Utah lawmaker proposes state version of Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

Rep. Jeff Stenquist said he didn’t mean to copy the law from Florida but adds “some of the language was borrowed.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Pride flag waves at a Utah home on Feb. 12, 2022. A state lawmakers published a bill on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, that would prohibit some elementary classroom discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation.

A Utah lawmaker is running a bill that would prohibit any discussion of sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade classrooms — legislation that directly copies language from a Florida law that was widely panned and referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” measure by opponents.

LGBTQ groups in Utah have lined up with concerns and fears about what one called a “copy and paste culture war bill.”

The controversial proposal from Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, was published late Thursday, with roughly a week left in this year’s legislative session. While acknowledging its eleventh hour appearance, Stenquist said he felt it was important to draft HB550 after a mom came to him with concerns about the talk happening in her child’s classroom.

“She felt some of the discussions were inappropriate for that grade level,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Stenquist said he looked for guidelines in state statute about discussing subjects around gender and sexuality and didn’t find any. His bill would block any instruction on the topics for student in third grade and below.

In other grades, any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity would be banned if it is “not age or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards,” according to the language of HB550. That includes any talk from a teacher or adult coming to speak at a district or charter school.

Stenquist’s bill says the definitions of what those subjects include and what is or isn’t appropriate will be up to each school and school district to determine.

“I think that it’s really common sense and straight forward,” he said.

The text of the bill is almost a word for word match for Florida’s law, which was signed by the governor there in March 2022.

That reads: “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

That measure has been championed by conservatives and challenged by Democrats and other prominent opponents. The disapproval has included staff at Disney, one of the biggest employers in Florida, who staged walkouts to protest the measure. The company later released a statement — after concerns about its tepid response — standing with its employees, urging state lawmakers to repeal the law or for the courts to declare it unconstitutional.

President Joe Biden also called it “hateful.”

Stenquist said Thursday that it “wasn’t my intention to do what Florida did,” though he acknowledged “some of the language was borrowed from the Florida.”

Though early, the measure in Utah is prompting a similar backlash. Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said it was “deeply disappointing” to see the proposal here.

The bill comes after the Legislature already passed this session — and the governor signed — a measure banning gender-affirming health care for most transgender minors here. That happened just nine days into the 45-day annual gathering of lawmakers.

Williams said the mirrored Utah version of the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation is “only used to stoke political division.” He said Stenquist never reached out to Equality Utah to try to find a middle ground, like lawmakers did this session on conversion therapy. And he believes the bill isn’t necessary.

Children in kindergarten through third grade aren’t taught about those topics, Williams said — nor are those older than that.

Utah’s health standards for sex education don’t include any LGBTQ terms, for instance. The state teaches an abstinence-based curriculum in those classes.

Williams also pointed to state lawmakers in Utah previously passing a similar bill in 1997 and then repealing it in 2017.

That measure was called the “no promo homo” law and it prohibited advocacy of same-sex relationships in public schools’ health classes. Equality Utah had sued the state for having the discriminatory policy and then agreed to work with legislators to repeal it instead.

“Stenquist is recycling this, not aware that we already dealt with this a few years ago,” Williams added. “He’s just stoking the tired old cultural war for his own political gain.”

The bill was not immediately assigned to a committee for a hearing. Monday is likely the last day in the session for those meetings to happen.