Opinion: Georgia’s targeting of LGBTQ kids worsens mental health woes

The latest federal data on the well-being of American kids found LGBTQ students were much more likely to have experienced all forms of violence and worse mental health outcomes than straight youths. Schools are being urged to provide safe spaces for LGBTQ kids and promote welcoming and accepting environments.

It would be hard for LGBTQ students to feel safe and accepted if attempts to confide in their teachers and school staff about their sexuality and gender identity must be reported to parents.

That is among the requirements of a “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Georgia patterned after Florida’s law, but more expansive. Senate Bill 88 would ban teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity “other than the child’s biological sex” with students through age 16 unless they first obtain parental consent. In Florida, the prohibition of discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity applies in kindergarten through third grade.

While Georgia’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill didn’t survive last week’s deadline to pass at least one chamber, the Senate approved Senate Bill 140, which would prohibit medical professionals from giving transgender children certain hormones or surgical treatment that assists them in aligning with their gender identity. SB 140 could be amended to include language from SB 88.

The “Don’t Say Gay” bills cropping up nationwide presume schools and teachers are enticing and inciting students to believe they are gay, trans or uncertain. It ignores the reality that many children and adolescents turn to teachers and school staff about these feelings and concerns because they trust them.

Olivia McKenzie, a gay college student from Fulton County, believes schools have to remain places where students can share and teachers can listen. Attempts to silence school discussions suggest there is something inherently wrong with being LGBTQ. “If you have gay kids, gay parents, trans parents and trans kids in your schools and you tell everyone this is wrong, that this can’t be talked about, it will cause bullying and discrimination,” said the 21-year-old, who belongs to the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition.

McKenzie points out lawmakers aren’t demanding teachers alert parents about a student’s heterosexual leanings. “In high schools, you have guys and girls in relationships, and schools aren’t expected to tell parents their kids are dating. We don’t know the consequences students may face if we force them to come out to their parents.” After a friend was forced to come out to family, McKenzie said, “They got sent to a conversion camp in Idaho until they were 18.”

“The role of our teachers is to provide a safe and inclusive learning environment for our kids, free from bullying and discrimination. Bills that force teachers to out LGBTQ+ kids to their parents pit teachers, parents and students against each other, and that hurts all of our kids,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality. “Instead, teachers and parents should be allies with each other, and teachers should not be forced to violate the trust of their students.”

The legislation endangers the mental health of teens already at elevated risk of suicide, said Graham. A national survey released in January by the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth support group, showed debates and laws that restrict the rights of LGBTQ young people are having a negative impact on their mental health.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests schools should be more open to talking with LGBTQ students, not less. The latest CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that high school students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning are at high risk for experiencing violence and suicide. “Tragically, almost half seriously considered suicide, and nearly one in four attempted suicide. This is devastating,” said Dr. Kathleen Ethier, director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, in a media briefing on the survey findings.

Tracey Nance, Georgia 2020 and 2021 Teacher of the Year, wonders why state lawmakers focus on teachers and not parents.

“It is the parents who seem to not understand or have eyes and ears and voices of their own to see what we call gendered behavior in their own children,” Nance told the Senate Education and Youth Committee at a recent hearing. “We need to talk about the parents that are having trouble speaking with their children. If children aren’t talking to parents and they don’t trust their parents, that seems like the bigger issue here. I don’t think we need to put this on teachers.”