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So We Can't Say Gay?

The emergence of “Don’t Say Gay'' bills in conservative-leaning states in the U.S. initially restricted the teaching of LGBTQ topics to youth in K-3 classrooms. As these bills have been broadened, they have come to incite wide apprehension towards topics such as pronoun usage in schools. To many, the trajectory of these bills incites deep concern in regard to human rights as dignity.


Christian Thomas | Christian.Thomas@yale.edu


“Last year we could call them Mx Kendrick,” said Winter, a student at Teague Middle School in Central Florida. “But this year we have to call them ‘Miss’ even though they are non-binary. I heard that other teachers will get fired if they call Mx Kendrick “Mx” instead of “Miss,” even though that is how they identify.”


Mx, pronounced “Mix,” is a gender-neutral title used by people who do not identify with the traditional titles Mr, Ms, or Mrs. 


The anxiety and apprehension surrounding pronoun usage in schools have been spreading throughout Florida and conservative-leaning states in the US, coinciding with the attention-grabbing “Don't Say Gay” bills. A year after Governor Ron DeSantis signed the “Don't Say Gay” bill into law, Winter, a thirteen-year-old queer student, reflects on how the repercussions of this legislation have left her feeling uncomfortable and disregarded in her school environment.


She explains her struggle with the limits on student expression and the anxiety surrounding her sexuality and identity. As a pansexual student in Florida, Winter finds herself constantly needing to “prove” herself to peers, often feeling isolated as a result. Unlike students in other parts of the country who have grown up with Gay and Lesbian Equality Network/Gay Straight Alliance (GLSEN/GSA) clubs and LGBTQ safe spaces in their schools, Winter lacks access to these resources. She and her queer peers are left to navigate their identities independently due to state rhetoric that inhibits any discussion about who they are.


“I have to try and do extra to prove my worth to teachers who say they are homophobic, or I believe they are homophobic and don’t want to take any chances with,” Winter said. 


Winter is one of over 2.8 million students in the Florida public school system who have been affected by the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. Formally known as the Parental Rights in Education, Section 1, Subsection C3 of the bill states that “[c]lassroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”


Initially, the bill was directed solely at K-3rd grade classrooms, with supporters arguing it aimed to grant parents control over the introduction and discussion of LGBTQ topics to their children. It provided parents the option to challenge school districts if they felt this was breached legally. However, in April 2023, the scope of this bill broadened to encompass all public school students from K-12 grades. For some, this confirmed the purpose of the bills as eroding LGBTQ support within schools and isolating LGBTQ students and staff.


The bill effectively requires teachers to “out” LGBTQ students to their legal guardians regardless of their ability or inability to accept and support their children. According to Vinette Young, a school counselor of 20 years currently at Lake Bentley High School, the negative impacts of this bill are extensive.


After working extensively in the New York City Department of Education with a focus on special education and spending time in the Department of Corrections, Young decided to enter full-time counseling. She explains this choice was motivated by her passion to work alongside others to solve problems, especially students.


The first thing Young, as a Jamaican native, wanted to do after this bill was passed was to scream “no.” She argues that this bill removes a network of safety for students of many different backgrounds. 


“School is supposed to be a safe spot. Once we infringe on what students should or should not do… we are immediately taking away that safety net,” Young said.


Young detailed the impact of new legislation on the work environment, describing it as “cautious” and “strained,” particularly for new teachers at her school. She recounted an incident where a new teacher, during a discussion about families, became unsure when a student mentioned having two moms. The teacher hesitated and halted the conversation, seemingly attempting to silence the student. This action prompted several students to approach Young, expressing that the teacher’s response made them feel as though their family was being erased and that they were unable to share their reality.


In this specific case, a student who cherishes their two mothers and sees their family dynamic as normal and natural was deprived of the opportunity to express that in class. Meanwhile, their peers with heteronormative family backgrounds were allowed to freely share their family stories. However, this pattern is a pervasive trend across teachers in Florida.


According to Young, the bill’s impact has drastically curtailed students’ ability to explore and assert their identities freely. Prior to the bill, Lake Bently staff were encouraged to honor students’ self-identified pronouns and names. However, starting in August 2022, the entire faculty was mandated to refer to students by the names listed in the official online database, disregarding their chosen identities. Consequently, teachers were compelled to use the names assigned by students’ parents, a practice known as “deadnaming,” rather than the names aligned with students' true identities.


Young highlights the irony of the prohibition for discussing the nearby Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, just a brief 30-minute drive from the high school, within conversations about current events. She passionately expresses her frustration at the omission of the “vibrant history of LGBTQ+ individuals” from figures like Oscar Wilde to Marsh P. Johnson in classes such as history and English. Additionally, she criticizes the argument that elementary students are too young to learn about sexual orientation, pointing out the varied approaches to teaching the subject across different grade levels.


Before the bill, support for LGBTQ+ students existed outside the classroom in the form of an LGBTQ+ Club at Lake Bentley. Like other student-ran extracurriculars, this one required a teacher sponsor to operate. However, after the passage of the bill, all of the teachers rescinded their agreement to sponsor the club. Although some might have been open to it, the ambiguous consequences, threats of legal action, and ongoing controversies made many abandon the idea of sponsorship. 


“For me, as a counselor, we are just putting our kids at a greater risk of bullying, depression, suicide, self-harm… and these are things that we already deal with on our high school campuses every day,” said Young. 


Spaces that once were created to counter these, such as LGBTQ+ clubs, have ceased to exist at Lake Bentley High School. 


Florida isn't an isolated case regarding anti-LGBTQ education policies in the United States. Since the enactment of the “Don't Say Gay” bill, forty-one bills have emerged in twenty-two states, aiming to restrict discussions on LGBTQ+ topics within public schools. Six of these states — including Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, and North Carolina — have enacted legislation that prohibits classroom discourse about sexual orientation or gender identity within specific grade levels. Dr. Talya Zurich-Bersin, the Education Studies Senior Capstone Coordinator and a lecturer in Education Studies at Yale University, has been teaching a seminar titled “Education and the Culture Wars” since 2018. Governor DeSantis' actions ignited — or, as Zurich-Bersin suggests, re-ignited — the "Culture Wars" in public education, sparking a wave of anti-LGBTQ policy.


Before the "Don't Say Gay" bill garnered attention and spurred nationwide change, the course had already delved into discussions about the anti-LGBTQ culture wars in public schools. Nonetheless, the seminar had previously explored these culture wars through the lens of Andrew Hartman's essay, in which he declared culture wars "dead." This assertion stands in stark contrast to the present reality, where culture wars are evidently alive within public education.


Before the Bill, the seminar covered instances of blacklisting and dismissal of queer educators, highlighting figures such as Harvey Milk, and examined California's legislative attempts to bar gay individuals from teaching. Discussions also delved into controversial subjects like LGBTQ+ inclusion in sexual education and the struggles for transgender youth to access gender-affirming bathrooms. However, the course did not previously encompass the extent of modern-day complete prohibitions of LGBTQ+ topics, as seen with the introduction of the "Don't Say Gay" bills.


Zurich-Bersin observed a shared perception of progressive change among queer individuals and academics, summarizing it as a cultural shift, especially among educators. She expressed that “things have changed” and “ teachers have culturally evolved.” Therefore, it was surprising for her to observe what appeared to be a halt, or at least a significant setback, in the fight for progressive changes within the academic community. It seemed as though efforts were being made to reverse these advances, with school boards potentially reigniting the historical culture wars, pushing back against the progress that had been made.


Offering a ray of hope amidst the current changes, however, Zurich-Bersin draws on Steven Prothero’s insights regarding the culture wars. Prothero suggests that in these wars, the "right-wing" often ends up on the losing side, even when they secure electoral victories. The reason for this, he argues, is that they engage with cultural issues that society has already moved past in a more progressive direction. In essence, conservative groups, like those behind the “Don't Say Gay” movement, are trying to roll back cultural norms that have already progressed or been widely accepted. These conservative efforts are essentially attempts to reverse a societal shift towards more progressive values. This demonstrates a disconnect between their political efforts and the public's increasingly progressive views.


In the context of this movement, people are accepting of the LGBTQ+ community. Support for same-sex marriage is at an all-time high, support for protecting transgender people against discrimination is increasing, and the overall support for LGBTQ+ has primarily increased, even amidst the passage of these bills. Conservatives have caused a public outcry and moved legislation for the moment, but Prothero argues, while this was a good tactic for winning elections, it is not sustainable. 


One of the most famous advocacy groups for these policies is Moms for Liberty, a far-right parents group against school curricula related to “LGBTQ rights, race and ethnicity, critical race theory, and discrimination,” which serves as an example of diminishing conservative influence.


While members campaigned and won seats on Boards of Education across the country, politicizing the school board with conservative opposition, outward bigotry, and anti-gay sentiments up to 2022, by the 2023 elections, many of these members had lost their seats in government. They won the election in the short term, but as Prothero predicted, lost the ability to make any substantive change. 


The “Don't Say Gay” bills, while seemingly a triumph for conservative groups, paradoxically illuminate the deepening rift between such political agendas and the evolving societal views on LGBTQ+ rights. Despite these legislative setbacks, the broader cultural landscape is shifting towards greater acceptance and support for LGBTQ+ individuals. 


The right to be treated equally without discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is a basic human right that everyone should be able to enjoy. What started in Florida and has spread against the United States is another example of the abridgment of the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. These bills affect students’ rights to privacy against unwarranted intrusions into one’s private life, students’ freedom of expression, students’ right to safety, and so much more. 


The immediate reality for queer students in states like Florida remains challenging, with their voices stifled and identities marginalized. The ongoing battle for LGBTQ+ rights in education is not just a political issue but a crucial aspect of human rights and dignity. As advocates continue to push back against regressive policies, the hope for a more inclusive and accepting educational environment for all students, like Winter, persists. The real victory lies in ensuring that every student's identity is acknowledged and valued, paving the way for a truly progressive and equitable educational landscape.


Writer’s Reflection

As a queer student in Baltimore County Public Schools, I witnessed a shift throughout my thirteen years of public education which created more supportive and uplifting environments for my fellow LGBTQ+ students and me. However, with the prevalence of "Don't Say Gay" bills, I watched as the rhetoric in Florida spread throughout Maryland with a policy intending to ban pride flags in Carrol County, Maryland, and lawsuits against Montgomery County Public Schools for requiring students to learn about LGBTQ+ topics. As a student of Education Studies at Yale, this all hits close to home. I enjoyed speaking directly with students and counselors in Florida about the day-to-day effects of these policies. The interview with Mrs. Young was very emotional for me, as she spoke directly about the experiences of students in such vivid detail, and imagining myself in the position was quite disheartening. I don't know if I would be a student at Yale today without a supportive school environment. Most of my material came from tracking this work in another project I am working on related to federal protections against anti-LGBTQ+ education policies. I was limited in my ability to contact more people to interview, as I do not have many connections in Florida, however am grateful for the interviews I did have.

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