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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' 'Don't Say Gay' bill will hurt LGBTQ teens

These new anti-LGBTQ bills are variations of old tricks trotted out by conservatives.
Image: A multi-colored pride flag flies as people participate in the Pride Parade in Miami.
A huge multicolored flag flies over Ocean Drive as people participate in the Pride parade, during the Miami Beach Pride Festival, in Lummus Park, South Beach, Fla., on Sept. 19.Giorgio Viera / AFP via Getty Images file

In a continuation of their assault on truth and diversity in schools, Florida Republicans have temporarily turned their gaze away from “critical race theory” and back to LGBTQ children whose very existence they’d like to deny.

Florida Republicans have temporarily turned their gaze away from “critical race theory” and back to LGBTQ children whose very existence they’d like to deny.

Last month, the state’s House Education and Employment Committee moved forward the Parental Rights in Education bill, more popularly and accurately known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It’s an archaic piece of legislation that seeks to block any LGBTQ curriculum from being taught in schools, but many activists fear it will set the stage for LGBTQ students, parents and even teachers to be silenced.

“There’s a lack of clarity on what this bill is seeking to do,” Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director of Equality Florida, told lawmakers at last week’s committee hearing. “But what we do know is that LGBTQ people are a normal, healthy part of our society. We’re parents, students and teachers. We are your brothers and your sisters. Conversations about us aren’t something dangerous that should be banned.”

If (when?) this bill becomes law, it would not only be on the wrong side of history, but it would also have a deadly fallout. Because we already know what pushing LGBTQ kids back into closets does to them — and to all of us.

According to a recent Trevor Project study, 42 percent of LGBTQ youth said they have seriously considered suicide due to anti-LGBTQ sentiment, and according to GLSEN — the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network — 70 percent said they have been harassed at school for being LGBTQ.

During the last few years, we have seen a sharp increase in legislation that seeks to Make America More Homophobic Again (to borrow from our previous president’s mantra), and 2022 is slated to be even worse, with at least 280 anti-LGBTQ proposals heading to statehouses. From the anti-trans legislation literally trying to rip transgender children from their parents in Texas to Arizona’s focus on banning children from playing on sports teams that affirm their lived experience.

These efforts aren’t exactly new. There is a long history of states trying to block LGBTQ people from being accepted in public schools. In the 1980s and ‘90s, states including Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma passed legislation limiting how LGBTQ people could be discussed in schools — and even still have them on the books, while most others have overturned them in the past few years.

There is a long history of states trying to block LGBTQ people from being accepted in public schools.

While these new bills are variations of old tricks trotted out by conservatives, they are being proposed in an environment where, according to countless studies, LGBTQ people are more accepted than they've ever been by a majority of Americans. We also know that LGBTQ people are more represented than they’ve ever been in media and more people than ever identify as a member of the LGBTQ community.

But even with LGBTQ acceptance at historic highs, the discrimination that members of this community — especially youths — still face leads to higher rates of suicide attempts, homelessness and many other negative outcomes.

The passage of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and others like it will only make these rates go up. Republicans framing such legislation as a “parental rights” issue ignore that it will likely lead to some meaningful percentage of parents losing their children.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely Republican candidate for president in 2024, has been stoking the GOP’s obsession with threats that aren’t real. In the case of this anti-gay legislation, he is framing it as a “parental rights” agenda. He appears to be trying to use such legislation to bolster his political fortunes.

But LGBTQ kids' lives should not be reduced to chess pieces in DeSantis’ political games. Not only are efforts to silence discussions on sexuality and gender in schools likely to lead to more deaths, but such bans will not stop any young person, LGBTQ or otherwise, from growing up to be who they are.

"There was no book that I read that brought me to who I am," Shevrin Jones, an openly gay Florida state senator, smartly reminded the homophobic supporters of the bill before it passed the committee.

I can attest to that: I didn’t read a book that made me gay, either. So these bills do nothing but harm students — and Florida officials need to admit that.

"This blatantly hostile legislation is Governor DeSantis and his allies' latest attack on our state's most vulnerable communities," Jones said in a Friday statement. "Every Florida student, including our LGBTQ+ kids, deserves to learn in safe, inclusive environments where they are treated with dignity and respect — not be further isolated, stigmatized or dehumanized because of who they are. Conversations about gender identity and orientation are not taboo topics to be regulated by the Florida Legislature, so this bill is rich coming from the party that conveniently wraps itself in 'small government' rhetoric."

It’s clear that Republicans who support this bill and are increasing their vitriol don’t see us LGBTQ people as worth saving. While I do have faith that over time more people will side with LGBTQ people, in the meantime, we can’t ignore these efforts to set aside reality, these efforts to erase us through book bans or whatever else they can think of. Queer people have always existed, and we always will.