Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill Compounds Trauma for LGBTQ Students of Color

The Florida State Senate passed legislation dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics on Tuesday as part of a broader attack on lessons about LGBTQ identity, sex education, racial justice, and other subjects that are routinely exploited by right-wing media outlets and politicians to galvanize their base.

The legislation, known officially as HB 1557, would ban teachers from discussing sexual and gender identity in all classrooms below the fourth grade and require lessons for older students be “age appropriate,” a vague standard that opponents say would swamp cash-strapped public schools with expensive litigation. As advocates point out, the bill is also a “Don’t Say Trans” bill that comes as Republican policy makers in Texas, Alabama, and beyond are attempting to score political points by eroding the rights of transgender youth and their parents.

LGBTQ and civil rights groups warn the legislation would muzzle teachers and students and foster an environment of intolerance at school for LGBTQ youth and students with gay, queer, trans and non-binary parents. Along with efforts to stifle history lessons and anti-racist curriculums, advocates say that putting LGBTQ students in the crosshairs of this partisan culture war is detrimental to their emotional and psychological well-being and flies in the face of efforts to prevent bullying.

For Black students and students of color who already struggle to feel safe at school, the harms of the anti-LGBTQ legislation would be “amplified tenfold,” according to David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), a leading Black LGBTQ+ civil rights group.

“No one gains from watching elected officials bully vulnerable children and their families in an attempt to deny that LGBTQ+ people exist and deserve love and respect,” Johns said in a statement.

Transgender, nonbinary, gay, lesbian and bisexual youth report discrimination and mental health distress at notably higher rates than their cisgender and heterosexual peers, and LGBTQ youth of color are more likely to report suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety than white LGBTQ youth. Nearly 52 percent of Black LGBTQ+ students already feel unsafe in school due to their sexual orientation and 40 percent feel unsafe due to their gender expression, according to a national survey by NBJC.

The American Psychological Association condemned the legislation on Wednesday, saying in a statement that prohibiting discussion of LGBTQ issues at school stigmatizes youth who may realize they are queer at a young age. Stigma and social isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide, the group said.

“The reality is simple — this will hurt children, increase suicide rates among the LGBTQ+ kids, and hurt non-LGBTQ+ children who would benefit from learning to celebrate diversity and build skills that enable them to thrive in the real world,” Johns said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has defended the legislation and could soon sign the bill into law as school walkouts and protests continue to erupt in Florida. Students launched popular online petitions opposing the legislation, including one successful petition demanding that a student suspended from a high school in eastern Florida for organizing protests be allowed back into the classroom.

Victoria Kirby York, the deputy executive director of NBJC who is raising a young child with their wife, said DeSantis and Republicans such as Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas are exploiting the fears of a fringe minority in the GOP by othering queer kids with anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ+ policies in order to win back the White House in 2024.

“And the sad thing is that they are not thinking of the impact the other way around, or they are thinking about it or they don’t care, which is really a tragedy,” York said in an interview. “Kids who are queer-identified or kids of color, they are worried about getting their teachers fired for talking about their families.”

Like other right-wing bills targeting educators, the Florida legislation allows reactionary parents to file lawsuits against schools if they believe their child was exposed to “inappropriate” material. Nationally, only 28 percent of middle and high school students report learning about LGBTQ people and issues at school to begin with, according to the Trevor Project, a mental health advocacy group.

Advocacy groups say LGBTQ students in Florida and across the country are already denied inclusive sex education that affirms their identities and give them tools for staying safe and healthy, and the bill threatens to have a chilling effect on even the current (and already inadequate) educational efforts where they exist.

York said many young children are trying to figure out sex and gender as well as racial identity before their parents feel ready to talk about the “birds and the bees” — and some parents never have these conversations in the first place. Young children also want to talk about their parents at school, but what will teachers in Florida do now if queer parents come up? Will some children be able to talk about their parents, while kids with gay, bisexual, queer, trans and/or nonbinary parents feel punished because they are not allowed?

“Stigma and shame start early,” York said.

For many, public schools are seen as a safe haven for students who are not accepted by their parents, but the legislation would prohibit school policies that meant to prevent students from being outed to their parents and potentially facing abuse or even expulsion from their homes. Only one in three LGBTQ youth surveyed last year said their household was LGBTQ-affirming. Homelessness among LGBTQ youth is a longstanding problem, with up to 16 percent Black and multiracial youth reporting that they have experienced homelessness.

The legislation could also discourage educators from creating spaces for students that affirm their gender and sexual identities. Youth with access to such spaces reported lower rates of attempted suicide in 2021, the Trevor Project reports.

“Attempting to prevent students from knowing and feeling comfortable using words, histories and experiences will not make those words, histories and experiences disappear,” Johns said.

Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation comes as Abbott moves to block transgender kids from receiving gender-affirming health care in Texas. Lawmakers in Idaho passed similar legislation to block gender-affirming health care for youth this week. York said these measures — and the message they send to children, teenagers and adults — target some of the most marginalized and vulnerable people in our communities, including Black and Brown people who must also contend with the reality of racism at a young age.

Regardless of what politicians like DeSantis and Abbott do, York said parents must affirm their children and their identities, which is a “key indicator of success for our kids.”

“Parents like me are continuing to love and affirm their children … their identity and who they are begins to get shaped very early, and it’s important that they hear affirming messages early,” York said.