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Opinion: Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill Undermines the Education of All Students

By Noah Maitland

In my seventh period English class, we just finished reading Catcher in the Rye. We were discussing the examples of declining mental health in the main character, Holden Caulfield, and one of my friends brought up the topic of his sexuality. It wasn’t the centerpiece of our conversation and none of us necessarily agreed about whether Holden was straight or queer or if it even mattered, but it was still a significant part of our discussion and got us to expand the way we viewed the character.

A new Florida education bill, HB 1557, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was approved by Florida governor Ron DeSantis on March 28th. The bill goes into effect July 1, 2022. Its primary goal is the ‘protection’ of students from discussions of sexual orientation and gender.

This bill is just one of a long history of homophobic policies put in place by the United States government to mask the existence of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s been compared to “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell," a policy that existed in the U.S. military for years which stated that queer individuals were permitted to serve in the military provided they didn’t disclose their identity. Both “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and HB 1557 stem from the idea that ignoring the LGBTQ+ community will diminish its prevalence. In reality all it does is leave individuals isolated, uninformed, and unsupported.

Preventing the discussion of queerness in schools alienates LGBTQ+ students and leaves them isolated and at risk. Schools are already not a safe space for many LGBTQ+ youth. Transgender, gay and bisexual youth are all more likely to struggle with threats, bullying, and suicidal tendencies, according to a 2019 study. Further demonization of queer identities could increase hostility towards students who don’t adhere to "cishet" (cisgender, heterosexual) norms.

Whenever you don’t talk about a topic there’s always a reason and there’s always an effect that follows. When you don’t talk about topics, they become convoluted and intimidating. In the same way we shirk away from discussion of queer sexuality, we also, particularly in American society, often approach heterosexual sexuality with the same caution. Fear around sexuality increases misinformation and takes control away from all individuals. States that rely on abstinence only education leave their students at an increased risk for unwanted pregnancy. To diminish this kind of fear, many LGBTQ+ advocates are pushing for more inclusive sex education that would not only provide comprehensive education for cisgender, straight students, but for every student. Unfortunately, before we can begin to discuss queer sex education, we need to make sure we’re able to discuss queerness at all.

The conversation of classroom discussion of LGBTQ+ identities isn’t entirely black and white. It needs to be talked about, but the way it’s talked about is just as important. Obviously productive discussions of queerness don’t include locker-room talk and guys yelling slurs at each other across the room. Even in more liberal spaces like New York classrooms, there are passive examples of misinformation.

In an interview with LGBTQ+ high school students from Westchester county, several recounted events that ranged from something as seemingly trivial as teachers and classmates assuming that the girls in the class like boys to something as hostile as denying the validity and existence of transgender identity and using derogatory language. Passive mistakes like conforming to heteronormative ideas of sexuality and relationships and assuming that all students are automatically straight are much less serious and for the time being, don’t require much attention.

Thankfully, in that interview students shared mostly positive examples of conversations around queerness. These examples included teachers asking gender queer students about their “pronouns and new name,” teachers educating students on the impacts and history of slurs against the LGBTQ+ community, and teachers inviting conversations about families, relationships and gay parents.

Another significant portion of the bill is requiring educators to “out” LGBTQ+ students to their parents if they’re made aware of their student’s identity, leaving children from some households at risk.

Coming out is a rite of passage for most members of the LGBTQ+ community. In general, every queer person at one point or another ends up in a situation where they feel required to declare an incredibly personal fact about their identity to an audience, whether it be friends, family, or sometimes even random strangers. Every single time someone comes out there’s a degree of risk. No matter how well one knows the people to whom one is coming out and how liberal or accepting they seem, there’s always a chance that things will go wrong.

Before coming out most people test the waters by talking about queer celebrities and queer friends and seeking to learn the other person's opinions on those topics. Talking about queerness is essential for young queer kids discovering and declaring their identities and remains essential as those kids grow up. “Don’t Say Gay” not only strips them of the opportunity to start those discussions but also potentially strips them of the opportunity to come out at all, at least on their own terms.

The censorship of HB 1557 doesn’t just impact queer students, though. It also takes away from the educational experience of cisgender, straight students. Queerness has been prevalent in media and history since the dawn of recorded time. Cultures like the Greeks had queerness ingrained as an accepted part of their culture, and many historical events relate so heavily to queerness that they cannot be accurately taught without it. There are also examples that hit closer to home with many great British and American novels having queer undertones, which when acknowledged can expand readers' understanding of texts. For example, the classic The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde provides a moving commentary on vanity, and Oscar Wilde’s identity as a gay man in that time period helps readers gain a greater understanding of the relationships and motivations of various characters and altogether expands the story.

The LGBTQ+ community isn’t going away, and no bill is ever going to change that, so for the sake of every queer kid and their family and friends and even straight kids with no direct connections to the queer community, it’s essential we not only allow for conversations of gender and sexual orientation, but also specifically educate everyone regarding those topics, so those conversations are more intelligent, respectful and productive.

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