'Don't Say Gay' Bill Will Be Detrimental to LGBTIQ+ Youth | Opinion

As if there were not more pressing issues of students' well-being to address in the third year of a pandemic, the Florida House recently advanced a bill titled the Parental Rights in Education Bill, which would prevent school staff from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in primary schools. This bill, authored by State Senator Dennis Baxley, would further enable parents to take legal action against schools where such discussions take place. If this bill passes it will be detrimental to the LGBTIQ+ youth and will cancel all the progress that has been made to date.

Outside of Senator Baxley's misguided notions of classrooms as indoctrination zones, today's youth explore their gender and sexuality through a variety of outlets, including social media, literature and music. Their favorite shows all have LGBTIQ+ characters, they learn others' pronouns (like the singular "they" often used by their non-binary peers) with ease and they develop empathy for people who are different from them in the process.

While these changes are happening, the world is still a difficult place for LGBTIQ+ youth. The 2019 National School Climate Survey by GLSEN found that 68.7 percent of LGBTIQ+ youth were verbally harassed in the past year and 25.7 percent experienced physical violence based on their identities. The youth who have these negative experiences are more likely to miss school, to feel less of a sense of belonging and to consider dropping out. Indeed, 59.1 percent of LGBTIQ+ youth reported feeling unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation and 42.5 percent due to their gender identity.

Ironically, Senator Baxley's bill purports to care about the "school's ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student," but enacts homophobic and transphobic policies that are making schools fertile breeding grounds for identity-based victimization. This leaves us to wonder about whose safety Senator Baxley is actually concerned with, as he advocates for legislation that will certainly make schools less safe for LGBTIQ+ youth.

Under this proposed bill, hypothetical fifth grader Jasmine confides to her school psychologist Dr. Xu that she may be LGBTIQ+, placing Dr. Xu in an untenable position. If they continue their conversation, then they must report this to Jasmine's parents, who may be the very bullies that Jasmine fears most. If they don't discuss Jasmine's identity, she learns that her identity is so shameful, it can't even be discussed in one of the few places she trusts.

A Pride Flag
A Pride Flag hangs off a building on June 24, 2020, in New York City. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

The impact of this legislation on censorship of queer literature (which is happening in many communities and states at present) would also be detrimental to Floridian youth. Hypothetical third grader Miles, who has two moms, wouldn't be able to talk about his family in class, nor would he be able to read books about similar family constellations in his school library, as both his teacher and the school librarian would be prevented from talking about families like Miles'. Senator Baxley's attempts to erase these identities would ostracize Miles and silence school personnel.

Censoring identities that don't fit Senator Baxley's ideals is not new in this country; it's come up with every civil rights issue we've faced. In the 1990s, the U.S. Military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was proposed as a benevolent solution that "allowed" people of various sexual orientations to serve in the military, while not affecting "unit morale" by having an openly LGBTIQ+ person in their ranks. This failed, and thankfully abandoned, policy forced servicemembers to conceal who they were in the service; such concealment takes an insidious toll on one's health, leading to depression, anxiety, substance use and suicidality. These negative impacts of concealment aren't unique to the military; as LGBTIQ+ youth continually lose their few safe places, they, too, learn to hide and suffer in silence.

Senator Baxley's bill is more than just a censorship effort; he is also signaling to LGBTIQ+ students that they are unwanted. He is telling them that to talk about their identities is so egregious that school staff could lose their jobs over it—that it's better to just stick our heads in the sand, like the proverbial ostrich, and pretend that there aren't LGBTIQ+ topics, or identities, or people. In doing so, everyone loses the opportunity to access a safe learning environment where diversity is celebrated. Many LGBTIQ+ adults walk around with identity-based scars that were inflicted on the playground decades earlier; it's time to stop allowing bullies like Senator Baxley to continually harm LGBTIQ+ youth.

Bryan Cochran is a professor of psychology at the University of Montana.

Kelly Davis is a doctoral student of clinical psychology at the University of Montana.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.