debate. Now, it heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, where it is expected to be signed into law.
“I was hurt,” Jones told Changing America this week following the bill’s passage. “But it wasn’t for me. All week there were children up here – LGBTQ children, allies, parents – who are up here crying their hearts out, begging their hearts out, pleading that we don’t do this.”
Jones, a Democrat, represents Florida’s 35th District, which huddles around the border of Broward County and Miami-Dade County, where the first same-sex marriage licenses were issued in 2015.
The son of a pastor in South Florida, the freshman state Senator previously served three terms in the state House of Representatives, but did not publicly come out as gay until 2018, when he was 34. He told the Miami Herald that year that he had been inspired by the early death of his brother, Kaneil, to start “living my truth just a little bit more.”
“I know what it feels like to be that young child, and you’re locked in your own closet because you feel like you can’t express yourself,” he told Changing America.
He added that part of him feels like he didn’t fight hard enough for Florida’s LGBTQ+ youth – a group he was once a part of – though a larger part of him knows that isn’t true.
On Tuesday, after the final vote had been cast, Jones said Florida Democrats together drew in a sharp breath.
“The air was taken out of the room,” he said, “as it should have been.”
As for what’s next, Jones said he’ll be participating in demonstrations and rallying community members leading up to DeSantis’ decision. If the bill is found favorable by the governor, the law would take effect this summer. Supporters of the bill say it will protect children and give parents more control over their kids’ education.
Jones said he’s almost certain the law will trigger a lawsuit – something legal experts are also expecting.
But as the nation’s eyes are glued to Florida, Jones pointed out that similar bills are sprouting nationwide. Georgia this week introduced its own “Don’t Say Gay” bill, though its fate is far less certain.
The best defense against discriminatory legislation, Jones said, is to elect more diverse candidates to public office. Just over 1,000 elected officials in the U.S. identify as openly LGBTQ+, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, representing just 0.2 percent of people in all elected positions.
“Everyone does not have a seat at the table in a lot of these state legislatures, so that’s why you see a lot of these bills coming forth,” he said. “You see bills attack Black communities because there are not enough Black people at the table to call state legislatures out on the bills they’re promoting. You see bills like the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill because there’s just not enough LGBTQ representation sitting at the table.”
“We have to speak up and say ‘this is wrong,’” he said. “We have to stop playing patty-cake, because they’re playing hardball.”
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