Content Warning: This article discusses mental health and suicide. If you or a loved one is contemplating suicide, call 1-800-273-8255 for assistance.
Over the past two weeks, HB 1557/SB 1834, otherwise known as the Parental Rights in Education, or “Don’t Say Gay” bill, has rocketed through Florida’s state legislature, posing a monumental threat to LGBTQ+ youth in the state, in the one environment where their safety and comfort should be a top priority: school. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill states that a school district cannot “encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” (MSN). If a school violates these rules, the bill stipulates that parents can sue the district for “injunctive relief, damages, attorney fees and court costs” (Yahoo News). After being passed by the House on January 20, it remains in Florida’s state senate, where votes are predicted to fall along party lines in favor of the bill’s passage.
By prohibiting the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, Florida is effectively endangering the learning abilities, personal identities, and safety and security of LGBTQ+ youth. Children who might identify as LGBTQ+ or who have LGBTQ+ family members will suddenly be barred from discussing a facet of life they’ve grown up with as soon as they enter school, making them feel like there isn’t a place for them in school, or that being LGBTQ+ is not okay because they aren’t allowed to discuss it with their classmates. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill has no place in schools, no place in Florida, and anything like it has no place in any part of the world.
Children most effectively learn in positive environments where they feel comfortable, and the “Don’t Say Gay” bill makes Floridian schools everything but this. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, “the degree to which students feel connected, accepted, and respected” in their school environments “heavily influences students’ academic achievement, mental health, and overall school success” (National Association of School Psychologists). With Florida’s new bill, students will be barred from that necessary feeling of acceptance and respect in their classrooms; a false feeling of being unwelcome at school and like there is something wrong with the sexualities or gender identities of themselves, their families, or their classmates and friends, will be thrust upon young kids who just come to school to learn and figure out who they are with no limits. While Florida Republican state Representative Joe Harding maintains that “the measure would not prohibit students from discussing their families…[or having] discussions about LGBTQ history, including events such as the 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub,” he also says that the bill stops schools from introducing “specific curriculum or coursework that puts’ a student ‘in a situation where they have to have’ a discussion about LGBTQ topics” (Yahoo News). His argument for the bill is self-contradictory in nature and cannot remain standing on its own. If a student’s family has LGBTQ+ members, such as their parents or siblings, discussion of their family falls under both LGBTQ topics and families in general- so by his rules, can such a student discuss their family or not? The answer under Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill is unclear, but the reality is that a student should be able to discuss their families, sexualities, and gender identities no matter what.
By making school an uncomfortable, unwelcoming environment for students to come to every day, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill will also endanger students’ lives. Chasten Buttigieg, an LGBTQ+ advocate and former educator who’s married to the United States Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, says that it “will kill kids…[Florida is] purposefully making [the] state a harder place for LGBTQ+ kids to survive in.” Buttigieg brings in data from the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ youth, to support this idea. After a national survey, the organization found that 42% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered suicide last year, but that LGBTQ+ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity reported lower rates of attempted suicide. In a separate report, they even found that LGBTQ+ youth who learned about LGBTQ+ issues or people in classrooms had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the last 12 months (The Guardian). For some LGBTQ+ youth, school could be the only place where they feel comfortable and welcome to discuss their sexualities or gender identities, and with the passing of Florida’s new bill, this safe space will be taken away. By taking away this safe discussion space, if the data from the Trevor Project holds, the chance of LGBTQ+ youth reporting attempting or seriously considering a suicide attempt may rise, and mental health as a whole will worsen amongst the group. If Florida decides to pass this legislation, the lives of LGBTQ+ youth will be put in danger- an unthinkable consequence that should push legislators to stop moving forward with the bill to begin with.
The words of Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, ring true: “This bill will erase young LGBTQ+ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussion about the issues they face” (The Guardian). Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill endangers the welcoming nature of the classroom, students’ ability to learn there, and the mental health and lives of students all across the state. If passed, it could also set a dangerous precedent for other states to pass similar bills, thereby carrying this harmful effect further and further across the country.
To help stop this bill from passing, you can visit this website and fill out a form and personalized email to send to Florida legislators in opposition of the bill. In addition, you can visit the Trevor Project to learn more about LGBTQ+ topics, such as mental health, sexuality, gender identity, and the LGBTQ+ community.
Alex Martinez-Garcia, Editor-in-Chief of The Colonel Newsmagazine and Horizons Yearbook
Senior Alex Martinez-Garcia is an Editor-in-Chief for the 2021-2022 Colonel Newsmagazine and Horizons yearbook. If she’s not in a swimming pool, she’s probably hanging out with her friends or brothers, playing lacrosse, indulging in a Colleen Hoover book, or living her dream life vicariously through Pinterest and Netflix shows.