When I started teaching high school over 15 years ago, I was an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. But I was an ally who didn’t really understand how desperately allies are needed, nor did I understand the many ways I could make school safer and more affirming for my students.
Over my years of teaching, I came to be a safe person, my classroom a safe space, for many of my students. Often these were students who were unable to be themselves at home, due to fear of rejection, or worse. Many of these students spent their school days avoiding scrutiny, avoiding attention, just wanting to get through what seemed to be a dangerous and unwelcoming climate.
I eventually formed a “Lunch Bunch” in my classroom, where students and I would practice art, or talk about fun things we’d done recently, or, sometimes, console each other after bullying or isolating events. I realized that over half of the students who came to my Lunch Bunch were LGBTQ, and I realized why: my classroom, for 30 minutes a day, was a place where they were completely accepted for who they were. They didn’t have to hide, or worry, or pretend. In my classroom, they were safe to be themselves.
I left teaching a few years ago to pursue my Master of Social Work from Florida State University. But I’ve kept in touch with many of my students, and with joy and relief I’ve seen them become more confident in their sexual and gender identities and orientations, and blossom as a result. My students did not decide to be non-binary, or queer, or transgender, or gay, in order to be cool, or to make a point. Every day, they struggled with the dichotomy of their sense of self versus the world’s expectations, and every day that struggle took a toll. Forcing LGBTQ kids to hide who they are will not suddenly make them straight and cisgender. It will make them sad, anxious, confused, and, all too often, self-destructive. Forcing them to hide will create a school environment where LGBTQ students do not feel like a welcome and embraced part of the student body, a school environment that is unsafe and detrimental to learning.
What does the Don’t Say Gay law (I hate writing that it’s now a law) do? Critics say, well, it just prevents discussing graphic sexual matters with young kids. But that’s not true. Florida Senator Lauren Book proposed an amendment which allowed discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity as they relate to family structures, historic events, bullying prevention and student individual education plans. That amendment failed. Why? Because this law is intended to shut down conversations about sexual and gender identity entirely. The goal is to prevent normalization of different sexual orientations and gender identities, to label LGBTQ people and LGBTQ families as “other.”
Allowing a second-grader to talk about a family vacation with his dads – discussing LGBTQ people through history who have been harassed and killed because of their gender identity – is not introducing graphic sexual information. It’s just normalizing being LGBTQ.
It is not sexualizing children to say that, sure, men can marry men, women can marry women, marriage is just about two people who love each other. It is not sexualizing children to say that some people feel uncomfortable with the gender they are assigned at birth, and they realize a different gender represents them better. It’s just acknowledging reality.
My website is dedicated to helping educators learn how to make their schools as safe and accepting as possible. To accompany my site, I created a podcast in which I interview, among others, adolescents in Florida. These are children that are being hurt by the hatred, and the inflammatory language. Children who just want to be themselves with safety and acceptance. To hear their stories, listen to my podcasts. This issue is not about concepts, or words – it is about real people who are suffering the consequences of legalized hate.
One student, Nafeeza, talks about crying on the floor, knowing she liked girls but not knowing that it’s okay for girls to like girls. Nafeeza shares how she was told that she should die – should *die* – because she is bisexual, and how her administration has done nothing to address the bullying she has endured. (I am looking at you, administration of Bayside High School, Palm Bay, Florida. Multiple people have shared with me that your school environment is permissive of LGBTQ+ bullying, and that is not okay. Do better for your students. Educators – true educators – protect all of their students. Be true educators, or get another job.)
Denying someone’s existence does not make their existence less real, it just makes them feel less secure and confident. Which, in school, means less able to learn, grow, and develop. Every law that attempts to make LGBTQ+ students disappear is simply an excuse for lawmakers to pander to their base by creating an enemy. Unfortunately, who is the “enemy” in this situation? To these bullying lawmakers and parents, the enemy is children. Children who are crying on their floor because they feel alone and confused. Children who are being told they are not okay, their families are not okay, that who they are can not be discussed, and is not normal. Educators have a responsibility to protect the safety, well-being, and self-esteem of every child in their care. That means protection against bullying, but it also means validation and appreciation for each child’s unique self.
Good educators will not stop being good educators because of this law. But children in need might stop turning to them. One young person I interviewed, Bells, spoke of how their teachers have been a great source of support. But they also said that, with this new law, they might not turn to their teachers any more. To protect their teachers. Think about that.
Parental Rights in Education, it is called. I believe parents have the right to have their LGBTQ+ families discussed openly in all grades. I believe parents have the right for their kids to learn that differences are okay, and not a cause for fear or shame – and certainly not a cause for hate. I believe parents have the right for their children to go to school free from bullying, and to have administrators who punish those who do bully. We have to do better for our children. Florida Republicans. DeSantis. Angry parents. If you’re going to pick on someone, pick on someone your own size.