Anti-LGBTQ+ laws, rules have students worried about upcoming year

With the 2023-24 school year quickly approaching, many LGBTQ+ students are anticipating changes due to the new laws affecting Florida schools.

The “Parental Rights in Education” bill, known as the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill was originally passed in 2022 and prohibited instruction and discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. The expansion of the bill was passed May 17 of this year and brought the limits from prekindergarten through grade eight.

They also include further book bans and prohibit school employees, contractors or students from being required to use an individual’s correct pronouns.

The Florida Board of Education also approved a similar ban in April at the request of Gov. Ron DeSantis. The board stated it would prohibit instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity through grade 12 unless the subjects are required by existing state standards or reproductive health courses that students can opt out of, but that students would still be allowed to form LGBTQ+ clubs like Gender-Sexuality Alliances.

On July 19, the Florida Board of Education voted to adopt five new rules that will negatively impact LGBTQ+ students in the state.

“This politically-motivated war on parents, students, and educators needs to stop,” said Jennifer Solomon, Equality Florida Parents & Families Support Manager, in a press release. “Our students deserve classrooms where all families are treated with the respect they deserve and all young people are welcomed. Instead, the DeSantis Administration continues to wield the state against us, insisting that politicians know better than we do how best to educate our children. Let parents be parents. Let educators be educators. And stop turning our kids’ classrooms into political battlefields to score cheap points.”

The newly proposed rules are as follows:

-Rule No.: 6A-10.086, “Bathroom Rule – School Board, Charters”: Bans transgender youth from using the bathrooms consistent with their gender identity.

-Rule No.: 6A-10.089, “School Events & Activities Rule”: Attempts to restrict student access to certain extracurricular activities and events by mandating detailed, signed permission slips before a student may participate.

-Rule No.: 6A-1.0955, “Educational Records”: Requires a consent form for a student to use a name other than their legal name. This proposed rule will impact students who prefer to use a shortened version of their first name, a nickname, or any other names, and in application, is at risk of being disproportionately and unfairly applied to transgender students.

-Rule No.: 6A-5.065, “The Florida Educator Accomplished Practices”: Integrates bans on LGBTQ+-inclusive lessons and restrictions on chosen pronoun usage into the Florida Educator Accomplished Practices, which form the foundation of evaluations and certification requirements for instructors.

-Rule No.: 6A-10.081, “Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession in Florida”: Threatens educators with loss of their teaching license if they provide LGBTQ+-inclusive lessons to students, and if they enter bathrooms or use personal pronouns that do not correspond with their so-called biological sex.

“Schools should be safe and welcoming places for all kids. But unfortunately, acting at the behest of the administration of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the Florida State Board of Education is once again attacking the LGBTQ+ community by proposing a slate of hateful rules designed to isolate and demonize LGBTQ+ students,” said Courtnay Avant, Human Rights Campaign’s legislative counsel, in a statement. “The Board is trampling on the rights of parents, and at a time when the state faces a shortage of thousands of educators, is threatening the credentials and jobs of teachers. The Human Rights Campaign strongly opposes these proposed rules and will continue fighting for all LGBTQ+ students in Florida to live free from discrimination.”

Many have also pointed to the vagueness of these laws, leaving what instruction is to be “age appropriate” up to the state rather than being clearly defined in the laws. Critics of the new laws have pointed out that the rhetoric has caused much self-censorship from teachers and school employees in fear of losing their jobs. Many educators are confused as to what that can and cannot say or do in their classrooms under the new laws.

While community leaders like state Reps. Anna V. Eskamani and Michele K. Rayner-Goolsby have been outspoken against these new laws and how they will hurt Florida’s queer youth, LGBTQ+ students and their families are worried about what these new laws will mean for their upcoming school year.

‘Please stop hurting us’

Scarlett Seyler, president of the Queer and Ally Alliance club at Boone High School in Orlando, says the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law has gotten in the way of her club making a safe space for other LGBTQ+ students at her school, adding that she can feel the legislation’s changes in a tangible way on her high school campus.

Many of Seyler’s club events last year were canceled because the school said they were potentially inappropriate for campus. She is worried about the Board of Education pushing the limits into clubs and extracurriculars because clubs like Queer and Ally Alliance may be forced to disband.

“Even if the bill doesn’t yet apply to extracurriculars, it’s already been seeping into every aspect of on-campus life. They say that the rules won’t impact extracurriculars but we have seen our events canceled because of it,” Seyler says, speaking with Watermark before the Board of Education announced its new rules. “I’m worried because the queer community will feel abandoned. We see the disheartenment from LGBTQ+ students as we hear administration say that their hands are tied and there’s nothing they can do.”

Seyler, 17, identifies as queer and says the new laws are dehumanizing to her and other LGBTQ+ students.

“It’s so saddening to see us going backwards. There’s so much hate being lobbed at young people, teenagers are the subject of a lot of hate and political discourse,” she says. “It’s hard to focus on your studies, doing what you’re supposed to be doing, self-discovery, while you’re like the set of a culture war. We shouldn’t have to keep saying ‘we are people too, please stop hurting us.’”

Impact on mental health

These laws also have a serious impact on the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth, according to The Trevor Project, the leading organization working to end suicide among LGBTQ+ young people.

The organization recently conducted its annual U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People and found that anti-LGBTQ+ victimization contributes to the higher rates of suicide risk reported by LGBTQ+ young people and that transgender and nonbinary people are especially at risk for suicidal tendencies.

The survey also found that 41% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously have considered attempting suicide in the past year—and young people who are transgender, nonbinary and/or people of color reported higher rates than their peers.
There were also some positive statistics that show how society can be helping LGBTQ+ youth and contributing to the betterment of their mental health.

According to the survey, roughly half of transgender and nonbinary young people found their school to be gender-affirming, and transgender and nonbinary young people whose families respect their pronouns reported lower rates of attempting suicide.

Although these may be indirect effects of the recent laws passed in Florida, the laws undeniably have had direct impacts on the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth, as the survey found that nearly one in three LGBTQ+ young people said their mental health was poor most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ+ policies and legislation.

Nearly two in three LGBTQ+ young people said that hearing about potential state or local laws banning people from discussing LGBTQ+ people at school made their mental health a lot worse.

The Trevor Project also noted that while online spaces ranked first in most affirming environments among transgender and nonbinary young people, schools ranked second. This shows the importance of keeping school a place where young people can learn not only the required curriculum but learn about themselves and the people they are becoming, free from government restraints as to what children can read and ask their teachers about.

With an estimated 114,000 queer youth in Florida, according to the Williams Institute, these laws are going to have a signifigant impact on a large portion of Florida’s student body.

‘They’re trying to make us invisible’

Avis Shaw is an 18-year-old recent graduate from Hagerty High School who identifies as nonbinary and asexual. Shaw says that the recent laws make them feel upset, unsafe and as if the government does not want them to exist.

“Learning about gay people is not going to turn your kids gay,” Shaw says when asked about the recent “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” and related book-ban laws and how they have impacted Shaw’s time in school. “Also, it really wasn’t necessary,” they continued. “Because we’re not going into school and going to a certain class and teachers are like, ‘Okay, kids, let’s learn how to be gay.’”

Shaw said that there has never been a significant focus on gay people in schools, but what little inclusivity was provided to students has now been taken away.

“My junior year they started asking everybody for their preferred name and pronouns at the beginning of the year,” Shaw says. “And then that went away senior year after the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill went into effect.”

According to the aforementioned study from The Trevor Project, a majority of LGBTQ+ young people reported being verbally harassed at school because of their identity.

When asked if they consider their school to be a safe space, Shaw responded, “Absolutely not. No.”

Shaw says that the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law and the nation’s gun violence crisis have contributed to more feelings of vulnerability in school.

“It’s hard to feel safe in public schools in general, with the current stuff that’s going on,” Shaw says. “But they’re basically trying to eventually get us to just not exist. It’s hard not to think about that when you go into school every day. I think, ‘If we weren’t in school, would these people hate crime me?’”

When asked about their hopes for future high schoolers, Shaw says that there doesn’t need to be a huge focus on the LGBTQ+ community in classrooms, but that schools could simply incorporate important moments of LGBTQ+ history into the already required history curriculum, such as the Stonewall Riots, and simply let students know that “gay people exist.”

“It just seems like they’re trying to make us invisible,” Shaw says.

Shaw is looking forward to attending college in the fall and hopes to find a more accepting environment outside of the public school system.

A Parent’s Perspective

Lucia is the mother of a nonbinary 7-year-old in Pinellas County. She says her child expressed in their own language that they wanted to use they/them pronouns and after long conversations as a family, they wanted to have those used by others at school also. She says that last school year, her child began using they/them pronouns in their first grade class and switching to preferred bathrooms, but things were not easy for them.

“I went to the school to have a chat and see if they would be an affirming environment or not and asked if they would support my child. Basically the principal stated that by law, they could not discriminate. That’s all she said. Every other question I asked about bathrooms or using my child’s pronouns, none of those questions were answered. I felt very dismissed, so we realized this wasn’t the right place for us,” Lucia says.

She says her and her husband made the choice to enroll their child in private school for the upcoming year in hopes that they will be respected and acknowledged in their identity.

“We feel confident that this new school will be okay because of their values, but nothing is guaranteed. We have anxiety about the unexpected,” Lucia says. “We have no way to ensure that our kid won’t go through negative experiences. As parents it’s really hard to know that there’s no guarantee for your kid to feel safe.”

Lucia says that another thing that gives her hope is support from the LGBTQ+ community. She says she will voice her opinion as an ally when others may not feel safe to do so. She says that organizations like PFLAG and Queer Expressions in St. Petersburg have been very supportive of her family’s journey.

“I have been so impressed by the community and how many queer people are very open to treat us as family and to make sure my kid has a safe place,” Lucia says. “Florida isn’t all like the news talks about, not everyone is homophobic or transphobic. The community’s resilience gives me the most hope.”

She wishes that people would be more open-minded and would actually get to know people who are trans or nonbinary to really understand their struggles.

“It’s not a trend, it’s not a choice, it’s not confusion.”

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