- I cover culture wars in politics, including controversies that have enraged some parents.
- When I visited Florida, I found another angry parent — my own.
- At issue: Disney’s objection to a law known by critics as “Don’t Say Gay.”
One of the first questions my mother asks when my family and I plan to visit her in Florida, aside from what to cook, is which parks we want to hit in Disney.
Mom is a 70-something Mouseketeer, a Disney devotee since my childhood. She has loved taking my daughter there. But ahead of our latest visit, Disney never came up. My husband and I wondered why until it dawned on us: “Could the reason be political?”
We got our answer in mid-April in my mother’s kitchen: “Have you read the bill?” she asked.
For the past several months, I have been covering culture wars in politics, including the controversies over books and the teaching of racial and LGBTQ+ issues in schools that have enraged some parents. In this instance, the angry parent was my own.
At issue is the Parental Rights in Education legislation that Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed into law. Opponents call the bill “Don’t Say Gay” because it restricts classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in schools. Disney’s opposition to the law has led to anti-Disney protests at the company headquarters in Burbank, California, and apparently 3,000 miles away in my conservative mother’s kitchen.
I generally expect her to take the Republican position on issues. However, I did not expect my mother – an annual pass holder – to dis Disney.
Those magical memories
I spent my earliest years keeping track of the date on a calendar my dad created that counted down the days to our Disney vacation. I helped finance these vacations by wrapping quarters that came from a washing machine my dad owned in a relative’s apartment building. (We later joked that it was “laundered money.”) My parents even dragged me there in my 20s, and to my horror, relived all of those magical memories.
While driving to Florida this time, my husband and I secretly were relieved that Mom hadn’t brought up visiting Disney, not because of the politics, but the crowds, interminable lines, and potential COVID-19 risks.
I would have been happy to avoid discussing hot topics with my mom, too. As with many families, our relatives’ differing political perspectives have only sharpened in recent years. Family gatherings often include someone — such as Mom — turning on Fox News and another family member quickly turning it off or turning on CNN or MSNBC. Someone comments on the news and you know all hell’s about to break loose.
Mom and I have had private words about social media posts. And I’ll admit I kind of snapped when she once described a professional women’s soccer player as “unpatriotic” in front of my soccer-loving daughter, who looks up to these players and shouldn’t have to hear them being disparaged. We sat far apart for the remainder of that day.
None of this is surprising at a time when political divisiveness across the country is fierce, and some political scientists aren’t even ruling out the idea of a civil war. But with family, there is always the tension between taking a stand and taking a seat at the same holiday dinner table. I didn’t want our visit to devolve into a series of disagreements and people choosing sides.
‘Disney is persona non grata’
My 9-year-old daughter and I inadvertently launched a Disney discussion when we couldn’t stop singing, “We don’t talk about Bruno,” from “Encanto,” a Disney movie about another family with communication challenges. And suddenly the song that has everyone talking got us talking, too.
“Disney is persona non grata around here,” Mom said, pointing to the “bad position” the company took on the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill. Mom wanted me to know that the bill doesn’t say “Don’t Say Gay” and that parents should have these discussions with children, not schools.
It’s the abusive parents I worry about, I told her, and I later read the preamble of the bill to her that says: “prohibiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner.”
The reporter in me likes to fill in information and present different perspectives, hopefully without being ostracized by family like poor “Bruno” for telling it like it is. Luckily it didn’t end up that way and we’re still on good terms. “We talked. That’s how it’s supposed to be,” Mom said, reflecting later on the discussion.
As a parent, I understand how certain topics in school can make some parents – particularly those with young children – uneasy. I told my mother that I initially had my own concerns when my young daughter had an opportunity to learn about health, relationships, reproduction, and safety in a class outside of school.
I wanted her to learn factual information in an inclusive way, but I wondered how it would be presented. So I took the training for volunteer class leaders.
I learned two things from this experience. One is that children ask questions about all sorts of things in a classroom setting because they’re curious and they live in a diverse world with people from different family structures. Secondly, it’s important for the responses to be factual and matter-of-fact.
‘I just want kids to be kids’
As I learned in the training, children absorb the responses as you would a musical, taking in the melody perhaps before the lyrics. The point: If you introduce tension, that will be the takeaway.
I told my mother I could see children raising any number of questions in school. What if a teacher feels prevented from answering them or being there to support a child who needs help?
I’ve read that Republicans say the law only affects planned lessons, but critics say it could censor teachers’ discussions with their students. How it will be interpreted is unclear.
“I just want kids to be kids,” Mom said, and not have to worry about complex issues at a young age.
Kids are still kids, and they will be, I told her. It’s just the adults and politicians that are worried.
While in Florida, I interviewed a gay and nonbinary teen who has become an outspoken critic of the law. I asked Will Larkins, 17, what he would tell a parent who is concerned about the topics coming up in school.
He said these conversations are not harmful, the topics are a fact of life, and his life would have been “drastically better” if he had had learned about sexuality and gender identity during his formative years.
“I wouldn’t have probably dealt with as much bullying as I did,” he said. “And I wouldn’t have, you know, had the internal struggle of what is wrong with me? Why am I like this?”
The law is homophobic, a family member privately said to me later. I shared that perspective with my mother, but she considered it an “exaggeration.”
Nothing changed at the end of our discussion, but she listened, I listened. She said she saw a different side. And I understand that change can be hard. I’m sure my mother isn’t the first septuagenarian to look at the world now and think it’s spinning too fast.
At the very least, we may have accomplished a rarity: A quiet conversation between family members discussing different perspectives on a political issue.
We talked about Bruno and even watched “Encanto.” Perhaps that’s a start.