Florida’s new law is garnering national attention for preventing teachers from engaging in classroom instruction related to “sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade, and requiring parental involvement in decisions about a student’s mental health.
Critics have given the law the egregiously misleading moniker of “don’t say gay,” which has been dutifully parroted by corporate media outlets and in cringe-worthy segments at the Oscars, despite having no basis in fact.
Shortly after the bill was signed, President Joe Biden called the bill “hateful.” His press secretary, Jen Psaki, claimed the legislation was “designed to target and attack” children, and is “cruel” and “harmful.” Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg labeled the law “dangerous,” and his partner, Chasten Buttigieg, declared the law “will kill kids.”
But as he has on so many other key cultural questions, Biden has “evolved” on the issue of classroom instruction about sexual orientation. In 1994, he voted for an amendment that was far more draconian than he deems Florida’s law to be – one that specifically banned programs or discussion that “affirms a homosexual lifestyle” in schools nationwide, K-12.
Biden’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Moment
In summer 1994, the Senate began debate on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the country’s primary federal education law. As part of that debate, Sen. Bob Smith, R-New Hampshire, offered an amendment to prohibit schools from receiving funds under the bill from “encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative,” which he defined as the “distribution of instructional materials, instruction, counseling, or other services . . . or referral of a pupil to an organization that affirms a homosexual lifestyle.”
Smith was joined in his effort by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-South Carolina, who amended the Smith amendment to shield it from modification. (Since the language of the two was effectively the same, I’ll refer to the amendment as Smith-Helms.)
In the debate that followed, Smith brought to the Senate floor a number of books and pamphlets featuring discussion and graphic images about sexuality, all of which had been prepared for children. “I encourage my colleagues to listen,” he said, describing the materials, “because there are some materials here that are so obscene that I cannot show them to the public. I cannot display them here and I cannot hold them up. I cannot quote from them, because to put them on the airwaves in any way, shape, or form would be considered obscene.”
He went on, “I ask each of my colleagues . . . How would you respond if your 12-year-old, or worse, your 6-year-old brought home some of the materials that I have at my desk?”
The deliberation didn’t stop there. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, dubbed the “liberal lion of the Senate,” and for whom a room in the U.S. Capitol is named, came to the floor with a compromise. Along with Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont (then still a Republican), Kennedy appended the Smith-Helms amendment with language to, in his words, “assure that Federal funds are not used to promote or encourage sexual activity of any kind.”
The text of his amendment later put a finer point on it: No funds were to be used “to develop materials or programs directed at youth that are designed to directly promote or encourage, sexual activity, whether homosexual or heterosexual.” The Senate passed the amendment 99 to 0, with every Senate Democrat, including Biden, voting for it.
Kennedy, who had just three years before testified in a trial related to his own family sex scandal, offered a follow-up amendment to ban the distribution of condoms in public schools unless such a program had been “developed in consultation with parents” and provided information “concerning the health benefits of abstinence.” The amendment passed the Senate unanimously.
Then-Senator Joe Biden had nothing to say about these amendments at the time. While he is now compelled to denounce as “hateful” state-passed measures limiting instruction about “sexual or gender identity” in grades K-3, he had nothing to say about far more punitive policies that flat-out banned the instruction or materials “enouraging or supporting homosexuality” in all grades and all schools throughout the country. In fact, he voted for them.
When the Senate took up the Smith-Helms amendment late in the day on August 1, 1994, Biden cast his vote in favor, joining the 62 other senators who helped pass the amendment 63 to 36.
The Democratic Party Shift to Culture War Aggressor
While consistency isn’t necessarily the hallmark of lifelong politicians like Biden, it’s worth noting this 1994 vote for two reasons. First, to demonstrate just how far the Democratic Phas evolved on cultural questions in the two decades since, but second, to highlight just how far Biden actually exists outside of his positioning on the campaign trail as a moderate.
From his support for repealing the prohibition on federal funding for abortion – a policy he routinely supported while in the Senate – to forcing nuns to buy birth control and charging his Department of Justice to “do everything in its power to stop the rash of state laws that . . . violate the constitutional right to an abortion,” Biden has emerged as a willing handmaiden to the progressive jihad in the culture wars.
This is true in the area of gender ideology as well. On his first day in office, Biden issued an executive order directing his administration to ensure all regulations prohibit discrimination on, among other things, sexual orientation or transgender status – including allowing access by biological males to female restrooms, locker rooms, and school sports.
Biden has followed through on that commitment. His administration’s new Title IX rules will expand the definition of discrimination beyond sex to also include sexual orientation and gender identity. In his State of the Union address, Biden demanded that Congress pass the radical Equality Act, which would use sexual politics to erase the First Amendment.
While the left loves to blame the right for “stirring up the culture wars,” a Democratic Party that insists six-year-olds must be exposed to overtly sexual material isn’t the victim in the culture wars, they are the aggressor. In many cases, the rest of the country is just trying to keep up as the left moves the cultural goalposts (and even alters the English language) to more extreme positions every single week.
As The Federalist’s Culture Editor Emily Jashinksy put it, the left’s claim that conservatives are dragging the country into culture war fights “is the equivalent of one kid punching another kid on the playground, and then the second kid getting blamed for picking a fight.”
Biden’s evolution is a proxy for the evolution of the Democratic Party. His vote in 1994 is instructive because of how closely the debate 30 years ago mirrors the same debate that’s going on in states all over the country. Parents are objecting to graphic novels and books in school libraries that show and discuss explicit images of sexual behavior to young children. They are objecting to, in many cases, an ideologically driven attempt to present inappropriate sexual content and curriculum to kids without their consent.
In 1994, Biden took the side of parents in these disputes. In 2022, both he and his party call these parents hateful.
Rachel Bovard is The Federalist’s senior tech columnist and the senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute. She has more than a decade of policy experience in Washington and has served in both the House and Senate in various roles, including as a legislative director and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Sen. Pat Toomey and Sen. Mike Lee. She also served as director of policy services for The Heritage Foundation.