The chaos in Florida school libraries
For months, districts across Florida have purged books with LGBTQ characters and themes from school libraries. The removal of these books followed the passage of the Parental Rights in Education Act in 2022, a bill championed by Governor Ron DeSantis (R) and better known as the "Don't Say Gay" law. The new law stated that "classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3." The prohibition was later expanded — first by regulation and later by legislation — through grade 12, with the exception of optional sexual education classes.
While the "Don't Say Gay" law says these restrictions apply to "classroom instruction" — not library books — many Florida school districts used the law as a justification to ban books. Librarians, known in Florida as media specialists, were encouraged to do so by the Florida Department of Education.
A January 2023 training required for all Florida school media specialists emphasized that there was "some overlap between the selection criteria for instructional and library materials." The next slide says that library books and instructional materials cannot include "unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination." A subsequent slide lists "unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination." That list, citing the Parental Rights in Education Act, states that information about "sexual orientation or gender identity" is prohibited for K-3 students.
The media specialists were encouraged to "err on the side of caution" and warned that making books prohibited by Florida law available to students could subject them to third-degree felony charges. Other third-degree felonies, which carry a prison sentence of up to 5 years, include stalking, grand theft, and child abuse. So it's not surprising that some Florida school districts, acting on their own or in response to complaints by right-wing activists, removed books with LGBTQ content from libraries.
Then, the lawsuits started.
In June, the authors of the children's book And Tango Makes Three, and several students sued the Lake County School Board, the Florida Department of Education, and other state officials for removing the book from K-3 library shelves. And Tango Makes Three is the true story of two male Penguins, Roy and Silo, who lived in the Central Park Zoo and raised an adopted chick. According to the lawsuit, Lake County school officials explicitly stated the book was being banned based on the "Don't Say Gay" law.
The lawsuit contends that the removal of And Tango Makes Three violates student rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and by "discriminating based on content and viewpoint, it infringes the authors’ right to freedom of expression." The lawsuit seeks "to stop the abhorrent and discriminatory practice of restricting access to books based on partisan, non-pedagogical motivations." The plaintiffs ask for both an injunction to put And Tango Make Three back on the shelves and a declaration that Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law is unconstitutional.
In response, the Lake County School Board filed an affidavit on July 13, 2023, from its superintendent, Diane Kornegay. She explains the school district removed And Tango Makes Three in an attempt to comply with the media specialist training produced by the Florida Department of Education.
Kornegay states that, on June 21, 2023, she received guidance from the Florida Department of Education that the "age restriction on sexual orientation and gender identity does not apply to library books." The guidance included a legal memorandum filed in a separate case challenging the "Don't Say Gay" law in which attorneys representing Florida state the law "does not even arguably restrict library books."
Kornegay stated that on June 22, 2023, she removed all restrictions on And Tango Makes Three, in an effort to comply with the Florida Department of Education's "new guidance." The judge, therefore, denied the injunction as moot. (The overall case challenging the law as unconstitutional, however, continues.)
There are at least 16 other Florida counties that have removed library books that include LGBTQ characters or themes. Popular Information contacted all of them and asked if the counties would be returning these books to the shelves, consistent with the Florida Department of Education's new position.
None of these counties appear to be taking corrective action. In response to Popular Information's inquiry, the counties either denied that the books were removed based on the "Don't Say Gay" law, said that the books were under review, or failed to respond.
On Monday, the plaintiffs in the Lake County lawsuit filed an amended complaint also naming the Escambia County School District as a defendant. "The state defendants admitted earlier in the litigation that Don’t Say Gay doesn’t apply to school library books, but the state’s knowing allowance of Escambia County to ban school library books shows that the state hasn’t communicated its position, applied it consistently, or done anything to ensure free access to educational books at Florida schools," Lauren Zimmerman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said.
Escambia removed And Tango Makes Three from the shelves in response to a complaint from English teacher Vicki Baggett, who said the book pushes an "LGBTQ agenda using penguins." In an interview with Popular Information last December, Baggett said she was concerned that "a second grader would read this book, and that idea would pop into the second grader's mind… that these are two people of the same sex that love each other." Baggett's former students told Popular Information that she expressed openly racist and homophobic views in class.
Florida school districts continue to ban books with LGBTQ themes
Despite the fact that Florida education officials have clarified that “Don’t Say Gay” does not apply to school library books, school districts across Florida have still not put books that were removed for LGBTQ content back on shelves.
In Broward County School District, the sixth-largest school district in the country, nearly half of the books that have been removed or restricted feature LGBTQ+ themes. One of the books banned from all school libraries is the children’s book A Day with Marlon Bundo, a fictional story about former Vice President Mike Pence’s family bunny. In the story, Marlon Bundo falls in love with another bunny named Wesley, and the two decide to get married. But when the “Stink Bug In Charge” declares that the pair can’t get married because “Boy Bunnies Don’t Marry Boy Bunnies,” the animals in the garden work together to stop the Stink Bug. The book ends with the message, “Love is Forever.”
The book does not contain any sexual or explicit content whatsoever. Common Sense Media, the nonprofit media watchdog group, recommends the book for children ages three and up, and lauds the book for its “positive message about celebrating who you are and loving who you want.”
In October 2022, however, Broward County School District demanded that all school libraries remove A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, after it was challenged for addressing “gender identity content.” The Broward chapter of Moms for Liberty identified the book “as having sexually explicit content or LGBTQ messages the group says violates the Parental Rights in Education law.” One excerpt the group calls out, for example, is the depiction of “two handsome grooms-otters.”
At the time, a district committee argued the book was inappropriate “due to the negativity towards the government.” But this doesn’t add up. One of the positive messages of the book, Common Sense Media notes, is it celebrates democracy. The picture book “introduces the basics of democracy in an age-appropriate way,” Common Sense Media writes.
Additionally, this month, the Miami Herald reported on books that were banned in Broward, including A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo. Based on its review of public records, the news outlet listed “gender identity content” as the “reasoning behind [the] district’s action.”
Popular Information reached out to the school district to ask if the district had plans to lift its ban on A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, given the outcome of the lawsuit against Lake County. The district told Popular Information that it has “not made a decision regarding the title.” The book remains unavailable in school libraries.
In Escambia County School District, a similar pattern is unfolding. Books that were removed for including LGBTQ+ content have not been returned to school library shelves. The school district, for example, removed the children’s book Julian at the Wedding after a complaint was filed by Alisha Sloan. The picture book follows Julian and his cousin Marisol as they attend the wedding of two brides. Common Sense Media gave the book a five-star rating and considers the book appropriate for children three years old and up. “This delightful and visually appealing book celebrates acceptance and love,” the nonprofit writes.
But according to the challenge form, Sloan claims the book “violates HB 1557” and is not “age-appropriate” because of its depiction of “same sex relationships/non-binary characters/alternate sexualities.” As evidence of this, Sloan provides a few images from the book. In one image, she underlines a sentence that reads “Those are the brides, and that’s their dog, Gloria.” She also cites two other pages for including illustrations of same-sex couples.
The book, which is currently under review, has been removed from all elementary school libraries. Escambia County School District told Popular Information it was unable to comment given the ongoing litigation. At this time, Julian at the Wedding is banned from all elementary school libraries.
Similarly, in Seminole County, the school district cited HB 1557 when it restricted access to Jacob’s New Dress from school libraries. The book, which Common Sense Media rates as appropriate for children as young as four, revolves around a boy who likes to wear dresses. The book is currently only available to 4th and 5th graders and requires parental permission and pick-up from the principal. The school district did not respond to Popular Information’s inquiry about if the school district had plans to put the book back on shelves.
Meanwhile, in Clay County School District, the children’s book Julian is a Mermaid has been removed from all libraries. The story revolves around Julian, a boy who dreams of being a mermaid. His abuela is surprised at first to find him dressed as a mermaid, but she quickly comes around and ends up taking him to a mermaid parade. A District Curriculum Council found that the story had a “good message,” but a Challenge Oversight Committee claimed that the story violated Florida's obscenity law. The book does not include any "sexual excitement," "sexual conduct," or any sex whatsoever.
When asked if it planned to restore the book, Clay County School District told Popular Information that they “respect the decision of the committee.”
16 Florida school districts that removed or restricted books with LGBTQ themes
Here are the school districts Popular Information contacted to ask if they were restoring books with LGBTQ themes, along with their responses. All titles listed have been removed or restricted:
Alachua County School District
Books: Ana on the Edge, And Tango Makes Three, Birdie and Me, Call me Max, Julian at the Wedding, Julian is a Mermaid, Melissa (George), My Rainbow, When Aidan Became a Brother
Response: “[E]ach of the titles…referred…were not removed from the library due to a District directive. Ultimately, decisions regarding library books belong to the site-based administrators…There is not a district directive to reinstate the titles in question. That too, would be a site-based decision.”
Broward County School District
Books: A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, Different Kinds of Fruit, It Feels Good to be Yourself, Melissa (George), This Day in June
Response: “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo has been removed from all libraries. All other aforementioned books are restricted based on grades levels referenced and available in all other libraries. At this time, we have not made a decision regarding the title A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo.”
Clay County School District
Books: A Quick & Easy Guide to Queer & Trans Identities, A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns, Julian is a Mermaid, Leah on the Offbeat ,Little & Lion: A Novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, Reverie, Trans Mission: My Quest to a Beard
Response: “Julian is a Mermaid was recommended for removal by a committee. Leah on the Offbeat and Little & Lion: A Novel were removed due to violations of Chapter 847. The remaining titles are awaiting committee.” The district shared that they were not reinstating any books because of “[v]iolation[s] of state statute[s] and in the case of Julian is a Mermaid, we respect the decision of the committee.”
Duval County School District
Books: Almost Perfect, So Hard to Say
Response: No response.
Escambia County School District
Books: And Tango Makes Three, Beetle and the Hollowbones, Born Ready: The Story of a Boy Named Penelope, Calvin, Drama, Flor Fights Back, GLBTQ*: The Survival Guide for Queer & Questioning Teens, Girl Made of Stars, Julian at the Wedding, Melissa (George), My Rainbow, The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James, When Aidan Became a Brother
Response: “Unfortunately, because the issues about which you inquire are deeply intertwined in litigation in which we are currently involved, we are really not able to comment at this time.”
Hamilton County School District
Books: Melissa (George)
Response: Declined to respond.
Highlands County School District
Books: And Tango Makes Three, Drama
Response: No response.
Jackson County School District
Response: No response.
Manatee County School District
Books: Both Can Be True, Families, Families,Families, Fathers Are Part of a Family, I am Jazz, In Our Mothers’ House, Lily and Dunkin, The Family Book, When Aidan Became a Brother
Response: No response.
Martin County School District
Books: Almost Perfect, Ask the Passengers, Drama, Gabi: A Girl in Pieces
Response: No response.
Miami Dade County School District
Books: Daddy’s Roommate
Response: No response.
Okaloosa County School District
Books: Beetle and the Hollowbones, Drama, Girl Made of Stars, The Family Book, Two Boys Kissing
Response: “All of the book titles you have listed below are currently under review by the Okaloosa County School District Review Committee.”
“The books are not available for checkout. Okaloosa County School District is conducting an internal District review of some of its library books whose content might be questionable due to age appropriateness as defined by Section 1006.40 (3)(d), Florida Statutes, and HB 1069 as of July 1, 2023.”
Palm Beach County School District
Books: Ana on the Edge, Call me Max, Calvin, Frankie & Bug, Gracefully Grayson, I am Jazz, It Feels Good To Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity, Lily and Dunkin, Melissa (George), My Rainbow, Rick, The Pants Project, Too Bright to See, When Aidan Became a Brother
Response: “Please note, the Florida Statute does not provide for us to respond to questions."
Seminole County School District
Books: 10,000 Dresses, I am Jazz, Jacob’s New Dress
Response: No response.
St. Johns County School District
Books: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, Call Me By Your Name, Felix Ever After, Fun Home, I am Jazz, It Feels Good To Be Yourself, My Rainbow, Trans+, When Aidan Became a Brother
Response: “Please refer to our website for the information you are seeking. We have all book objections listed and their current status. Here is the link https://www.stjohns.k12.fl.us/media/libraries/”
St. Lucie County School District
Books: Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen, Drama, Melissa (George)
Response: “No, they were removed as a result of the book objection process. The reconsideration committees determined the age appropriateness of the books and made a recommendation based on their conclusions. It was not confusion over HB 1557…For example, And Tango Makes Three was challenged and our committee recommended that it remain in elementary school libraries.”