A bill that aims to restrict Florida public schools from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity has passed both houses of the state’s legislature. It is a part of “a wave of anti-L.G.B.T.Q. crackdowns by conservative politicians,” Maggie Haberman writes, also pointing to the efforts of Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, to classify widely accepted medical treatments for transgender adolescents as “child abuse.”
What do you want the adults enacting this legislation to know about how it affects teenagers? If you were going to speak to your state legislature about anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation, what might you say?
Will Larkins, a high school junior, did just that. Larkins appeared before a Florida Senate committee and wrote a guest essay in The New York Times, “Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill Will Hurt Teens Like Me.” In it, Larkins writes:
Last October, I attended a high school Halloween party. A group of guys from my school surrounded me and shouted homophobic slurs. One even threatened me with physical violence. When I broke down crying in class the next day, my teacher comforted me. She told me that she had gone through something similar when she was my age.
On Tuesday, the Florida Senate approved the Parental Rights in Education bill, also known as the Don’t Say Gay bill. The bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he will sign, seeks to ban public schools in the state from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through the third grade, or through the 12th grade in a manner deemed “age-inappropriate” by parents. Had the proposed law been in effect last year, my teacher could have put herself in jeopardy by being there for me.
From an early age I knew I was different. I wasn’t interested in the things other boys my age did, and I didn’t really feel comfortable in the clothes my parents bought me. The struggle for acceptance was not just internal, it also felt as if my classmates didn’t know what to make of me. By fourth grade I was convinced that I was broken. I didn’t know how to defend myself when other kids made hateful comments or bullied me — I didn’t know why I was the way that I was. Without the vocabulary to articulate why I felt and acted like this, I assumed what they said about me was true. For most of the kids in my grade, I was the only kid like me they knew.
My life changed the summer before seventh grade. A girl at an arts summer camp turned to me on the first day and asked, “Are you L.G.B.T.Q.?” She explained what each letter meant and showed me pictures of RuPaul on her phone. It felt as if a weight had been taken off my shoulders. The realization that I wasn’t the only one saved my life. I remember stepping away and calling my best friend at the time: “Max, I think I am gay.”
When I came home from camp, I became fascinated with learning more about queer culture. I read about Georgia Black, a Black trans woman who lived close to where I do now in the early 1900s, and I learned that in pre-Colonial times, more than 150 Indigenous tribes acknowledged third genders in their community and three to five gender roles: female, male, Two Spirit female, Two Spirit male and transgender. I realized how common the experience of falling outside of the gender binary was. As I learned about the history and culture of my community, I grew to understand and love myself. Education made me hate myself less.
Students, read the entire article, then use the questions below to help you think through a message to your own state legislators.
What is your reaction to what activists are calling the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would limit discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools? How do you think this policy could affect students?
Have you followed news about the Florida bill or Mr. Abbott’s directive to report medical treatment for transgender teenagers as “child abuse”? What arguments have you heard either in favor of or against either of these orders? Are any of them compelling to you?
How are gender and sexual identity discussed in your school, if at all? What messages do you think your teachers and administrators have sent to students through the way they approach — or ignore — these topics?
How has your own sexual orientation or gender identity affected your experience as a student? Have you experienced homophobia or transphobia at school, or witnessed it directed at others?
From your experience or observations, how safe is your school for L.G.B.T.Q. students? How, if at all, do you think your school’s curriculum or culture should change in order to be more responsive to L.G.B.T.Q. students?
Once you have thought through these questions, return to the question we began with:
If you were going to speak to lawmakers in your state about anti-L.G.B.T.Q. legislation, what would you say? What might you tell them about how Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill could affect you and other teenagers? If you would like to take a closer look at the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, here is a detailed description.
Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.