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Some Florida school districts are adopting inclusive LGBTQ guidelines

A law that says only doctors can prescribe gender-affirming treatments is causing problems for transgender patients who have relied on nurse practitioners to access care.
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A law that says only doctors can prescribe gender-affirming treatments is causing problems for transgender patients who have relied on nurse practitioners to access care.

State legislation that took effect in 2023 restricted the use of preferred pronouns and names in public schools.

HB1069, which expanded upon the "Parental Rights in Education" bill known by opponents as the "Don't Say Gay" law, in part prohibits teachers from using their preferred pronouns that don't correspond with their biological sex. It also prevents school staff from asking students for their preferred pronouns.

However, some school districts are adopting policies that allow students to use their preferred pronoun and name with parental consent.

Equality Florida, a civil rights and LGBTQ+ advocacy group, works with school districts to create these inclusive guidelines that touch upon pronoun usage, dress codes, bathroom use and other LGBTQ-related issues.

"We work with lawyers that interpret the Florida legislation and we make sure that school districts are using affirming language while operating within the scope of the law," said Esme Rodriguez, coordinator of Equality Florida's Safe and Healthy Schools team in Pinellas.

According to the nonprofit, about ten school districts across the state — including Pinellas and Hillsborough — have adopted some form of an LGBTQ guide that clarifies state laws and aims to "mitigate harm" towards LGBTQ students and staff.

Other districts that have adopted or are finalizing inclusive guidelines are Orange, Palm Beach, Broward, Leon, Alachua and Dade counties. A handful of other districts are working on providing that information, according to Equality Florida.

Rodriguez said that these guides help clear up some of the confusion surrounding pronoun usage in public schools.

"A lot of school districts were like, 'Oh my gosh, can we use this transgender student's pronouns?' And yes, you can, if there's parent or guardian signature and permission," said Rodriguez. "When we're talking about parental rights, it's about all parents, right?"

However, according to state law, teachers and other school staff are not required to use the preferred pronoun if it goes against their beliefs.

In that case, Rodriguez said their team works with the school to place the student in a classroom where their gender identity can be recognized.

"If there's a child who needs different pronouns, and the teacher is not comfortable using those pronouns, let's work with the administrator to get that student into a classroom where they're affirmed because kids can't learn if they're not respected for who they are," said Rodriguez.

The Safe and Healthy Schools team is also advocating for more single-stall gender neutral bathrooms in response to another bill that requires people to use public bathrooms that align with their sex assigned at birth.

"We're working with principals and administrators across the state to make sure that they survey their campuses, and that they have as many one-stall, door-locking gender neutral restrooms for anyone who desires increased privacy. That's for any student, not just LGBTQ students," said Rodriguez.

Equality Florida's Safe and Healthy Schools Project was created in 2018, but Rodriguez said the work has ramped up along with legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community in recent years.

School districts have struggled to interpret the broad wording in state laws restricting classroom instruction on gender, sexuality and pronoun use. The vagueness has caused a chilling effect, according to Rodriguez.

"Sometimes teachers are scared to use a student's affirmed pronoun because they don't want to do anything against the law and lose their teaching credentials," said Rodriguez. "So those guides protect the teachers and the district and have gone through the school board attorneys."

Hillsborough County Public Schools released an updated version of their LGBTQ+ Critical Resource Guide last year after it faced scrutiny from the State Department of Education for not complying with new state laws.

Pinellas County district has also posted its Inclusive Support Guide online.

The districts provided guidance on how to ensure transgender students have access to restrooms and locker rooms "that best provides for the safety and dignity of the student."

The resource guides also clarify that students have the freedom of expression to wear clothing of their choice even if its not "stereotypically associated with their biological sex" as long as they comply with standard dress codes.

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Nancy Guan