Florida bans AP psychology classes, proving Ron DeSantis wants a return to the pre-Stonewall days

Over 30,000 students are losing college credit-level classes, because they teach being gay is normal

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 7, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

According to the state of Florida, under the guidance of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, 16- and 17-year-old kids aren't old enough to learn that gender and sexuality have an impact on human development. Well, sort of. Florida has not yet banned school dances, where students frequently bring dates. Students are not yet required to shave their heads and wear nothing but potato sacks to school, to block any display of gender identity. As far as we know, students are still allowed even to say they have a "boyfriend" or "girlfriend." But, according to Florida law, inside the walls of a high school psychology classroom, acknowledgment that humans have gender and sexuality is strictly forbidden.

In DeSantis' Florida, AP psychology has been effectively banned in high school, rather than let students learn "how sex and gender influence socialization and other aspects of development." The psychology class was pulled from the state due to a law signed by DeSantis last year which forbids "classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity."

"Gender exists, sexual orientation exists," an exasperated Florida teacher told Local 10 News in Miami.

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The law is being selectively applied, of course. From school proms to gendered pronouns to sex-segregated bathrooms, the DeSantis government has not cracked down on every way that gender or sexuality is acknowledged in the classroom. The reason the AP psychology class has been singled out is because it acknowledges that LGBTQ people exist. Worse for Republicans, the course refuses to stigmatize LGBTQ people as sickos and perverts. 

Clearly, sexuality and gender are permitted topics in the classroom — as long as the sexuality is straight and the gender is cis. 

When DeSantis first signed the ban on classroom discussion of gender or sexual orientation, critics deemed it the "don't say gay" law, claiming that it was only queer identities that were actually being banned. DeSantis took offense, and  Republicans swung into action, falsely implying that the law was only meant to keep explicit sex talk out of the classroom. But of course, the critics were soon proved right, as book bans came down that were so draconian that teachers were forced to put their entire classroom libraries out of reach of kids. What the hundreds of titles that have been banned have in common is not explicit sexuality. They are books that show LGBTQ people as normal, tell the truth about racism, or portray sexism as an oppressive force in society. Sexy books that are pro-patriarchy, it should be noted, have not been targeted for bans. 

This attack on the AP psychology course is more of the same. The letter sent from the Florida Education Board to the College Board, which sets standards for advanced placement courses, cites a ban on "classroom instruction" on "sexual orientation or gender identity." The board has not made similar moves, however, to censor classroom materials that teach, say, that married straight couples exist. Books are not being banned for saying "man" or "woman" or even "husband" or "wife." Clearly, sexuality and gender are permitted topics in the classroom — as long as the sexuality is straight and the gender is cis. 

As the College Board noted in their response, "The American Psychological Association recently reaffirmed that any course that excludes these topics would violate their guidelines and should not be considered for college credit." It's not a great leap to suggest that what DeSantis and his allies object to is that the American Psychological Association (APA) doesn't just acknowledge the existence of queer sexualities or trans identities, but that they affirm these identities as normal and healthy. The APA's website notes, "Both heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality." The site also argues, "identifying as transgender does not constitute a mental disorder." It's not much of a leap to say that these are the ideas that DeSantis and his allies are objecting to, instead of a general opposition to acknowledging that sex and gender are real and influence people's lives. 

"This law is yet another attempt to erase LGBTQ+ people from public view based on biased thinking and irrational fear," APA CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr. said in a statement. 

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It wasn't always true that the psychological establishment was willing to admit that gender non-conformity and queer sexualities are healthy.  It wasn't until 1973, four years after the famous Stonewall riot that helped kick off the modern gay rights movement, that the American Psychiatric Association stopped classifying "homosexuality" as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Trans people are still often diagnosed with "gender dysphoria," which many say is unfairly stigmatizing. But there's been a hesitance to change that, mainly because such a diagnosis can make it easier to get insurance coverage for the recommended treatment, which is gender transition. 

By making this move, DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida Education Board are attacking the past five decades of the psychological establishment affirming LGBTQ identities as normal and healthy. There's little doubt Republicans would be fine with allowing high school students to take AP psychology courses if the lessons were from pre-Stonewall days and taught that gay people are "sick." Doing so would not just be morally reprehensible, but flat-out dishonest. As both the College Board and the APA have repeatedly reiterated, they didn't just invent "gay is OK!" out of thin air. It's the conclusion of decades of scientific research that shows, again and again, that the only mental health issues that stem from LGBTQ identities are the undeserved hate they face from society. 

Of course, DeSantis has made it clear that he is not interested in facts, science, or history. He believes he can and should rewrite reality to conform to his own small-minded bigotries. He wants to believe slavery was a beneficial gift white people gave to Black people, and so now Florida schools are required to teach lies about how it "benefited" Black people to be enslaved. He wants to believe LGBTQ people are "sick" and "groomers," so he will ban classes that teach the scientific consensus that shows otherwise. 

This is bigotry, but also part of a larger war DeSantis is waging on the value of public education itself. Around 30,000 Florida students were scheduled to take the AP psychology course this year, and the vast majority of them were hoping to use it as part of the larger goal to get a college education. Many of them would have been able to use the high school course for college credit, which helps many kids save on tuition and graduate faster. Others were using it to enhance their GPA and resume, to get scholarships or placement in their preferred universities. 

But even though DeSantis graduated from Yale and Harvard Law, he takes a dim view of other people trying to avail themselves of the same opportunities for higher education. He's been waging a full-scale assault on universities in Florida, driving out academic talent and turning the once-beloved New College into a right-wing indoctrination mill.  He claims this is about a war on "woke," which is, at best, a vaguely defined term and usually a racist dog whistle. But the dripping contempt he has for educators shines through in every word he says on this subject. Education is about teaching people to grapple with reality and develop critical thinking, both skills DeSantis loathes. So of course he hates education and is just using these shiny culture war distractions as cover for what is a larger attempt to turn his state into a hotbed of ignorance. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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