Georgia teen: School should be safe haven for students to say and be gay

A billboard along I-95 in Hollywood, Florida, on May 26, 2022, is part of an 80-billboard campaign to combat Florida's new "Parental Rights in Education" law, labeled "Don't say gay" by critics. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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A billboard along I-95 in Hollywood, Florida, on May 26, 2022, is part of an 80-billboard campaign to combat Florida's new "Parental Rights in Education" law, labeled "Don't say gay" by critics. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)

Credit: TNS

In a guest column, 17-year-old Hunter Buchheit talks about efforts to eliminate recognition and discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools.

Increasingly, Georgia school boards are under siege to cull their libraries of “obscene books,” which are often those with LGBTQ themes.

A Walton High School student, Buchheit says his love for politics, social issues, and music guides him through his writing process and his life.

By Hunter Buchheit

Coming out — the process by which LGBTQ+ people disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity — is difficult. It is not a one-and-done event. It is not a single conversation or three-word summary, “I am gay/transgender/etc.” Coming out is a process.

Throughout my dozens of coming-outs, I have realized how lucky I am; everyone in my life has accepted me for me. But for many teens, a different scenario — one of little to no acceptance — is reality. They must keep their identities to themselves and seek avenues of self-expression.

This is why, for many queer teens, school is relief. Teens can be who they are at school. They can express themselves, talk how they want to talk, and be friends with those who love them for who they are.

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Hunter Buchheit

Credit: Courtesy photo

Hunter Buchheit

Credit: Courtesy photo

Combined ShapeCaption
Hunter Buchheit

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

The large majority of friends I have made over this past year are part of the LGBTQ+ community. And, with them, I have had many conversations about identity, coming out and staying out. One of the most worrying discussions has centered on the numerous anti-LGBTQ+ bills that have passed in Southern states these past few months.

Among the most prominent has been Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, signed into law in March by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. The law bans “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten to third grade “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

Reading between the lines, the law leaves space for unaccepting schools to hush mention of LGBTQ+ people and any issues associated with them. Talks of Pride Month or to even display of a simple rainbow or pride flag could be shut down with the excuse of protecting children from talks of identity.

It is clear to me and my friends, however, that most Republican legislators have no issue with displays of heterosexuality in school. Much of the media I consumed in my elementary years was centered on crushes, marriage and love, always in an unflinching straight way.

Teachers would tease me, asking if I “liked” the girls I talked to. Parents would do the same. We were in second, third, and fourth grades. I suspect many of these same parents and teachers would see a pride flag in a classroom as a grave overstep, an act of indoctrination. Yet, teasing 8-year-olds about having a girlfriend or holding mock marriage ceremonies is accepted.

In our own state, Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law House Bill 1084, adding a last-minute amendment with the intent of creating a ban on transgender girls from participating in female sports teams. According to Kemp, the law “protects fairness in school sports.”

Soon after its passage, the Georgia High School Association implemented a trans ban, even as the GHSA conceded it knows of no current trans high schoolers competing in the state. Nor had GHSA received any complaints.

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A grave misconception by Republican lawmakers creating bills targeting transgender student-athletes is that students are transitioning “to get an edge” in their respective sport. No, they are transitioning to feel comfortable in their skin, to bring who they are to the surface and leave behind the previous expression of self that did not represent them.

Suggesting that teens would undergo such a world-shattering, life-changing process to perform better in a sport is ridiculous and shameful. Along with their discriminatory nature, these bills will make it more difficult for teens to accept their identities.

When the schools, legislators and laws in your life are telling you it is wrong to be anything besides straight and cisgender, you begin to believe it. According to Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Equality, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization in Georgia, these discriminatory laws threaten teens both in and out of schools. In fact, 85% of LGBTQ young people say the excruciating public debate targeting their rights has negatively affected their mental health, according to a recent poll by the Trevor Project, which focuses on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth.

This stress is compounded on top of the already high rates of suicide and depression within the queer teen community. Coping with the new realities these bills will create can be difficult. Seeing the idea of your existence being debated can be dehumanizing and depressing.

But contrary to what Republicans say — through their words, laws and demonization of LGBTQ+ people — it is OK to be queer. And it is more than OK to fight for the right to express yourself at school, to fight for the right to participate in the sports you want to play, and to fight for the right to have your teachers and curriculum not only acknowledge but support your existence.

This month is Pride Month, a celebration of identity and acceptance that has been embraced by people of all backgrounds, orientations, and identities for decades. So, celebrate. Say “gay.” Say “lesbian,” “transgender,” “nonbinary,” “asexual.” Say who you are in the face of those telling you that you do not belong and say it proudly.

Hunter Buchheit, the author of this guest column, attends Walton High School in Cobb County.