We're only three months into 2022. And state legislatures across the country have intro'd more than 230 anti-LGBTQ+ bills. This comes after the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) dubbed 2021 the “worst year in recent history” for this type of legislation. Many fear the trend will continue this year. And will have a major impact on LGBTQ+ youth as more legislation aims to limit their rights when it comes to schools, sports, healthcare, and beyond.
Case in point: The Parental Rights in Education bill. Aka the "Don't Say Gay" bill. On March 28, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed it into law — limiting what some students are taught about sexual orientation and gender identity in school. And fueling nationwide outrage. Now let’s get into the specifics of…
The state law blocks teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with students in grades K-3…even though those talks aren’t in the curriculum for those grades. It also applies to student services like counseling. And parents can sue schools if they believe someone is violating the law.
Supporters claim it gives parents more control over their children’s education. But critics point to a number of issues with the law. One being its vague wording. Marie-Amélie George, an associate professor at Wake Forest’s School of Law, is a lawyer and historian specializing in LGBTQ+ legal issues. She explained how the law’s wording can lead to detrimental consequences for teachers and students.
“[With this law,] parents are empowered to sue teachers in school districts who they believe have violated the law. And because there's no standard, because what is appropriate for one person may disagree with another person, it is essentially going to serve as a gag on any discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity,” she said.
It also brings up more questions for what students can learn about in the classroom: Can teachers discuss monumental LGBTQ+ events in history? Can they teach books that include LGBTQ+ characters? Can a student with queer parents talk about what their family did over the weekend? We talked to Cathryn Oakley, the state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, to get her thoughts. Her answer? Probably not.
“The risk of screwing up is going to be so high…the teachers are not going to be able to talk about these issues at all, for fear of screwing up and getting the school sued,” she said.
Since the bill was introduced, high school students across the state have staged walkouts. President Biden called the bill “hateful.” And other politicians, celebs, parents, and students across the country have condemned it.
Disney — one of Florida's largest employers — also took a stand…after facing criticism. CEO Bob Chapek didn't initially publicly condemn the bill. And, turns out, Disney donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawmakers who support the "Don't Say Gay" bill. This resulted in employee walkouts, and Chapek pledging to suspend all political donations to the Sunshine State. Disney also released a statement promising to help repeal the legislation.
Despite backlash, the law will go into effect on July 1. And this isn't the first law in the state to impact children's education — think: book banning to critical race theory. And odds are, it won’t be the last.
In February, Texas AG Ken Paxton said that gender-affirming treatments could be considered "child abuse" under state law. Paxton compared these treatments to sterilization and genital mutilation. And “infringe upon the fundamental human right to procreate." In response, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called on the state's Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate. Saying that doctors, nurses, and teachers would be legally required to report parents who help their kids get this type of care
The ACLU tried shutting it down by suing Texas. A Texas judge partially blocked the order. But it’s unclear if investigations are ongoing. Adri Pérez, policy and advocacy strategist for the ACLU’s Texas affiliate, said parents and hospitals are living in fear of being investigated. And has led some places to roll back care, leaving trans youth unable to get the services they need. And he warned that this isn’t an isolated situation.
“This is not just happening in Texas,” Perez said. “What is happening in Texas is just a bit of the anti-trans attacks happening across the country.” Which brings us to…
The massive uptick in this legislation covers a slew of areas. Including religious exemptions, single-sex facility restrictions, curriculum limitations, and more. And the bills overwhelmingly targeted transgender youth. See: Texas above. But also: Iowa.
In early March, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill preventing trans girls and women from playing on female sports teams — from kindergarten through college. Which means they would have to play alongside boys and men. In the first few months of 2022, the South Dakota Senate passed the first trans sports ban. And is expected to go into effect this summer. Kentucky’s General Assembly has moved forward with a similar bill, sending the measure to Gov. Andy Beshear.
Meanwhile, 26 other states are trying to pass similar sports bans. And more than 15 legislatures are reviewing bills that would ban access to medical treatment, similar to Texas. And Alabama is in the process of approving a transgender students bathroom ban. Meaning: Trans students couldn’t use school bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.
To see what other states are considering anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, check out the map below:
There’s no clear answer. But one part of the equation may be politically motivated. By rolling back LGBTQ+ rights, lawmakers could potentially secure votes from like-minded people.
“There's a coordinated, right-wing fringe movement to fund the legislators that support these measures,” Pérez said.
Opponents of these bills also think lawmakers are trying to stop any progress the community has made. “What they really care about is trying to get rid of LGBTQ equality. Trying to peel back the gains we have made. And ultimately trying to eliminate LGBTQ people from popular consciousness, history, books, and conversation in general,” Oakley said.
And Kirsty Clark, a psychiatric epidemiologist and assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, explains how these bills are used as scare tactics to achieve a goal.
“While there may be many stated purposes of these and similar bills, the ultimate purpose of LGBTQ+ restrictive bills like these is often to create a ‘chilling effect.’ Whereby teachers are afraid to discuss LGBTQ+ lived experiences at school, and healthcare providers are afraid to provide necessary gender-affirming medical care to transgender youth,” she said.
“The bills ultimately stoke fear in educators, healthcare providers, parents, and families,” Clark added. “And attempt to silence LGBTQ+ young people.” Which can have some significant long-term and short-term effects…
While these laws are framed as being “pro-parents’ rights,” George said they’re really hurting everyone. “By claiming to support one, they're harming another. And the people they're harming really get pushed under the radar.”
And this can have major consequences on mental health. “In addition to the direct negative effects of disrupting gender-affirming medical care for trans youth, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation can potentially cause young LGBTQ+ people to internalize negative messages about themselves, leading to isolation and loneliness and fostering negative emotions like guilt and shame,” Clark said.
Not to mention, if you’re a person of color in the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ students of color in Florida have said they felt anxious since the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was introduced. And in 2020, the National Black Justice Coalition reported that more than half of Black LGBTQ+ students already felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation. Which could be made worse by this kind of legislation.
In the long term, experts are confident many of these bills won’t come to fruition. But it’s the short term that’s scarier. Oakley from the Human Rights Council told us, “What I'm worried about is…what happens to these kids in Texas? And states outside of Texas, who look at Texas and are afraid? What about the kids in Florida who are hearing all of this rhetoric coming from their legislators? What is the message they're taking away from this?”
Here are a few expert-vetted ideas for how you can lend a hand to help LGBTQ+ youth, no matter where you are. Including…
Pick up the phone. Call your state legislators and speak out against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Find your local rep here.
Have productive convos at home. “Part of it is about affirmatively talking to friends, family, and children about why it is that they should talk about LGBTQ issues,” George said. That way, whether or not these convos can happen at school, they are still happening. Check out this guide on how to have these convos.
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States are introducing legislation against the LGBTQ+ community that will have lasting impacts on generations to come. It's especially putting the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ+ youth at risk. And it's showing no signs of slowing down. Which makes it more important than ever to be informed about candidates and their agendas as we head into the voting season.
PS: The Walt Disney Company is a minority investor in theSkimm.
Updated on March 28 to reflect that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law.
Skimm'd by Macy Alcido, Maria McCallen, and Kamini Ramdeen-Chowdhury
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