LGBTQ+ Rights
Teenagers holding LGBTQ+ pride flags, trans flags, and signs reading "Say Gay" protest Florida's "Do...

I Don’t Care What Florida Tells Us — Keep “Saying Gay” At School

If schools and administrations can’t support LGBTQ+ kids, we can still do it for — and with — each other.

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I was in eighth grade when my Catholic school teacher tucked a piece of white hair behind one ear, leaning a hand onto her desk. On the Powerpoint in the background was a cartoon picture of a man and a woman holding hands. “The church doesn’t hate gay people, I don’t hate gay people.” She tilted her head, fingers clicking against the desk. “There is nothing wrong or bad about being gay, but it is clear that a husband and a wife is what God intended.” My cheeks burned hot for reasons I had not yet understood. I wish I could go back in time and wrap my arms around my younger self, tell her that it was OK, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t the first time anti-gay messaging was cruelly dropped onto my shoulders at school, and it wouldn’t be the last time either.

I was fortunate enough to be supported at home: “It doesn’t matter who you bring home. If you love them, I will love them too,” my mom would tell me. “You can love anyone, woman, man, person, it doesn’t matter as long as they treat you well.” I was then, and am still, grateful beyond words for my family’s support. But even with this reassurance, it took me a long time to come to terms with my sexuality: I spent eight hours a day trapped at school, being battered with casual homophobic remarks from teachers and students alike. It built something within me that I wouldn’t understand for years to come, heavy like a weight.

These are the memories that come back to me when I think of Florida’s House Bill 1557, aka the Don’t Say Gay Bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 28. The legislation goes into effect on July 1 and prohibits instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms for grades K-3 and limits discussion of it in all grades K-12. Critics warn that the vague language is ripe for misinterpretation or abuse; it could stop schools from integrating inclusive coursework, like word problems that could incorporate examples of two mothers or fathers; stop books with LGBTQ+ characters or authors from being read in classrooms; or even stop students or educators from talking about their own families. Supporters of the bill say their children should not have to learn about sex at such a young age. Students, however, know the real stakes of seeing ourselves erased from such a huge sphere of our own lives.

A peer space that is safe and affirming ... [is] key to student success and belonging.

According to 2021 statistics from the Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 42% of LGBTQ+ youth ages 13 to 24 “seriously considered” a suicide attempt in the previous year, including more than half — 52% — of transgender and nonbinary youth. The statistics are even worse for certain LGBTQ+ youth of color: While around 12% of white youth attempted suicide, 21% of Black youth did so, along with 18% of Latinx youth and 31% of Native and Indigenous youth. Meanwhile, nearly three-quarters of LGBTQ+ youth reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder “in the past two weeks,” and 62% reported symptoms of depression. I wish I could say these statistics shock me, but they don’t.

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But there’s still hope: The Trevor Project’s National Survey notes, “LGBTQ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity reported lower rates of attempting suicide than those who did not.” Students may not be able to find representation in the classroom, but that doesn’t mean they won’t see themselves in schools at all — not if they and their friends keep speaking up, at least.

Students in Florida (and around the country) are fighting back against the Don’t Say Gay policy with peer-led walk-outs, protesting this law in support of themselves and their classmates. In Louisiana, where a similar bill is in the works, students are already protesting. It would have meant everything to me as a kid if the friends I loved and the peers I sat beside for hours took action against the anti-gay messaging promoted in my school system. Today’s students have the right to protest — and just the impact of speaking up can mean so much.

Kids can also consider starting, or joining, GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) clubs or other groups to explore the questions they struggle with on top of feeling alone. “A peer space that is safe and affirming so that young people can be with other young people like them — GSA [clubs] but also Black Student Unions or any other identity-specific groups — are key to student success and belonging,” says Melanie Willingham-Jaggers. They’re the director of GLSEN, an educational organization working to promote LGBTQ+-inclusive schools and educational policies. They explained to me there are four core key supports needed in a classroom in order for an LGBTQ+ person to thrive: comprehensive policies, supportive educators, a GSA or other peer space that is safe and affirming, and an inclusive curriculum. For people to succeed, they need to feel like they belong — and teachers and administrators don’t have a monopoly on saying who gets to belong. “We know that we exist in a beautiful array and diversity. That ought to be celebrated,” Willingham-Jaggers says.

When I came out at age 23, the first place I turned was to my queer friends.

But according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the median percentage of schools with a GSA was only around 37% across states in 2018, the most recent year for which data was available. That number rose by six percentage points since 2016 — but with laws like Don’t Say Gay taking effect, students can do more. Groups like these are student organized and student led, giving kids and teens the chance to support each other the way their schools can’t or won’t. When I came out at age 23, the first place I turned was to my queer friends, who held me, literally and figuratively, when internalized homophobia and fear ate away at me from the inside. I don’t want kids to have to wait until they are in college to have that support; I want them to have it now.

Speaking from experience, having just one supportive person outside your own home can make all the difference. The first friend I ever told that I wasn’t straight — at a time when I was still trying to find a label for myself — made me feel safe in a way I'd never known before. “Sexuality is different for everyone,” I remember her telling me. It was with the help of friends like her that I was able to shed the heteronormative beliefs that told me I wasn’t “right” and finally thrive. If school authorities won’t, or can’t, be that support, we’ll have to do it for ourselves.

In my coming-out caption on social media, I wrote that I hoped the next generation wouldn’t have to come out, that our current shame and struggles would prove worth it in order to make the world more beautiful. In a world where Don’t Say Gay has become law, that dream hangs in the balance. But I trust my community and the people who held us up when we struggled to find who we are. I refuse to not say gay; I’ll keep saying it, whispering it, shouting it out loud because there are simply too many people who still need to hear it.