Apr 8, 2022

Your criticism, my response.

We're revisiting the new legislation in Florida and the Disney controversy.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Every once in a while, a newsletter we publish generates enough feedback and criticism that I feel it's necessary to follow up on it.

The last time I did a post like this was after I defended Joe Rogan, and Spotify's decision not to de-platform him. That newsletter drew a lot of outrage, mostly from the left, as well as plenty of emails from readers informing me they were unsubscribing. This time, I carved out a fairly strong position with the left, and the readers who wrote in upset — and told me they were leaving — were largely on the right (though quite a few angry liberals wrote in, too!).

As I said a couple of days ago, my priorities with Tangle are the following: 1) Make sure you see a wide range of political views from across the spectrum. Fundamentally, this is about getting everyone out of their bubbles. 2) Make sure the information you consume here is accurate and vetted. And 3) When giving my own opinion, be as honest and fair as I possibly can.

Sometimes, even when I try to be honest and fair, I end up landing strongly on one side of the aisle or the other. If I have a strong opinion about something, I view it as my responsibility to be honest about that — rather than hide behind an attempt to take some more centrist stance. Given all that, I also think I have a responsibility to address criticism head-on. So that's what today is about.

Before I begin, I’d like to note two things. First, I reached out to Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who has driven a lot of the coverage about critical race theory in schools, the Florida Parental Rights in Education bill, and news cycles around Disney. I invited him on the podcast and to sit for an interview I planned to transcribe in Tangle. His team declined. His assistant cited a busy schedule that wouldn't free up for weeks. I promised to follow up, and I will. I've criticized Rufo a lot and I'd like to give him a chance to address those criticisms.

Second, there is no doubt that I come to this conversation with my own biases. My politics are all over the place, but when it comes to LGBTQ issues, I see a lot more of my worldview on the left than I do on the right. Many of my closest friends identify as LGBTQ. I love them with all my heart, and after reading through some of the feedback to this edition, I feel inclined to defend their dignity and point out their humanity. And, importantly, to try and accurately represent what I understand their perspectives and experiences to be.

There is no way around that reality, and I’m not trying to pretend otherwise. If you don’t agree with me, all I can ask is that you read my writing with an open mind, and that you trust me when I say I have thought a great deal about these issues and am trying to approach them as fairly and openly on my end as I possibly can. And, for whatever it’s worth, this isn’t a particularly convenient position for me to take, given the polling on this bill that shows a slim majority of Americans supporting it.

Below, I've put some reader feedback in bold and then my responses. When the feedback is in quotation marks, that is a sign it is a verbatim response from a reader. Many readers responded with similar feedback, and so in most cases I've tried to summarize their positions into one piece of criticism to address. I've done this as honestly as I could.

"As a parent and now a grandparent, I find all of this disgusting. We’re speaking about children under the age of 10. I do not think school or Disney should be talking sexual subjects with children. That is a parent’s job. Please allow our children their innocence. That’s all parents are asking. I do not live in Florida but I totally support Gov. DeSantis’ bill. Call me old fashioned but I still think we need to support families and parent’s role in their children’s upbringing."

My response: I sent a similar answer to a few readers, and tweeted about this, but I'd like to start off by doing it again here. Let's take a step back.

The arguments about Florida's Parental Rights in Education/"Don't Say Gay" bill have gotten so convoluted there is no longer any meaningful conversation happening on the issue. When this started, the actual debate that we were having was about whether we should prohibit teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation to K-3 kids. I think everyone agrees that a school’s primary role is to educate children in math, science, language, etc. The classics. This is what I believe, and what most conservatives and liberals I know believe. I don’t think anyone is saying we should abandon those things in favor of “woke curriculum” or whatever else.

A necessary role of schools, though, is also to create a safe learning environment to achieve the goal of educating our children. In my view, the bill in Florida is really about this. It’s simply about parents wanting to know that their kids are in a safe environment. It's about parents wanting a steady stream of access to information about their kids from the school, and about parents wanting to know that the school’s curriculum is not doing some kind of damage to them.

On one side of this debate is a group saying that in order to have a safe learning environment, we need to be able to discuss things like sexual orientation or gender issues when they arise. This side, whom I mostly agree with, is arguing that educators need to have answers and — yes! — maybe even an age-appropriate curriculum to teach kids why, say, Kyle has two dads. The crowd that labeled this the “don’t say gay bill” argues that this legislation will make that harder to do, it will alienate already marginalized kids/families, and it will make it even more difficult for young kids to understand the LGBTQ community. It’s worth pointing out that, right now, gender identity and sexual orientation curriculum does not (and did not) exist in Florida’s K-3 schools (of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t discussed).

On the other side are those supporting this bill. This group says that by engaging in this instruction/discussion at all, we risk “indoctrinating” kids — convincing them they are trans, gay, bi, etc, and confusing them about their gender, making them think maybe they too are different. Their position is that just educating kids about this is risky. They believe that we need to limit this kind of education to the parents and leave it up to them to navigate these issues. They want education about gender identity and sexual orientation kept out of K-3 education entirely (and only in an "age appropriate" manner in years after that).

Taken at face value, the latter group’s calculation is that the risk is so great that rather than try to come up with a mutually agreed upon curriculum/standard, we should ban any curriculum around these issues outright until 3rd grade. In order to address this concern, they made a proposal:

“Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards."

This is the central tension. There is so much damn noise, but this is the whole issue: Critics (myself included) think this one clause is overly broad and dangerous, to the point it will chill any necessary classroom instruction about things that are very real (like gay and trans people) that kids are always going to have questions about.

In other words, I don’t think there is a legitimate question about whether we should educate kids about these issues, but I do think there is a totally legitimate conversation to have about how to teach these issues to kids. Parents who don’t want schools educating their children on the issue want to do so themselves, and parents who want that responsibility don’t trust schools, other parents, or Disney to do that job for them.

And I do think, to your point, it is important to be thoughtful about how we present material that touches on sexual issues to kids, including how LGBTQ characters or sexual scenes in Disney content might influence young children. Many on the left, actually, have long criticized classic Disney content for promoting unhealthy sexual dynamics (see this Teen Vogue piece titled “Why These Disney Films May Help Perpetuate Rape Culture” from 2017).

Anyway, all this is to say I think the critical issue here is whether the Florida bill is a good piece of legislation. If you believe it is, as you seem to, then most things work out from there. Disney is bad for opposing it, and looks guilty for backing it. If you believe it isn't, as I don't, then they look good for taking a public stand against it (worth reiterating here that Disney never actually lobbied against this bill).

My position is that it isn't either the parents’ job or a school's job to make sure students can understand themselves, their bodies, the world they live in, etc. It is both of their jobs. It is society's job. It takes a village, as they say. We all have roles, and I think the school's role should be minimal, but it still exists. I certainly don't think there should be an outright ban on discussing these issues with K-3 kids.

That’s the position I’ve taken against the bill in Florida.

You seem to be open-minded enough to change your mind about issues over time. As far as I know, you don't have kids. My guess is that when you do, your mind on this issue will change.

My response: A lot of people said this. I'm not yet a parent, so it's impossible for me to say with any certainty my mind won't change. Of course, I've changed my mind about quite a few things, even in the last couple of years of writing Tangle. But I find two things about this critique a little bit frustrating.

1) Just because I'm not a parent doesn't mean I can't have a well-informed criticism of the legislation in Florida, or the way this issue is playing out. It reminds me a bit of people on the left who have told me that because I'm a white guy I shouldn't write about issues related to race or policing. My job is to be open-minded, fair, and honest. On all topics. It's to listen and learn and research and try to pass on the highest quality information I can.

I'd wager that I've talked to more Americans across the political spectrum — educators, conservative parents, liberal parents, parents of trans kids, gay kids, trans parents, gay parents, pastors, rabbis, Republican lawmakers, etc. — about LGBTQ issues than pretty much anyone I know, outside of activists who spend every day of their lives on this issue. I just can't accept that my not having a child means I can't have an opinion that is valuable or legitimate.

2) I think responses like this have some very strong undertones that being gay or trans is inherently bad. It seems important to me to call this out. I know and love a lot of very happy, healthy, thriving LGBTQ people. When I hear people say that I'll really understand when I have kids, I get this feeling that they're really saying, "when you have kids, you'll realize how scary it is that they may identify as LGBTQ."

I feel a deep sense of sadness about this. If my children grew into any one of the LGBTQ people that I'm friends with, I'd be thrilled. Elated. Blessed. My real concern is that if I ever have a child who identifies as LGBTQ, they’d live in a world where they were bullied, ostracized, discriminated against or otherwise treated badly because of that identity.

Young kids are impressionable. By teaching them about gay or trans people in K-3, you are opening the door to them being confused about their own gender or sexual orientation before they even reach puberty. This can have long-term negative effects.

My response: There are two things about this criticism I find really frustrating.

First, I find this argument striking for what it implies. Remember: A lot of the people who are most supportive of the LGBTQ community are also people who believe gender is a social construct. A lot of the people who believe all trans people are simply mentally ill believe that gender is immutably tied to sex.

The position just seems contradictory to me. A lot of people seem to simultaneously think that gender and sex cannot be divorced from each other, yet also believe that merely learning about gender might influence someone to separate it from their sex. Doesn’t the possibility of separating gender identity from sex imply that gender actually is a social construct?

Of course, this is not a simple thing. Separating gender entirely from sex is a silly exercise, just as pretending the two are the same is also a silly exercise. My point is that the first trans or gay people didn't come to be because someone came up with the concept and presented it to them. And it seems far more likely to me that awareness about LGBTQ issues is simply making more people more comfortable (and safe) with openly identifying that way, not creating more members of the LGBTQ community.

Second, there is the rather obvious counterpoint here that even if kids are exposed to gay characters in Disney or some first-grade-friendly curriculum about trans folks, the vast, vast majority of everything they see around them is still going to be your standard "heteronormative" stuff. The idea that being exposed to this content is going to "convert" them rather than simply clarify things about themselves or the world around them seems specious to me.

A good analogy might be left-handedness. Did you know, for instance, that people used to discriminate against lefties? As recently as 2015, there was still one teacher who thought being lefty meant you were being possessed by an evil force. Yet once it became more acceptable, more and more people began identifying as left-handed. The number of lefties grew until it hit 12%, and then it plateaued. There wasn’t a social contagion effect of left-handed people, there was just the reality that they existed and society’s evolution toward accepting them.

I can add a personal anecdote to this as well. My entire life, I would have these very bizarre and recurring experiences where specific things — like watching somebody use a pen they borrowed from me or speaking to a secretary who spoke in a very calm and deliberate tone — would flood me with an overwhelming sense of calm. In old journals, I would describe it as if someone was pouring warm sand on the back of my head, literally, and as I became more attuned to it I could actually feel my heart rate dropping.

The experience was so weird that I never spoke to a single person about it. I never even tried to explain it to my closest friends. By my early 20s, after tons of research online, I started to think maybe I was on some kind of autistic spectrum or experiencing the result of an old brain injury. Then one day, shortly after one of these episodes, I went on one of the Google quests I had done probably a dozen times before, trying to figure it out. I typed in "sounds that feel good" and was immediately presented with a top search result: Autonomous sensory meridian response.


There were entire communities of people dedicated to this thing I had. Research papers. (Very weird) YouTube channels. It was all right there, the whole time, but I'd never found it before. I didn't have the words or understanding to explain what I was experiencing, but it was still happening. I don't think someone reading about ASMR is going to give them ASMR. I think the existence of this information helped me put words and definitions and gain context for something that kept happening to me but I could not understand well enough to explain to anyone else.

There is research about the social contagion effect related to rapid onset gender dysphoria. I have seen my own kids question their gender or sexuality as a means of social inclusion. Putting this stuff in a school curriculum is only going to make the issue worse.

I can't deny this research exists. I can tell you that it is very controversial and tied almost exclusively to teenage girls going through puberty, not all K-3 children.

Of course, I also can't deny that your kids are announcing they are non-binary or gay as a means of fitting in with other kids who identity as LGBTQ. But after decades and decades of gay and trans folks being ostracized, discriminated against, othered, and often violently attacked for who they are, I also can't deny that I think there’s something redemptive and beautiful about an upcoming generation viewing the LGBTQ community as "cool" or embracing those folks with loving arms, rather than bullying and excluding them.

Still, I don't even think it matters how you slice it for my position on the bill in Florida or the controversy around Disney. If you believe that, say, there is a social contagion effect happening among kids around gender identity, then the best solution is not to pretend that LGBTQ issues don't exist or act as if trans people aren't real. It's to educate the children. How many times do we have to learn this lesson?

The obvious parallel is sex education (which, by the way, is different than what we're talking about: Nobody is saying we should teach sex ed to K-3 children). But we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that teaching about sex at the onset of puberty is the best way to promote safe and healthy sexual lives. Many groups spent decades thinking that we could promote abstinence only or just ignore the issue altogether; some still do. They were and are wrong. Abstinence-only education as a means of keeping children from having either sex or unwanted pregnancies is a failure.

Trying to shelter kids from the very real existence of LGBTQ people will be a failure, too.

"It is the role of the parent, not corporate America or Hollywood, to have these conversations with their children. Let’s get back to what schools are for."

My response: I actually agree with this. But I also think this position can coexist with mine, which is a) that some parents skirt this responsibility and b) no matter how big a role parents play in their kids’ lives, they are still going to have questions about this stuff even at a young age. And it's going to come up in school, too.

I think it’s important to remember how all this came about. And I can't emphasize this enough: There is no curriculum in Florida about gender identity or sexual orientation. Their health-related classroom instruction is about brushing teeth and eating meals with their families. The bill banned something that wasn't part of the curriculum. So for me this was a solution looking for a problem. And it introduced a mechanism for parents to sue schools if they thought they were in violation of this new standard for there to be absolutely no classroom instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation.

At some point, it's worth looking to the educators for guidance here. And based on conversations I've had with K-3 teachers, as well as the reactions from some of the most-respected teachers in the country, it seems obvious to me that educators are very worried about yet another challenge to have to navigate in the classroom.

"I am disappointed in so many things in your take on this issue. My number one disappointment is how you repeatedly stressed that the people who oppose this bill are being vilified as groomers or predators. It is completely wrong for those opposed to the bill to be characterized as such, but you failed to even mention how those of us who support the bill are being characterized as transphobic, homophobic, and essentially compared to hate groups. That is equally wrong, and it has been going on for years to label and shame any individuals who oppose any “pro-LGBTQ” legislation...  Please call out the hypocrisy and hysteria on both sides — I thought that’s what your newsletter was all about?"

My response: I think this is a very fair criticism. And it's an important point for those on the left right now. Saying people who support this legislation are "literally murdering trans people," or labeling them as obviously homophobic or transphobic, invites the kind of degradation of rhetoric which encourages the other side to start calling you a pedophile or a groomer. I know many of the people who support this legislation are kind and decent people — some are even ardent supporters of the LGBTQ community. I happen to think they are wrong about the upside of this bill, but that doesn't mean they are necessarily hateful people or responsible for violence against LGBTQ Americans. I should have pointed this out in my initial piece.

I don't think calling Democrats or LGBTQ people "groomers" is necessarily a direct reference to pedophilia. I did not take it that way. I view it more as "grooming" them politically, to be socially progressive, to believe things like there are more than two genders or to be brainwashed into believing that being trans or gay is normal.

My response: Look, if it's not about calling people pedophiles or insisting that Democrats, teachers, Disney and LGBTQ Americans want to sexualize kids and "convert" them, then find a different word to use. By introducing this legislation, is Gov. Ron DeSantis just “grooming” kids to be Republicans? Why isn’t he described that way? Probably because this isn’t about shaping a child’s political ideology.

On top of the dog whistling to the QAnon community that already believes Democrats run child sex rings, I think there is an abundance of context here that is worth considering. Calling LGBTQ people and their allies "groomers" and insinuating that they are going to prey on your children is a decades old stereotype. It was extremely popular framing and has been around since Anita Bryant. This stuff is not new.

If you believe kids in K-3 shouldn't hear anything about gender identity or sexual orientation in class, that is a reasonable position to take. But the new framing that is coming from a lot of conservative activists (and sitting politicians) that everyone from Hillary Clinton to Disney to Ketanji Brown Jackson to progressives more broadly are "soft on pedophiles" or literally running child sex rings is disgusting. And dangerous. And it should be condemned. Kudos to prominent conservative pundits like David French who have called it out.

I don't hate gay people, and I wish them no ill will, but I believe that homosexual activity itself is a very serious sin. And that God created men and women. I don't think we should be teaching young kids that being gay or trans is acceptable.

My response: I've written about my religious views and how they relate to issues in the LGBTQ community. I doubt I'm going to change any minds if your faith ties you to the belief that homosexuality is a sin that needs to be eradicated in this world to thrive in the next. All I can do is ask you to truly reflect on whether your religious adherence is being used by others as a cover for homophobia or not.

A lot of things are prohibited in the Bible, and I find it illuminating that so many religious folks spend so much of their time focused on one particular Biblical sin over others. There is a famous (and very Aaron Sorkin) West Wing clip that people like to reference about this phenomenon. God also insists we welcome people with love and view his creations as made in his image, and I like to believe that a society that treats LGBTQ people with love and dignity is a much more holy thing than one that doesn't.

Just because kids being influenced by teachers to think of themselves as gay or trans may be rare doesn't mean it never happens. I don't see any reason why we should wait around for it to become a problem before addressing it with legislation like this. What's the actual cost of this bill if, as you claim, this stuff isn't being taught in schools?

My response: I also think this is a good point. It's one people made in response to my "critical race theory" writing, when I took a similar line about being concerned that Republican legislatures were prohibiting things they didn't need to prohibit because they didn’t exist.

Here is how I think about this: I'm a free speech enthusiast. One of the things that I talk about when I write in favor of free speech is not just laws that allow for free speech to prosper, but a culture of free speech. These are two separate things. When a conservative speaker shows up to give a lecture at a college campus and students come out en masse to shout them down, effectively preventing the speech from happening, his "free speech" rights haven't technically been violated. Two groups were exercising their speech, and one side won. But an event like that also demonstrates the erosion of a free speech culture, the kind of erosion that — throughout history — has inevitably led to the state actually preventing speech.

In this case, it's worth thinking about the cultural impact of this legislation. Let's say, for argument’s sake, this bill has almost zero negative impact in the classroom. Let's say, for hypothetical purposes, that no parent ever uses this law to file a frivolous lawsuit against a school, no teacher ever feels scared to address a student's question about an LGBTQ-related issue, no kid is ever made to feel ostracized because his classmates don't understand his family structure, nothing bad at all in the classroom happens as a result of the bill.

I think all of that is supremely unlikely, but even if it were true, I'd still oppose this legislation. Why? Because, well, look around. Look at the cultural impact it is having. Look at the Florida Governor's press secretary calling it an "anti-groomer" bill, and being cheered on by other conservatives. Look at the division it is causing in the Florida state legislature and nationally. Look at how it has further degraded the political discourse. Look at how much more it has entrenched each side against each other, one side now accusing the other of being responsible for LGBTQ suicides and the other side responding by alleging those people want to brainwash their kids.

Did the bill help? Did it make classrooms safer? Did it make teachers' jobs better? Did it unite parents? Is it serving students? Has the conversation improved? Has anything in Florida gotten better? The obvious answers to all of these questions seems like "no" to me. And I think it was all rather predictable.

So, even in a best-case, fanciful scenario about the tangible impacts this bill has in the classroom, I still think the bill’s immediate cultural impact was overwhelmingly negative.

Thank you.

Whether you agree with me or not, I always appreciate reader feedback, criticism, and the dialogue. That is really what this is all about, and I appreciate everyone who wrote in and tried to engage.

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Positive stuff

Alright, just to make sure you don't think I'm a total masochist, here is some positive feedback about the edition I think is worth highlighting:

"I missed this Tangle article yesterday. It was very interesting. As a Baptist Pastor and a Republican, I don't care for the direction that society as a whole is heading. However, I cannot expect a society moving away from Judeo-Christian values, to embrace my beliefs. This is not a good reason to drop my subscription to Tangle. Just because we do not agree is not a reason to leave!"

"The reason why I subscribed to this publication was to get all sides of an issue, so I know what is going on. I see no value in just getting my beliefs reinforced by commentary I already agree on. I watch a lot of news clips on YouTube. This is because I can watch multiple news videos on the same subject from different viewpoints. Tangle does this better than any other news or publication I have found."

"Thank you for stating your take so plainly, Isaac. My hope is that the balance you demonstrate over such a wide variety of political topics, helps some people who might otherwise simply defer to their party’s line on this issue, consider the ridiculous and dangerous position leading conservative voices have taken on this subject."

"Thanks for this, Isaac! I'm a fairly conservative mom of 5, and I certainly have concerns about schools (not least of which are actual education quality, but also the potential introduction of gender dysphoria or race essentialism to young kids), which is why we homeschool (and my husband and I both work--it's kind of nuts!) That said, I think you hit the nail on the head here. This whole thing is so overblown, by both sides, and it's just getting tiresome. This climate of black-and-white thinking prevents any productive conversations and drives us all further and further apart. And the people who consider themselves more center, as I do, are left very disoriented. Hard to imagine where we'll be when my kids grow up."

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.