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Florida politicians behind "Don't Say Gay" bill backed by corporations that claim to support LGBTQ rights
A bill advancing rapidly through the Florida legislature would prohibit many of the state's teachers from discussing "sexual orientation or gender identity" in class. Under the legislation, also known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, parents who believe the prohibition was violated could sue schools for damages. The politicians pushing the bill, a group that includes Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), are backed financially by major corporations that claim to be champions of LGBTQ rights.
The bill prohibits any discussion of "sexual orientation or gender identity" through the third grade and any discussion "that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students" in other grades. The terms "age-appropriate" and "developmentally appropriate" are not defined. The ambiguity is likely to chill any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity throughout the Florida K-12 educational system. Any teacher who broaches these topics could open up their school to a lawsuit.
Should the bill become law, younger students with same-sex parents could be prohibited from discussing their family in class. It would make it difficult for teachers to discuss the Stonewall Riots or Supreme Court cases like Obergefell v. Hodges.
The bill would further stigmatize LGBTQ students, many of whom already face a hostile environment at school. According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, "33% of LGBTQ students ages 13 to 21 said they missed a day of school over the course of a month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and more than 77% said they avoided school functions because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable." The Trevor Project notes that "LGBTQ students who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school were 23% less likely to attempt suicide in the past year."
Some of the bill's supporters claim that it would not prohibit most discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity with older students. But DeSantis, who announced his support for the bill, said last Monday that "it was 'entirely inappropriate' for teachers to be having conversations with students about gender identity." He claimed, without providing evidence, that some Florida teachers were "hiding" lessons about these subjects from parents.
The chief sponsor of the bill in the Florida Senate, Dennis Baxley (R), has a history of derogatory statements about LGBTQ people. In 2015, Baxley voted against a bill that formalized the right of same-sex couples to adopt children, saying he "simply can't affirm homosexuality." In 2013, Baxley said a child with "two mommies" was in the same kind of "dysfunctional" environment as a child with "abusive father" or drug addict as a parent. In 2016, Baxley voted for legislation that would allow churches to refuse to wed same-sex couples — a right already afforded to religious groups under the Constitution — because he said there is "a war, a battle, an assault going on, on the traditional family."
Yet Baxley and top supporters of his "Don't Say Gay" bill received financial support from corporations that claim to be champions of LGBTQ rights. Popular Information reviewed Florida campaign finance filings since 2020 of the bill's sponsors in the Florida House and Senate, the members of the Florida Senate who voted for the bill in committee, and DeSantis.
Comcast/NBC Universal, for example, donated $1,000 to Baxley on October 15, 2021, and a total of $28,000 to the top supporters of the "Don't Say Gay" bill since 2020. The company donated to every sponsor and co-sponsor of the legislation and all six Florida Senators who voted the bill out of committee. But the company publicly promotes itself as fighting for LGBTQ rights.
On Comcast's corporate website, Yvette Miley, Senior Vice President of MSNBC and NBC News, says "Some people may think the LGBTQ rights journey is done and the struggle is over, but it isn‘t. Our job is to continuously educate."
Because in-person Pride parades were limited in 2021, Comcast created "a virtual 'Pride World,' where we will feature events, Pride floats, Pride flags, and even a Pronoun Guide for employees."
Popular Information asked Comcast/NBC Universal if it supported Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill and if it planned to continue to contribute to the politicians behind it. The company did not respond.
Nadine Smith, the Executive Director of Equality Florida, told Popular Information that Comcast and other corporations had an obligation to speak out against the bill and to withhold future support from the politicians behind it. Smith called the bill "a form of intimidation" which compromises "the ability of [schools] and companies to create safe environments for an increasingly diverse population."
UnitedHealth promotes its support for LGBTQ rights, donated $200,000 to DeSantis
For the third year in a row, UnitedHealth Group earned a perfect score in the 2022 Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index. On Twitter, the company celebrated the recognition, but insisted that “our work does not stop here.”
Previously, the company’s chief talent officer, Ryan Craig, stated that “strengthening the sense of community among our LGBTQ+ employees and allies” makes the company stronger.
This past fall, Optum Health, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth, launched a free education program “to help providers care more effectively for LGBTQ patients.” According to Optum, the goal of the program is “to ensure LGBTQ patients are able to seek care in a welcoming and validating space.”
But since 2020, UnitedHealth Group has given DeSantis at least $200,000. DeSantis supports the bill and, should it pass the legislature, is expected to sign it into law.
UnitedHealth Group did not respond to a request for comment.
Duke Energy says "inclusion" is a core value, donated $32,000 to the politicians behind the "Don't Say Gay" bill
At the beginning of February, Duke Energy was given a “perfect score for the fifth year in a row” in the HRC 2022 Corporate Equality Index. “We are guided by our vision of an inclusive environment where employees feel a sense of belonging,” Cameron McDonald, Duke Energy’s vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer, said in a statement. “We make sure to integrate diversity and inclusion into everything we do.”
Duke Energy prides itself on offering “anti-discrimination training, equal health coverage for transgender individuals, [and] philanthropic giving to support the LGBTQ community.” The company also offers “We Are One for LGBTQ+ Equality employee resource groups” that are “supported by the company’s senior leadership.”
For Pride Month last year, Duke Energy published an article entitled, “Duke Energy supports Pride Month, all year” announcing its corporate sponsorship of the LGBTQ Pride parade in St. Pete, Florida. The company has also joined the Human Rights Campaign’s Business Coalition for the Equality Act in support of federal legislation that would “provide the same basic protections to LGBTQ people as are provided to other protected groups.”
Despite Duke Energy’s public support of LGBTQ rights, since 2020 Duke Energy has donated $34,000 to Florida legislators who support the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, including $25,000 to Governor DeSantis and $1,000 to Senator Baxley.
Duke Energy did not respond to Popular Information’s request for comment.
AT&T says it "embraces, and stands with LGBTQ+ people," donated $86,000 to the politicians behind the "Don't Say Gay" bill
Last June, AT&T asserted on social media that the company “recognizes, embraces, and stands with LGTBQ+ people.” AT&T also partnered with the Trevor Project during last year’s Pride Month and promoted its contributions to the organization.
Last summer, the company released a statement: “At AT&T we understand that unity starts in our own community, and we are committed to being a company that recognizes, embraces, and standings with LGBT+ people.”
AT&T is also one of the signatories on the Business Coalition for the Equality Act, as well as on a statement organized by HRC opposing “bills being introduced in statehouses across the country that single out LGBTQ individuals - many specifically targeting transgender youth - for exclusion or differential treatment.”
Since 2020, AT&T has donated $86,000 to Florida legislators who support the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, including $80,000 to Governor DeSantis and $500 to Senator Baxley (R).
AT&T did not respond to a request for comment
Walgreens says it stands for "allyship, community, and kindness," donated $28,000 to the politicians behind the "Don't Say Gay" bill
Walgreens also achieved a perfect score in the HRC 2022 Corporate Equality Index. According to the company, it has “a proud legacy of valuing diversity and fostering inclusion more than 100 years-strong, and we're still living that commitment.”
Its parent company, Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA), says it has a “conscious bias for action.” For Pride 2021, WBA “created and encouraged everyone…to use a special Pride Month background when they appeared on video during meetings to express their allyship.” The company listed “allyship, community, and kindness” as the three pillars that guided its Pride Month initiatives.
Yet, since 2020, Walgreens has donated at least $28,000 to DeSantis and at least four lawmakers who voted to move the Florida bill forward.
Walgreens did not respond to a request for comment.
Other corporate supporters of the politicians behind Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill
Other major corporate donors to the Florida politicians supporting the “Don’t Say Gay” bill include Anheuser Busch ($75,000), Charter Communications ($102,000), Publix ($125,000), and the Florida Realtors ($113,000). None of these companies responded to Popular Information's request for comment.
The attack on speech about sexuality and gender is not limited to Florida. According to a new report by PEN America, there are 15 bills in 9 states "silencing speech about LGBTQ+ identities." In Kansas, HB 2662 would make it a Class B misdemeanor for a teacher to use any material in the classroom depicting “homosexuality." In Tennessee, HB 800 would prohibit public K-12 schools from adopting any instructional materials that “promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.”
Many of these provisions are tucked into larger bills that limit how teachers can talk about race and history in classrooms.
CORRECTION: This piece originally reported that the politicians backing the bill received $100,000 since 2020 from the National Association of Realtors. They actually received $113,000 from the Florida Realtors. We regret the error.