It’s October. We’re celebrating LGBTQ+ History Month. Two weeks ago we celebrated National Coming Out Day. We’re finally starting to feel as though autumn isn’t too far off. And kids have been back in school for a month or two already. They’re well on the way to thinking about their grades–report cards, tests, essays. Everything gets scrutinized, reviewed and marked up in red pen. And at the end of that, a grade is given based on how well the work fits the rubric. To see whether the kids are complying with whatever expectations have been laid out.
What about our expectations? In a world where most of our LGBTQ+ kids report being bullied either in person or electronically, and where the risk of suicide (attempted or completed) is triple that of non-queer youth, our kids need safe, supportive places. So let’s take a look a look at how our our schools are failing our kids, our families, and our queer community.
The Intentionally Vague “Don’t Say Gay” Law
Back in February, the Florida legislature passed the incredibly restrictive “Don’t Say Gay” bill which restricted what teachers were allowed to say in their classrooms. School districts have tried to figure out how to instruct teachers to respond to this incredibly vague law. (The law says that teachers are prohibited from providing instruction that is not age or gender appropriate, but never defines what that means.)
So how are they interpreting this intentionally vague law?
“Don’t Say Gay” in Palm Beach County
In Palm Beach County, teachers were told that they had to go through every book in their classroom libraries using a district mandated checklist. Making teachers do this on top of all of their other responsibilities means that some have removed classroom libraries entirely. Teachers have been told that they must fill out and send home a form if a student asks to use a name other than what parents have indicated is the “preferred name.” Does that mean a student can’t choose to use a nickname different from the one a parent indicated? Can William not go by Will unless parents say so? What about Katherine whose parents prefer Kathy when Kathy really prefers Kate? Does the form only have to go home if a child is asking to use a different name and different pronouns?
“Don’t Say Gay” in Leon County
At the opposite end of the state, in the panhandle, is Leon County. Tallahassee, the state capital, is in Leon County. And according to Leon County School’s LGBTQ Inclusive School Guide permission slips for overnight activities must include the following language:
“All students are allowed to attend school-sponsored overnight activities. Parents or students who have concerns about their student’s based on religious concerns or privacy may request an accommodation. If you are requesting accommodations for your student, please contact school administration to discuss reasonable accommodation options.”
That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Maybe it just sounds like opaque legalese. But I’ve worked with a lot of schools on their LGBTQ+ policies and so I know my way around this kind of language. And to me, it sounds like Leon County will out its queer students on overnight trips. This in spite of a policy in the guide which says:
“All LGBTQIA+ students have a right to participate in the decision-making process of deciding when and to whom their| gender identity or expression and sexual orientation is shared unless it is directly related to concerns about the student’s health and safety.”
In other words, they can’t out you without your permission. Until they institute a new policy stating they can.
I realize that the field trip policy from Leon County doesn’t actually say “we’re going to out students,” but it seems to me like that kind of notification also has strong potential to out students. There are many parents who won’t be able to get that information directly from the school, but they’ll pressure their kids for it, or find their way to it through the gossip chain.
Orange, Bay, and Hillsborough Counties
In some districts, it’s been suggested that teachers remove their safe space or Pride stickers. Clinton McCracken, the president-elect of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association has said, “… Are teachers in K through 8 supposed to go back into the closet, according to our legal team? Or are they allowed to act like every other heterosexual teacher who has a picture of a spouse on their desk?”
Even further west is Bay County, which educates its teachers about “Don’t Say Gay” with a video, which tries to make distinctions between when teachers do and don’t need to notify parents about a child’s sexual orientation. If a student is walking in the hallway holding hands with another same-gender student and says, “Hey Coach, have you met my new girlfriend/boyfriend,” then that teacher does not have to notify parents about their student, just as they wouldn’t if the student were holding hands with a student of a different gender.
On the other hand, if students are struggling with their sexuality, that causes a change in how the school is providing services to the student or in their monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health, and the school’s ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student. That could mean that a student who is experimenting with the idea of using different pronouns or asks for access to different locker rooms could fall under the “change in services or monitoring” and would mean a conversation with school administrators and might mean that a student is outed to their parents or guardians.
And while the state laws permit some discretion about these things (if teachers or administrators believe that a student is in danger of abuse, abandonment or neglect if this information is disclosed, withholding it requires review by a principal, documentation in a student’s records and an annual review to confirm the situation.
With those serious restrictions on withholding information from parents, people like Ryan Petty, a school board member from Hillsborough County still object to withholding information, suggesting that doing so might violate state law. (Although he did not state explicitly which law, most likely he was referring to HB 1557, which is officially called “Parents Rights in Education,” but is in fact, the “Don’t Say Gay” law that has drawn so much criticism and protest.) This objection has caused Florida’s Education Commissioner to demand a review of all LGBTQ+ student guides from school districts across the state.
The Fragility of the Teacher-Student Bond
As a teacher, it’s difficult to decide when to intervene in a student’s life. When you see a student struggling, you naturally want to help. But I can’t help thinking about this from the perspective of the student. Because I was that student. I thought I was hiding my confusion. That if I read my queer books and wrote my queer stories alongside the “regular” ones, no one would know what was going on. I gambled on being able to hide the way I always had. And I lost.
So I know how easy it can be for a teacher, guidance counselor or other member of the school staff to decide they need to keep their eyes on you because they notice something going on. I can think of at least three occasions that it happened to me: after a friend’s suicide attempt, after a (different) friend’s suicide and, in my senior year of high school, when I was reading a lot of queer literature and writing queer about themes in the pieces I turned in for a creative writing class.
Putting my work out there with queer content was hard enough. But discovering that it meant that my guidance counselor was keeping an eye on me? I was terrified that someone might find out; a classmate, my parents, my younger sister, who was a grade behind me in school. Anyone who might share what I was doing–I was so afraid of being queer that even thinking about queer stuff felt shameful.
And yes, that was thirty years ago. But that was thirty years ago in New York. In a relatively liberal area. And in a family that, at least on the surface, was sort of okay with queer stuff. In Florida, even thirty years later, there are many places and many families who are even less accepting than mine.
Heavy Consequences for Violating “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop Woke” Put too much Pressure on Teachers
We knew that “Don’t Say Gay” would endanger teachers. We knew it would make it harder for students who come from queer families to talk about their families in class, to see their families, their reality, reflected in the educational materials available to them. But now we’re seeing the direct impact on kids beyond those easy to imagine consequences. It’s only a matter of time before some student is outed–whether to their responsible adults or to classmates–and the potential impact of that is horrifying.
And as for the teachers? The provisions of “Don’t Say Gay” and the Stop Woke Act don’t lay out consequences for violating them. Teachers are kind of sort of told what they can’t do, with interpretation largely left up to school administrators and the Department of Education (with input from parents when solicited.) So the state has found even more ways to undermine teachers by threatening to suspend or revoke the licenses of teachers who violate “Don’t Say Gay.”
What happened to trusting teachers to educate? We already dictate what standards they need to meet, what textbooks they’re allowed to use and what test scores their students need to achieve in order to be declared “effective” teachers. But this vague law with the potential for incredibly severe consequences hamstrings classroom discussion and conversation. It has the power to make teachers afraid to answer questions or to respond when children from families with a queer family member want to talk about it?
How will Teachers Know What to Police and What to Let Slide?
Want to bring the incredibly cool toy dinosaur that your gay uncle brought for your birthday? Bring the dinosaur. But you’re not allowed to tell us that it came from Uncle David and Uncle Jonathan. Want to talk about how you got to be part of a wedding party last weekend? Tell us all about the fancy clothes and walking down the aisle and riding in the limo, but don’t tell us that Aunt Kaitlyn married Aunt Danielle. And definitely don’t tell us that Uncle Michael, who coaches your soccer team and always buys you ice cream after the games, used to go by “Aunt Michelle.” Even if he’s happier now. Especially if he’s happier now.
When was the last time you tried to tell an excited grade schooler not to talk about something? It’s a pretty recent experience for me, and I can say with absolute certainty that grade schoolers do not always have well developed brain-to-mouth filters.
But take it a step further.
What about Pronouns?
Trans, non-binary and other gender non-conforming teachers can’t discuss their pronouns. Which means dealing with constantly, repeatedly and deliberately being misgendered. And that’s not healthy for anyone, cisgender, transgender or otherwise.
Exactly what state interests are being protected here? I can’t figure it out.
As if all of that wasn’t enough…while I was writing this, things got worse. The Florida Board of Education voted on new rules that will serve to further threaten any teacher or school district that affirms LGBTQ+ students. This includes expanded enforcement of HB 1557, the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Enforcement which now directly targets individual teachers with the loss of their job and could even include the loss of their teaching credentials. Is it any surprise that teachers are leaving Florida in droves?
Is “Protection from Introspection” a Right?
For all the talk about “parental rights” that has been a part of the discussion of “Don’t Say Gay,” of “Stop Woke” and related legislation, I wonder where my rights fit in? Why are we pandering to those who demand the most restrictive option? Parents already have the right to do things like restrict library access. But they’re not taking advantage of it. Why can’t we offer them that here, too? Give students more learning opportunities, not fewer. Let’s be real here for a moment. Florida didn’t require that public schools taught evolution until 2008–more than eighty years after the Scopes Monkey Trial. And yes, parents are allowed to opt their children out of these lessons. You know what? I wish I could opt my kids out of bigotry and ignorance in their educational requirements, too.
And the bad news didn’t stop there either.
“Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop Woke” Seek to Sexualize Everything
A federal “Don’t Say Gay” style bill was introduced, which reads “ A Bill to prohibit the use of Federal funds to develop, implement, facilitate, or fund any sexually-oriented program, event, or literature for children under the age of 10, and for other purposes.”
Subsection A of the bill reads:
“No Federal funds may be made available to develop, implement, facilitate, or fund any sexually-oriented program, event, or literature for children under the age of 10, including hosting or promoting any program, event, or literature involving sexually-oriented material, or any program, event, or literature that exposes children under the age of 10 to nude adults, individuals who are stripping, or lewd or lascivious dancing.”
Upon first reading, many people would think “this doesn’t sound bad. Children don’t need to be around people who are stripping (and the bill does go on to define “stripping” later on) and “sexually-oriented material” sounds like they’re talking about porn.
Kids Need Factual, Age-Appropriate Sex Education
Except that’s not what it is. This would effectively end comprehensive, life cycle sex education. When you consider the fact that almost a quarter of parents aren’t talking about sex with their kids, it’s a real problem. Those kids aren’t getting the factual part of sex education at home and, with this bill, schools will no longer be able to provide the basic, grade school appropriate levels of education. I’ve seen what happens when kids miss out on those fundamental facts.
When you’ve sat across from a sixth grader who tearfully asks “can you get sick from sucking on a boy’s thing,” or had to give HIV test results to a seventh grader, you get a very clear picture of what happens. And they all make you promise not to tell their parents. The facts can be given in a value-neutral, information driven way from many different sources, including school. The values and morals surrounding sexuality come from home and family.
The bill uses the word “transgenderism.” It tries to turn being transgender into a sexual thing. It tries to equate drag queen story hour with burlesque shows and claims that places receiving federal grants have used that money for those shows. (Federal grant money may have covered part of drag queen story hour, which is not sexual at all. And I don’t know of anywhere that a burlesque show has been part of children’s programming.)
The bill continues with the following definition:
(1) SEXUALLY-ORIENTED MATERIAL.—The term ‘‘sexually-oriented material’’ means any depiction, description, or simulation of sexual activity, any lewd or lascivious depiction or description of human genitals, or any topic involving gender identity, gender dysphoria, transgenderism, sexual orientation, or related subjects.
By defining queerness as “sexually explicit,” this bill essentially bans queer people from public spaces. The bill would ban queerness.
Once more for the people who have forgotten: Gender is not sexual orientation. You can be gay, straight, bi+, asexual, etc. and also be transgender. And vice versa.
This is the kind of thing that happens when adults look through their adult lenses and pin adult motivations on things that children don’t see at all. Adults see queer people and think about what they’re doing in bed. Kids see queer people and think about how that person and their circumstances mirror those of other adults they know. They think about things like what kind of job does the queer person have, or their pets or whether they’re married. They’re not thinking about sex.
It could mean the firing of all LGBTQ+ teachers (because schools get federal funding.) Any hospital, clinic, doctor, therapist, etc. who serves children could lose their jobs because of government-funded programs like Medicaid and CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program.)
State-Sponsored Anti-LGBTQ+ Violence is a Fresh Memory for Many
This could be a federal-level disaster for the LGBTQ community, but especially for trans and gender-non-conforming people. It wasn’t that long ago that police would use masquerade laws dating back to the 1800s, which criminalized “costume dress,” to harass, arrest and even beat people who weren’t wearing a sufficient number of gender-appropriate clothing (usually at least three articles, but there was no specific number stated in the laws.) Police would stop people on the street to check their underwear, they would regularly raid bars and even sexually assault people if they weren’t complying with the laws.
With more and more states trying to pass draconian legislation that codifies bigotry into law, we’re facing the real possibility that we’re going backwards, not forwards. We need to take a moment and consider the impact–the practical impact–of these laws. Remember: these laws are meant to protect children. But they do so by narrowing the definition of “children.” Talking to a child who has confusing feelings is no longer age-appropriate, even though that is the sort of thing that could save that child’s sanity. And maybe save that child’s life.
What Do These Laws Protect Children From?
While parents certainly want to protect children, none of the things that would become illegal are actually harmful to children. The harm comes from not talking about them. Inclusive curriculum reduces suicide rates and improves mental health outcomes among LGBTQ+ youth. And it provides support for kids who may be questioning, whether they discover that they’re queer or not. Those positive images can only make that questioning process easier. It reduces the victimization among LGBTQ+ students and improves sexual health outcomes–delayed onset of first sexual experiences, lower STI rates, and when needed, more reliable use of contraception. So what is the danger that these adults are saving their children from? Or rather, what is the danger to the straight children that is worth feeding all of the queer children into the fire to prevent? There isn’t one. It’s just bigotry.
Children aren’t born perceiving (nonexistent) danger from queer people. Nor are they born hating themselves for being queer. They’re taught that. Left to their own devices, children will find out that some children (and some adults) have different desires than themselves. They may be curious about these differences but they’ll rarely be judgmental. I know this because I know people who grew up without the prejudices I learned as a child. I don’t know anyone who invented bigotry as a child. They were all taught to hate by the adults in their lives.
So any negative consequences of a more open and honest and inclusive curriculum will fall entirely on (some) adults. They’re forced to confront their own prejudices. They have to learn to have honest, accurate conversations with children. They have to decide that loving their children is more important than holding on to hate. And unless or until adults decide to do those things, we’ll continue to see our kids struggling and suffering. This Mama Bear isn’t going to stand for that.