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Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill has been a magnet for far-right outrage and conspiracy theories. If you think those attitudes could never take hold in Canada, don’t be so sure

Opponents and supporters of Florida's Parental Rights in Education legislation – better known as the 'Don't Say Gay' bill – confront each other outside Walt Disney World in Orlando on April 16.Octavio Jones/Reuters

Republican leaders and right-wing activists who are stripping LGBTQ-positive materials from classrooms across the United States are so savage in their pursuit that when Disney dared to object, they accused the entertainment giant of becoming an agent of pedophiles, of grooming susceptible children for sexual predators. Yes, it’s complete and utter lunacy. But this is what the American right has become.

Radical conspiracy theories married to restrictive new laws about what can be taught in classrooms have put progress toward full equality for LGBTQ people in the United States at risk. And because America is so culturally powerful, that puts LGBTQ people in Canada at risk as well.

Many of the organizers of the trucker-convoy protests that gripped Ottawa earlier this year have made statements or have ties to groups that are homophobic or transphobic. If Canada was capable of world-leading demonstrations and blockades in opposition to pandemic-prevention measures, it could also be capable of importing growing American intolerance toward sexual and gender minorities.

Plywood covers a window beside a rainbow flag at an Ottawa coffee shop on Feb. 3, after convoy protesters smashed it.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The Disney-as-groomer conspiracy theory came out of the controversy surrounding Florida’s Parental Rights in Education legislation, more commonly known as the Don’t Say Gay” bill, which states: “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3.” The bill became law in March.

Walt Disney World is one of Florida’s largest employers. After initially staying silent, the company came out in opposition to the new law, stating: “Our goal as a company is for the law to be repealed, or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that.”

This prompted a furious reaction from some conservatives, including Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who accused Disney of participating in the “radical sexualization of children.”

“They’re basically exploiting them, brainwashing them, indoctrinating them,” she told conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. “It’s hard to believe that Disney, Walt Disney, the Walt Disney Company would be the very place that this is happening.”

“They’ve been putting weird stuff in their movies for a long time,” right-wing activist Sean Feucht told a crowd earlier this month outside Disney’s headquarters in Burbank, Calif. “But now they’re actively fighting for children to be sexually indoctrinated as a kindergartner.”

“Conservative parents and families all over this country are in revolt against the Mouse,” conservative activist Christopher Rufo told a sympathetic Laura Ingraham on Fox News, “because they don’t want their kids to be an experimental ground for the kind of sexual engineering of children that is clearly Disney’s gambit.”

In retribution for Disney’s opposition to the Don’t Say Gay law, the state’s House of Representatives passed legislation on Thursday that will strip Walt Disney World of its right to operate as its own municipality, a major tax saving for the company. An angry Gov. Ron DeSantis is behind the bill.

On April 16, a protester in a mouse costume takes selfies with Don't Say Gay supporters outside Walt Disney World; on March 22, Disney employees in Glendale, Calif., and cast member Nicholas Maldonado in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., oppose the legislation. Octavio Jones and Ringo Chiu/Reuters; Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

At least a dozen states are contemplating legislation similar to Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law. Some would go further.

Tennessee is considering a bill that would ban any teaching materials “that promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender issues or lifestyle.”

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, which advocates for LGBTQ rights, doesn’t think that particular bill will pass, “though anything is possible.”

But he sees the legislation as part of a broader move to claw back gains made by women, racial minorities and sexual and gender minorities in recent decades.

And he is alarmed by the way in which lunatic conspiracy theories such as QAnon – which posits, in part, that Democrats and others in positions of power are part of a satanic cult of pedophiles – are going mainstream. There are Republicans in state legislatures and Congress, including Ms. Taylor Greene, who promote QAnon conspiracies.

As a result, Mr. Sanders said, “people who would never join QAnon, or have anything to do with it, get influenced by that discourse. And now, suddenly, everyone is being accused of being a groomer for anything.”

A man holds a QAnon sign at a 2018 Trump rally in Wilkes Barre, Pa.Rick Loomis/Getty Images

We have returned to the 1970s and 1980s, when public figures such as singer Anita Bryant campaigned against rights for sexual minorities, making baseless claims that they were pedophiles.

“Homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit,” Ms. Bryant liked to say. It took many years to banish such thinking. Now it’s back.

“Both discrimination and violence based on people’s sexual orientation, gender identity and expression are on the rise,” said Stephen Seaborn, North American and Caribbean co-chair of ILGA, a global federation of non-profit organizations that represents sexual and gender minorities. “And that’s true of Canada as well.”

A 2021 report by Statistics Canada stated that there was a 41-per-cent increase in hate crimes targeting sexual orientation in 2019, marking the highest number of such incidents since 2009 (though there was a slight decline in 2020).

What is behind this rising LGBTQ intolerance? You might as well ask what was behind the attack on the Capitol Building in January, 2021, or why so many people believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen, or why some people saw COVID-19 vaccine mandates and passports, and even the vaccines themselves, as elements of some vast conspiracy to limit personal freedom.

Many of those who voted for president Donald Trump, who voted for the People’s Party in Canada, who supported Brexit in Great Britain, who support Marine Le Pen’s bid to become president of France resist the global flow of goods and services and people, resist non-white immigration, resist full equality for women, resist equality for sexual and gender minorities.

“What we are seeing is a backlash: a terrifying, horrible, violent, absurd backlash to real progress that’s being made for our community,” Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group GLSEN, told Education Week.

“It makes me sad and angry the way that children in particular and our trans siblings are being targeted this way.”

The new restrictions are as distressing to progressives in the United States as they are to many Canadians.

Earlier this week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki broke down in tears when asked about the growing intolerance of some Republicans toward sexual and gender minorities.

“They’re doing that in a way that is harsh and cruel to a community of kids, especially,” she told an interviewer.

“I’m going to get emotional about this issue because it’s horrible,” she said. “But it’s kids who are bullied, and all these leaders are taking steps to hurt them, and hurt their lives and hurt their families.”

Drag queen Scalene Onixxx reads to adults and children at Cellar Door Books in Riverside, Calif., in 2019.FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Depriving children of exposure to sexual and gender diversity harms those children. Some are more likely to feel empowered to bully other children whom they identify as LGBTQ. Children who are questioning their sexual or gender identity are more likely to feel isolated and inferior. And gay and trans kids face a greater risk of violence.

A recent analysis by Egale, a Canadian organization that advocates for LGBTQ rights, says that 10 per cent of hate crimes in Canada target sexual and gender minorities.

“Individuals who are victims of hate crimes on the basis of their sexual orientation tended to be the youngest among hate crime victims,” the report states, “and sustain the highest proportion of injury.”

On the flip side, there is strong evidence that including representations of sexual and gender minorities in the early years of a curriculum, while incorporating other policies that encourage an attitude of inclusiveness, contributes to reduced violence and stigmatization.

A 2011 national survey of attitudes in schools toward sexual and gender minorities conducted by researchers at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg found widespread levels of homophobia and transphobia, including verbal and physical harassment and violence, within Canadian schools. In the intervening years, most provincial and territorial governments instigated reforms that aimed to make school safer and more inclusive for LGBTQ youth.

Those policies worked, at least in part. A second survey released last year showed a marked decline in verbal and physical harassment of gay students, though they were still harassed far more than their heterosexual peers. There had been no real improvement for trans students.

Protesters rally at a courthouse in Medicine Hat in 2018 to oppose an Alberta law affecting gay-straight alliances in schools.Lauren Krugel/The Canadian Press

“It’s vitally important” to include materials in the early years of school that reinforce positive images for sexual and gender minorities, along with other policies that support LGBTQ students, said Christopher Campbell, one of the report’s researchers.

He pointed to data that showed greatly improved levels of mental health among LGBTQ students in schools that included anti-homophobia and transphobia policies, gay-straight alliance clubs and other supports compared to schools that lacked such measures.

“We now have actual baseline measures that show when you have these policies in place in a comprehensive and fair way, 2SLGBTQ students do much better,” he said.

In the early years of school, “children establish gender boundaries for themselves and for each other,” said Lance McCready, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

“Students who cross those boundaries and do things that are not considered normal can become targets for teasing and, in the worst-case scenario, harassment.”

The right materials and supports can reduce that teasing and harassment: “It’s important for students to have a sense of equity, of human rights, of good citizenship,” he said. “It’s important that we start teaching that early.”

On March 3, Hillsborough High School students in Tampa, Fla., oppose the Don't Say Gay bill; On March 26, Pride parade marchers in Tampa sport rainbow-coloured mouse ears and anti-DeSantis posters. Octavio Jones/Reuters and Getty Images

The inclusive policies that are in place in most Canadian provinces and schools stand in marked contrast to those in Florida and other red states, which not only lack those policies but are moving to ban them.

So far, there appears to be little chance of those policies migrating north. Before he became Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Premier, Doug Ford vowed to review the province’s sexual-education curriculum. But the review led to no substantive changes.

Social conservatives have had marked success in banning LGBTQ-affirming books from school libraries in some states. Such campaigns have been less successful in Canada, in part thanks to a 2002 Supreme Court ruling overturning book-banning efforts: “Tolerance is always age-appropriate,” a majority of judges declared.

While some federal Conservative MPs opposed Liberal legislation banning conversion therapy – a noxious practice that falsely claims to be able to reorient LGBTQ people as straight and cisgender – the party ultimately offered unanimous support.

The People’s Party of Canada, led by Maxime Bernier, railed during the 2021 federal election campaign about “radical gender ideology.” But it received only 5 per cent of the vote.

Some people fear that the large crowds Conservative leadership contender Pierre Poilievre is drawing may suggest he is riding the sort of right-wing populist wave that brought Mr. Trump to the White House. But it is worth noting that Thornhill MP Melissa Lantsman and Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry MP Eric Duncan, both of whom are gay, support Mr. Poilievre’s bid.

A Pierre Poilievre poster hangs from a truck in Ottawa on Feb. 16 during the convoy protests.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Still, it doesn’t take much to imagine a right-wing populist backlash emerging in Canada, one that eventually targets schools and promotes the rights of parents to determine what their children are taught about sexuality and gender, as opposed to the needs of the students themselves.

“Schools are ideological battlegrounds,” Prof. McCready says. The move in some states to ban mentioning LGBTQ issues in the classroom is part of a larger backlash against the social progress of the past half-century, which includes the rights of women, racialized people and sexual minorities. It would be surprising if a similar backlash didn’t manifest itself here.

That would be a loss for Canadian students and for Canadian society. This country has a tendency to mimic, in milder form, ideological movements in the United States. Let’s not ever mimic these attacks on the right of children in schools to be themselves.

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