A group of students attend a rally in support of the Walking Out to Learn! Protest in Miami Beach to protest against the educational policies implemented by the State of Florida on Friday April 21, 2023. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via AP)


Teachers in North Carolina, Arkansas, Iowa, and Indiana are beginning their school years newly stripped of their right to say “gay.” 

North Carolina’s legislature overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto in August, making it the fourth state to pass a “Don’t Say Gay” law in 2023. Iowa and Indiana passed similar bills into law in May, and Arkansas passed their copycat law in March.

The original “Don’t Say Gay” law, HB 1557, was passed in Florida in 2022, and prohibited any instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3. In 2023, the legislature expanded the prohibition to grades K-8, and the Board of Education in turn expanded it to all grade levels. In Iowa, the prohibition extends through the sixth grade, in Arkansas through the fourth, and in Indiana, “human sexuality” – a term left undefined – cannot be discussed prior to third grade.

In Florida, HB 1557 is at the heart of a conflict over AP Psychology this summer. State officials claimed the course could only be taught if portions related to sexuality and gender were stripped from the curriculum, which the College Board rejected. The battle led to widespread confusion, with school districts rearranging course catalogs and canceling book orders and students scrambling to change their college readiness plans, even after the ban was walked back. 

The law has also contributed to a rise in book bans in the state, as picture books about LGBTQ+ characters were banned in several districts in compliance with HB 1557. In Lake County, that included And Tango Makes Three, a picture book about two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who adopted a baby penguin. HB 1557 has been cited by LGBTQ+ families as a reason for feeling threatened in public schools, with over half of them considering leaving the state altogether.

Except for Arkansas, the new laws also include provisions that would require teachers or administrators to “out” trans students to their parents. These provisions, which PEN America considers a form of “educational intimidation,” force teachers to police student gender presentation or nicknames, chilling student expression and eroding trust between students, teachers, and families.

One trans student in Florida described the approval process for nicknames and pronouns under HB 1557 to New York Magazine, saying that each time they were called by their old name, “my stomach dropped” and that such laws and procedures “keep us from being able to feel normal.” A teacher in the same county said she no longer uses pronouns for students at all.

Bills including similar “outing” provisions have been vetoed in North Dakota, Louisiana, and Arizona. They are law or executive policy in Alabama, Virginia, Oklahoma, Idaho, Kentucky, and Utah.

Educational gag orders that PEN America considers “Don’t Say Gay” variants have been introduced in at least 23 states.