(Editors Note: On February 25, 2022, the Florida House of Representatives passed H.B. 1557, “Parental Rights in Education,” colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay,” bill. The addendum discussed here, which would have required schools to out LGBTQ kids, was struck from the bill before it was voted on. Meanwhile, The Florida Senate is expected to vote on their version, S.B. 1834, on February 28, 2022. If it passes, the governor of Florida has said he will sign the legislation.)
I grew up in the 1980s. One of the most popular records in my house growing up was the album Free to Be You and Me. The album turns fifty years old this year. Actress Marlo Thomas along with the Ms Foundation for Women and a wide ranging cast of celebrities recorded the album and created the companion book to empower kids (not just LGBTQ kids) to build self-esteem and to promote values like individuality, tolerance, and comfort with your own identity. I grew up singing along with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson:
When we grow up, will I be pretty?
Will you be big and strong?
Will I wear dresses that show off my knees?
Will you wear trousers twice as long?”
I watched puppets voiced by Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas sort out questions about gender, discovering that gender identity is not about what a person likes or does or even looks like. Back in the 80s, when there was a lot less nuance to our understanding of gender and gender identity, and at a time when gay people, especially men, were often seen as very scary because of all the things we didn’t know about AIDS.
Don’t Say “Gay”: Redux
So here we are fifty years after Free to Be was released. In 1973, just a year after the album was released, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. And in 2022, we’re watching the Florida state legislature take all kinds of steps that diminish those values of tolerance and self-confidence.
Over the last year, we’ve watched the Florida legislature pass bills attacking transgender student-atheletes. We’ve seen funding for LGBTQ youth slashed. Those things, along with things like vetoing mental health funding for survivors of the Pulse Massacre, happened during Pride Month. We’ve seen antibullying resources for queer kids erased from the Office of Safe Schools website.
And then we got to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. (HB 1557) They make it sound so nice. So positive. “Parental Rights in Education.” Parental rights. Why is it that these bills seem to imply that “rights” only belong to straight, cisgender people? Where are the rights for queer parents like me?
Helping Parents to Avoid Difficult Conversations with Straight OR LGBTQ Kids
I wrote about the “Don’t Say Gay” bill a few weeks ago. Wrote about how bills like this aren’t really about protecting kids. What bills like this do is allow adults to avoid questioning their own beliefs and values. They let us, as adults, bypass the difficult and meaningful introspection that we need to do in order to be able to talk honestly to kids, whether that means being able to be there as a supportive resource when someone comes to you with hard questions or whether it means being able to honestly look at a kid and say “I don’t know,” or “I’m not comfortable with this topic.”
In avoiding the kind of work it takes to become confident enough to say those things to children and to understand that when we say those things we’re not showing weakness or flaws or failure we’re depriving ourselves of growth but even worse, we’re depriving the kids around us an opportunity to learn how to deal with discomfort or insecurity. These are very real, very human experiences, and emotions. They’re scary feelings for most of us to face as adults, but they’re not feelings unique to adulthood–they’re things we experience throughout our lives, as children, as teenagers, and beyond. We would probably all be better off if we were able to model healthy ways to manage these emotions for our kids, and I can only imagine the impact it would have on our children’s children.
Not Just Hurting LGBTQ Kids
But that’s not what’s happening. On top of decisions like vetoing funding for mental health services to survivors of the Pulse Massacre, we’re dealing with a governor and a legislature that has used masks like “protecting children” and “parents rights” to pass legislation denying transgender kids the right to participate in athletic activities and veto funding for services to queer youth. And then, in December, all of the LGBTQ+ anti-buillying resources were removed from the website of the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Safe Schools. In January, a bill was passed that would essentially allow the banning of books with LGBTQ content.
Each of these things hurts our kids. Not just our LGBTQ kids, although they may be harmed more directly than other kids. All of our kids are hurt when bigotry is written into laws. It’s easy to see how our queer kids are harmed when this happens. But what about questioning kids? Questioning kids are doing just that–exploring, asking, investigating, and when we take away resources, we deny them the opportunity to fully explore and come to informed conclusions. “Questioning” doesn’t mean the kid is going to turn out LGBTQ. It means they’re trying to figure out where they belong. It means our straight kids aren’t learning either. They’re not learning lessons about kindness and tolerance. They’re missing out on opportunities to practice equity and inclusion, to learn how to work with the diverse voices at the table and see how everyone’s unique experiences can combine to create incredible things.
If Reading Books with Straight Characters will Automatically Make Your Kids Straight, then What’s the Problem?
“Don’t Say Gay” bills deprive all of our kids from fully understanding the things they read-the history, the literature, because they’re missing big pieces of information about the people they’re studying, or about the whole web of events that may have influenced the work of great leaders or great writers. We can’t read Huckleberry Finn and not talk about racism, or read Frankenstein without talking about feminism. We can’t study European history without talking about the impact of religion or of economic inequality. And yet it seems that people want to erase queer identity from historical figures and literature. Because there’s some strange idea that talking about gay people will make a kid gay.
Except that’s not the way it works. Most queer kids come from straight parents to begin with. So do most straight kids. And we’ve got models for how to be straight everywhere. Models for adhering to gender norms and heteronormative behavior are everywhere we look. It’s when we want to see something else that we have to dig deep, look hard or create it ourselves. It’s hard work to live outside those norms, with the explanations, the questions, the worries. That doesn’t just go for queer kids. What happens to the children of queer parents? Kids need safe places to talk about their families, and for many kids that place is school. Families come up over and over again-culture, traditions, immigration, are all topics that are discussed as part of the curriculum.
“Don’t Say Gay” Laws Favor some but Punish All
When we force “Don’t Say Gay” on teachers, we set up a terrible, unbalanced system, where we give some kids more freedom in their words. More value in their lives. Because they happen to not be queer or not have queer parents. We force teachers to prioritize the values of some families over others. Whether or not the teacher shares those values. Because teachers are the ones who have to figure out how to navigate the day to day conversations in their classrooms, knowing when to allow and when to stop a conversation because this family or that might object to the content of the discussion. And the education in those values, in ethics and morals starts at home.
For most children, their families are the greatest influence on those values–and no one is asking to change that, or even demanding that people change their values. Just a respectful, inclusive space for everyone.
Queer identity isn’t about sex anymore than straight identity is. It’s not a lifestyle, it’s a life. What goes on in the bedroom (which is the part that people seem to focus on) is one very small part of that life. We do more things the same way than not. Things like pay bills, cook meals, go to work. We try to enjoy hobbies. Care for the people in our lives. And find our happiness. And we all try to pass on the values that are important to us to our kids and families. The same ones we hope that our schools hold respectful space for.
We’re Finally Making Progress (But Backward)
And if we thought the proposed original legislation was horrible, they’ve found a way to make it worse. Now wording has been added that would expect schools to out kids even if there are concerns about abuse, neglect or abandonment. Kids could lose all semblance of questioning and exploring safely, no matter where they go. They could lose access to trustworthy adults who can guide them through the process. Not pressure them into being one way or another, but help them connect with resources. Find answers to questions. And make safe, healthy decisions as they struggle to reconcile all of the things that they’re trying to figure out.
We’re talking about endangering the physical safety of kids, as well as their mental and emotional well-being. For kids who may or may not even turn out to be LGBTQ. And for those kids who are LGBTQ, we’re potentially forcing them out before they’re feeling secure enough in their own identity to share.
Coming out is Precious and Precarious. Don’t Make it Harder on LGBTQ Kids than it Needs to Be.
Coming out is about learning to tell our own story. It’s about our own epic journeys, as LGBTQ kids, to find the space and the place that feels right to us. It’s not a story that someone else should be telling for you unless you give them permission to do that.
For many, coming out is a journey that doesn’t end. New job, new home, new school, new friends. All may require coming out. There’s a reason so many queer people bond over coming out stories and so much of queer cinema seems to rely on coming out narratives. It takes time to become comfortable telling your own story, and learning how much detail to disclose and when it’s safe or not safe to do so. It’s one part of forming a whole, queer identity and understanding what that means.
I’ve run a lot of coming out groups for teens. I’ve heard all kinds of stories from kids… About coming out into welcoming environments and about being kicked out of the house. And when a kid comes out to me, the first thing I do, after I congratulate them on being able to live as authentically as possible,is to say “Thank you for trusting me with that information.” And then I talk with them about safety. Who is it that they’re ready to tell, who is it that they’re not ready to tell–I need to know this because if I know and am talking to someone they’re not ready to tell, I have no business outing them before they’re ready. Only they know if they’re physically and emotionally safe and if they’re ready to come out to that person.
I Don’t Want LGBTQ Kids to Have to Go Through What I Had to Go Through
As an adult, as someone who has come out in many different situations over time, I know that each time it takes courage and usually some preparation, and it definitely dips into my emotional resources. There’s a lot of worrying that comes with it. Fears about safety. About rejection. About whether someone will treat you differently, and sometimes worst of all, whether they’ll out you (accidentally or on purpose) in a situation where you’re not ready to be out or not safe being out.
I know what my own coming out journey meant to me. Certainly, like many people, it forms a major part of my own identity as a queer person. But I spent a lot of time wandering the library shelves looking for answers. I spent a lot of time working through fear, grief, anxiety and self-hatred. I definitely took some risks that were driven by those confused feelings. And all of that could have been made so much easier if I’d had access to the kinds of supportive adults.
Every kid deserves to know they are growing up loved, respected and valued. Knowing that they are an important part of the fabric of the world. “Don’t Say Gay” legislation tells all our kids that straight lives, cisgender lives, are worth more than queer ones. It tells our kids that there’s something wrong with their queer parents. That there’s something damaged about themselves. No kid should grow up internalizing that message. Every kid is worthy of our love and support. It’s time we put an end to legislation that stands against teaching tolerance and promotes hurting kids. Florida does not need to join Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi in enshrining bigotry into its state laws.
There’s a land that I see where the children are free
And I say it ain’t far to this land from where we are
Take my hand, come with me, where the children are free
Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll live