- Earlier this year, Florida passed a so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, restricting discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary schools.
- Now, LGBTQ youth in many states face similar legislation targeting classroom discussions of LGBTQ topics and community spaces.
- The students shared with USA TODAY their frustration, confusion and fears for the future as the legislation gains traction.
Since legislation targeting conversations about sexuality, gender identity and LGBTQ-related topics in schools has spread across the country, 15-year-old Jaime Lauriano and his peers in Arizona have felt scared, discouraged and confused.
As president of his school’s GSA, or Student Alliance for Equality, Lauriano said he frequently answers questions about the club’s future, especially amid a recent state bill. who would require permission from the tutor to participate in student groups involving sexuality, gender, or gender identity.
For many, the GSA is one of the only spaces where students feel accepted and can fully express their gender and sexuality, he said.
His peers look to him for advice, but Lauriano, a gay sophomore in high school, is equally worried about the group’s future.
“We’ve tried to promote our club as a safe haven, a place where students can come and hang out, talk to each other, and feel like they’re with their community,” Lauriano told USA TODAY. “But when things like that happen, it completely destroys that idea and it scares the students.”
Across the country, students watch the barrel of bills targeting discussions of sexuality, gender identity and LGBTQ-related topics in classrooms, made more visible by the recent passage of the so-called Bill “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida. Even the possibility of these bills passing has fueled frustration, confusion and a sense of hopelessness among LGBTQ youth across the United States, several high school students told USA TODAY.
Florida’s bill, officially titled Parental Rights in Education, restricts discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary schools. Since it was signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis this spring, more than a dozen similarly-intended bills restricting conversations about LGBTQ topics have been introduced across the country.
The legislation has worried students that schools may be the only place they can talk openly about LGBTQ issues.
In Arizona, the bill requiring permission for students to join groups involving sexuality and gender, HB 2011, is currently in committee. It echoes a previously overturned law, dubbed by opponents as “no promo homo”, which banned sex education in public schools that promoted a “homosexual lifestyle”.
Legislation makes students ‘feel like they’re alone’
Rayne Duncan, 17, senior in Arizona, works with a high school leadership development program called the GLSEN SHINE team, which helps students organize GSAs and advocacy campaigns in their schools through leadership training. Duncan, who is non-binary, is also the president of their school’s GSA.
“I think it’s important for (students) to have safe spaces, that’s why we have GSAs and why we have leaders who make sure GSAs work well and are a safe place for people can go,” they told USA TODAY. “If there’s a place in their school where they can go after school and have a community, they don’t feel isolated.”
USA TODAY spoke with 10 students who identify with the LGBTQ community in states where similar legislation is proposed. They shared their feelings of anger and disgust that these spaces were at risk and that their conversations could be controlled. They also said they feared being discriminated against and worried about the hardships that might ensue for them and their peers.
“It makes the students feel like they’re alone,” Lauriano said. “It scares us, scares us of the future and what it has to offer.”
For LGBTQ youth – those who are trans and non-binary in particular – attacks on support systems and resources can be disastrous. In the past year, more than half of transgender and non-binary youth have considered attempting suicide, according to a 2021 survey from the Trevor Project, which provides crisis and suicide prevention services to people under 25. .
But young people in “affirming” schools, such as those where LGBTQ are represented in school curricula, were nearly 40% less likely to attempt suicide than young LGBTQ people in non-affirming schools, according to the Trevor Project. .
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Javier Gomez, 18, is one of many students who have staged walkouts at Florida schools to protest the original “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Gomez, who is gay, said homophobia and discrimination along with activist work made him mature faster than the average high school student.
“It seriously diminished my sanity,” Gomez said. “I understand a world with a different perspective and it’s really difficult because it brings a lot of anxiety about the future, for myself and for my educators and for my peers.”
“There is not much to do, especially when you are a child”
An Ohio bill, HB 616, is closest in language to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, and it includes a ban on educational materials and curriculum “about sexual orientation or gender identity,” in addition to instruction bans on critical race. theory, which is not taught in K-12 schools, and intersectionality.
Ohio student Abby Doench, 17, said she fears for younger students at her high school who may lack the support she received when she came out as gay.
“It’s scary. It really makes you angry and makes you feel really useless,” Doench said of the legislation. “There’s not much you can do, especially as a kid… It’s all these people who are make rules about you that you have no say in, and that’s sad.”
Several LGBTQ youth in affected states, most of whom are too young to vote, shared similar frustration with USA TODAY about elected officials making decisions about their education and school spaces without consulting or considering the perspective of students.
“Officials don’t care,” Duncan said. “They don’t care about young people. They certainly don’t care about young gay people. They’re just stuck in this little bubble of themselves so they can’t see that their actions will result in death.”
In Iowa, Senate Bill 2024, currently in subcommittee, prohibits any “gender identity instruction” in K-6 classrooms without parental consent. Iowa junior Nadaley Freet, 16, said these “parental rights”-focused rulings try to drown out young people’s voices and make them feel ignored.
“I feel like they’re trying to strip us of our opinions,” said Freet, who is bisexual. “They’re trying to enlighten us and say, ‘Oh, no, you’re just young. You don’t know what you’re talking about.'”
Bullying of transgender children ‘has exploded’
As more laws gain attention in these states, students have also reported experiencing or witnessing bullying at their schools aimed at LGBTQ students.
CJ Walden, a 17-year-old high school student in Florida, said he lives in a “liberal and democratic” area but experiences homophobia daily at school.
He said he felt lucky to have the support of others to weed out the interactions, but he knows many other students can’t.
In Iowa, Freet said the passage of a bill banning transgender girls from participating in women’s sports has left her trans peers isolated, bullied and hurting, often with no places to escape to for comfort and comfort. support each other at school.. On several occasions, she said she had comforted LGBTQ friends and younger students she found crying in the bathroom.
“Since the various bills have been passed … the bullying of trans kids here has skyrocketed,” Freet said. “It makes them feel like outcasts. Like they don’t belong there…they’re bullied to the point that they don’t like who they are anymore.”
Duncan said lawmakers and the public don’t understand the impact of these bills on the well-being of LGBTQ youth, who are going through a stage of life that comes with its own challenges.
“Being a teenager is hard enough already. You put all these things on, and it adds more and more weight,” Duncan said. “…Too many kids get run over.”