Opinion: ‘Don’t Say Gay’ laws harm students already at risk

A billboard along I-95 in Hollywood, Fla., on May 26, 2022, was 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

Credit: TNS

A billboard along I-95 in Hollywood, Fla., on May 26, 2022, was 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)

Wake Forest Law faculty member Marie-Amélie George is an associate professor and an expert on LGBTQ+ rights. In this guest column, George decries the rise of “Don’t Say Gay” bills modeled after Florida’s controversial law.

Georgia saw its own version discussed in a state Senate committee this week. Senate Bill 88 would prohibit Georgia teachers and others overseeing children under 16 from providing sex education without parent consent. They also could not discuss sexual orientation or gender identity “other than the child’s biological sex” absent consent.

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on SB 88: “Parents in Florida have sued, alleging the law there is unconstitutional, violating federally-protected rights including freedom of speech. A lawyer from ACLU Georgia who spoke at Tuesday’s Senate hearing asserted that SB 88 would violate the First Amendment were it to become law as is. The lawyer, Sarah Hunt-Blackwell, added that rising suicide rates among LGBTQ+ students suggest that they need more, not less, conversation about these issues.”

By Marie-Amélie George

A wave of anti-LGBTQ laws is heading for schools in red states. The one that is most likely to sweep Southern legislatures is the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, modeled on the controversial statute that Florida adopted just last year. Georgia, Missouri and North Carolina are debating such laws now, while a coalition of 14 Southern states has urged a federal court to uphold Florida’s legislation. The laws’ sponsors claim to protect parents’ rights by giving them more authority over the content of educational materials.

However, the legislation’s real effect would be to harm children.

Schools are perilous places for LGBTQ teens, who disproportionately suffer verbal harassment and physical abuse at the hands of their prejudiced peers. The consequences of this abuse are all too often deadly. LGBTQ youth are four times more likely than their classmates to seriously consider and attempt suicide. However, schools that have nondiscrimination provisions and include LGBTQ topics in their curricula create much safer environments for these adolescents. LGBTQ teens at schools with LGBTQ-inclusive policies report lower levels of victimization and abuse, as well as higher levels of self-esteem, lower levels of depression, and decreased thoughts of suicide.

Marie-Amélie George

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Instead of instituting these invaluable policies, a “Don’t Say Gay” law would altogether stifle discussions of LGBTQ issues and hamper educators’ ability to create inclusive school environments. Supporters dispute this claim, claiming the law only prohibits instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity that is not “age-appropriate” for children in kindergarten through third grade. The provision’s language appears innocuous, but it is in fact extremely dangerous.

The problem is that “age-appropriate” is in the eye of the beholder, as Florida learned last year. When the Sunshine State enacted its similarly worded law, chaos ensued. No one was sure what the bill actually meant. In Orlando, the district attorneys initially told gay and lesbian teachers that they could no longer display photographs of their same-sex partners, but later revised their guidance. Similar confusion abounded with respect to “safe space” stickers, which are meant to indicate that classrooms are welcoming places for students of all identities. School officials were divided as to whether teachers could display stickers, pins and T-shirts indicating support for LGBTQ individuals.

The end result was that teachers erred on the side of caution. Some obscured their rainbow flags, hanging photographs, posters and calendars on top to camouflage the color bands. Other teachers took down their signs that read “all are welcome.” They were right to be concerned. In October, a West Palm Beach father sued his son’s middle school because the computer science teacher displayed two Pride flags. The parent complained that the teacher was trying to “indoctrinate” the students into the “homosexual lifestyle.”

Teachers were not the only ones to censor their materials. To avoid violating the ambiguous law, school boards did as well. In Miami-Dade County, the district rejected proposed textbooks for middle and high school sexual education classes, leaving teachers without instructional materials for their students. Residents objected to the textbooks’ inclusion of information about abortion and emergency contraception, as well as their acknowledgment that gender identity includes categories other than male or female.

After more than 2,700 people signed a petition asking the board to reverse itself, the board once again approved the books. In other parts of the state, the censorship remained in place. In Palm Beach County, the school board required educators to comb through their classroom books to identify any that ran afoul of the state’s law. If a single teacher in the county determined the book did not fit the law’s mandate, then all educators were required to remove the text from their shelves.

Florida’s experience demonstrates that — just as critics have claimed — the law produces classrooms that erase the identities of LGBTQ individuals. Ignorance all too often breeds contempt, giving rise to hostility and violence. Such an outcome would only serve to harm LGBTQ youth.

Members of state legislatures say they want to protect parents’ rights. But elected officials are also responsible for ensuring children’s welfare — and that includes LGBTQ youth. They would do well to remember that mandate.

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