As states consider bills restricting discussions on diversity in schools, Florida and Tennessee both have bills that may have effects far beyond the classroom.
Originally published by The 19th
Sara Luterman, Caregiving reporter
As state lawmakers advance dozens of bills to restrict discussion of race, gender, and sexuality in schools, at least two states are also considering wider-ranging bills that may have effects far beyond the classroom, including on LGBTQ+ sensitivity training for eldercare.
Last week, the Florida legislature advanced the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees, or Stop WOKE, Act. It’s one of two state-level bills — the other is in Tennessee — that would address diversity training for private companies and nonprofit employees. Most similar legislation, including some already passed in Florida, has a narrower focus, such as banning LGBTQ books from school libraries or restricting what teachers can talk about. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the Stop WOKE legislation at a December rally.
“It’s been clear from the beginning that this is one of the governor’s top priorities,” Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida, told The 19th. Equality Florida is the state’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization and one of the organizations spearheading opposition in Tallahassee.
While the majority of the bill deals with K-12 classrooms, some sections would regulate diversity training conducted by any private business or nonprofit organization. While the governor’s office said the legislation does not ban such training sessions, advocates say it could make them almost impossible to provide. One service that may be impacted: LGBTQ+ competency training for eldercare providers. While progress has been made on LGBTQ+ civil rights, queer seniors still face discrimination, poverty and abuse.
“The threat of these bills has had a chilling effect on other environments where these difficult conversations are taking place,” Wolf said. “I don’t think people understand how much will be impacted by a bill like this. They think of it in classroom settings, but the truth is, private companies will be impacted, senior living facilities will be impacted. Everywhere we have embedded diversity and inclusion training is at risk.”
Advocates for the Stop WOKE Act and similar legislation say students are being taught concepts that further divisions in society.
“The governor believes each person should be treated as an individual, with unique experiences, skills, and interests, and given the opportunities to find success and fulfillment. Stereotyping people as members of ‘oppressed’ or ‘oppressor’ identity groups based on the color of their skin, has no place in our diverse society. … Nobody should be forced to take discriminatory, racialist indoctrination at school or at work,” said Christina Pushaw, the press secretary for DeSantis. The response from the governor’s office did not address gender or sexual orientation directly.
At a recent speech at the conservative Common Sense Society, DeSantis attacked diversity, equity and inclusion training in both schools and private businesses, calling it “a religion of the Left infecting institutions, big corporate America, big tech, the bureaucracy, academia.”
“The goal is to delegitimize the founding of this country … to tear at the fabric of our society,” he said.
If the Stop WOKE Act or similar legislation that goes beyond public K-12 school passes, it may leave eldercare agencies and other businesses and nonprofits serving adults in a bind.
“There’s a risk that if someone was made to feel uncomfortable, they would be open to legal liability,” Wolf told The 19th.
SAGE provides competency trainings for eldercare providers, including at over two dozen sites in Florida. It is one of the only groups in the nation providing this service and, according to Wolf, one of the organizations that may be impacted if the Stop WOKE Act passes in Florida.
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Tim Johnston, the senior education adviser at SAGE, told The 19th that most SAGE trainings are not the result of an incident or the anticipation of an incident. For many, having staff trained on diversity can be a selling point to potential clients. SAGE offers a number of specialized trainings, on topics including bullying, Alzheimer’s disease and transgender aging.
“The majority of groups sign up proactively, because they think it’s the correct thing to do, or because they’re looking to distinguish their services from those of their competitors,” he said.
Johnston walked The 19th through a typical SAGECare training. First, eldercare providers like nursing home employees and home health aides learn about language clients may prefer or find offensive. Then, they learn the stories of LGBTQ elders, to better understand the people they care for.
“Historical information is crucial to understanding where [LGBTQ seniors] are coming from and for being sensitive to their perspective. Anything that would mean we couldn’t talk about a person’s historical experience within our country, within our cultural and political landscape, would make it extremely difficult to accomplish that goal,” Johnston said.
At the end, there is a period of time for questions at the end. “I love when people say ‘I had no idea how much I didn’t know about this topic,’” Johnston said.
Johnston said some people will say they feel the training is against their beliefs, either religious or political.
“We’ll often ask them to hang in there for a while and see if their opinion changes once they get into it,” he said. “Sometimes people approach [our trainings] thinking that it’s going to be political in orientation, but they quickly learn that’s really not what we’re doing.”