UPDATE: On Tuesday, March 8, the Florida state Senate voted to pass the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The bill now advances to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed its final committee stop Feb. 28, and is on its way to becoming Florida law. House Bill 1557 is now headed to the Republican-held Senate floor for a vote March 7. Officially known as the Parental Rights in Education bill, the bill would ban the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools, allowing parents to sue teachers who discuss either in the classroom. The bill would also force schools to out LGBTQ+ students to their families without the child’s consent. Advocates say the bill will likely increase the dropout rate for queer and trans youth.
“Students who don’t feel that there’s a positive school climate or that they’re members of a community detach from it, either stop going to classes or stop going to school altogether,” said David Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. “We should expect the students who are pushed out of schools and are told they’re not welcomed there to not show up in those spaces.”
Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill is just one of several recent attempts by Republican state leaders to target LGBTQ+ youth. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to the Department of Family and Protective Services on Feb. 22 calling on them to investigate any reported instances of minors undergoing gender transitioning. He has also called on licensed professionals and members of the general public to report the parents of transgender youth to DFPS if their children are receiving gender-affirming medical care. Abbott’s letter follows an opinion released on Feb. 21 by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, which designates allowing minors to receive transition care as child abuse.
“My biggest concern is that a politician would use their power to knowingly marginalize and hurt innocent children,” said Ricardo Martinez, the CEO of Equality Texas. “We know regardless of their race, their class, their gender, their sexual orientation, or ability, they deserve to live a happy and authentic life without government intrusion. To ban life-saving health care is outrageous, and it’s an abuse of power.”
While advocates say the attorney general’s opinion and Abbott’s directive are not legally binding, trans youth and their supportive communities are already seeing consequences. On March 1, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Texas, and Lambda Legal sued Abbott and DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters to block DFPS from investigating parents who support their children in gender-affirming care. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the mother—a DFPS employee—her husband, and the trans teen herself. According to the complaint, the family has already had an investigator arrive at their home and has filed the lawsuit anonymously. A state court temporarily halted this particular investigation but allowed others to continue under the directive. The court will decide on a state-wide suspension of investigations on March 11.
“The current nature of these laws introduced in Florida and Texas are really about compelling members of a community to surveil and report on other members of that community,” Johns said. “It is about targeting kids in ways that are not only deeply pernicious, but that miss what should be happening in spaces like schools.”
In Florida, Rep. Joe Harding, the Republican House sponsor, followed up with an amendment which he quickly withdrew that would require school principals to disclose a child’s sexual orientation to parents within six weeks upon learning that a student identifies as anything other than heterosexual. He withdrew the amendment on Feb. 22 after public scrutiny. There is no specific timeframe for reporting to parents in the bill’s current version.
Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes offered an additional amendment to the bill Feb. 25 right before it was passed, which changed the language of it from “sexual orientation and gender identity” to “human sexuality or sexual activity.” Brandes said he felt it would reduce tensions over the bill, but it was voted down by party lines. Advocates say the amendment would not have made a difference—the intention to target and bully queer youth remains the same.
“We should all be clear that what was done within the legislation to use a broader term is simply an attempt to obfuscate what has been identified as the core concern of this legislation,” Johns said. “The amendment offered does very little to address the core concern, which is that children who identify as or who more often are assumed to be not cisgender and heterosexual, are being attacked and will be less supported and less safe and less welcomed in the spaces that they are required to show up in by law.”
According to Johns, the issue at the core of creating systems that will hold adults accountable for outing students is incredibly dangerous. Johns, who is conducting research for his dissertation at Columbia University’s department of sociology, said students who identify as or who often are assumed to be LGBTQ+ report that they find schools to be unwelcoming, unsafe, hostile, and sometimes violent.
“Black, trans, queer nonbinary, [gender] nonconforming students, in particular, are hyper-aware of the ways in which they are compelled by law to go to schools—much like prisons—that are not designed for their safety,” Johns said. “These bills are antagonizing already unsafe environments for them.”
According to a 2013 report by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Education Network (GLSEN), over half of the LGBTQ+ students who provided reasons for planning not to finish high school said that their decision was because of hostile or unsupportive school climates. Johns also points to the 80% rise in suicidal ideation amongst Black youth, the most significant increase compared to other races and ethnicities of the same age. According to The Trevor Project, they estimate that at least one LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 13-24 attempts suicide every 45 seconds in the U.S. Bills like “Don’t Say Gay” only make matters worse.
“We’re going to have kids that are familiar with being bullied by state officials, and at worst we’re not going to have our kids at all because the rate of suicide ideation has increased but has always been alarmingly high for trans youth,” said Andrea Segovia, senior field and policy advisor for Transgender Education Network of Texas.
Johns adds that students with multiple marginalized, intersecting identities may also be pulled into the prison-industrial complex or the school-to-prison pipeline.
“We should expect for there to be increases in negative behavioral health outcomes associated with drug and alcohol use, abuse, and misuse, and we should expect for there to be even more signs of distress with regard to mental health and trauma,” Johns said. “These continue to be exacerbated as state legislatures, in particular, decide to be political bullies and attack children who don’t have the same legal protections as their peers who identify as or who are assumed to be both cisgender and heterosexual.”