‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, and bills like it, will have harmful impact on Black LGBTQ+ youth, say critics

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Florida’s new controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill that bans all discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity has been repeatedly slammed by equality advocates as harmful to LGBTQ+ youth and their families.

But critics and data indicate that the new law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last week, and other bills like it across the country, could be especially damaging for Black and Brown LGBTQ young people, who are facing not just anti-LGBTQ policies but anti-Black policy through other bills that also ban discussions on race.

“This is incredibly impactful to LGBTQ students of color, and in particular, Black students, because of the compounding negative impact on their mental health and well-being,” said Preston Mitchum, director of advocacy and government affairs at the LGBTQ nonprofit, The Trevor Project.

“Depression and mental health challenges and anxiety sets in and can be really debilitating for many Black and Brown LGBTQ folks, particularly when you’re young. It’s really important for us to have inclusive conversations in school related to folks’ race, sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Mitchum cited CDC data that found that LGBTQ youth are more than four times more likely to attempt suicide, telling theGrio, “Issues like the Don’t Say Gay bill create an environment for discrimination” and make them a target in their community. He noted that while many discussions are surrounding when it’s appropriate for a child to talk about sexual orientation or gender identity, “young people are very well aware of who they are” at a young age.

He added, “We also know that young people are watching and listening. They’re not just sitting to the sidelines…[they’re] actually understanding the debates being held in the states across the country.”

Another study conducted with Morning Consult found that 85% of trans and non-binary youth and two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth — or 66% — say recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health. What’s more, Black LGBTQ youth report higher rates of poor mental health.

Proponents of the Don’t Say Gay law have championed the bill as a win for parental rights. The growing movement across the country to restrict conversation about LGBTQ+ identities has extended to banning books about sexuality, gender identity and race.

Mitchum, who is Black and openly gay, notes, “not having those conversations, the books, the names, the statements be in libraries or schools or other educational environments effectively erases us. And not only does it erase us, but it also erases what’s related to us, including our history and our culture. That in of itself creates an environment that is incredibly harmful and stigmatizing and that exacerbates harm.”

The Don’t Say Gay law, officially called the Parental Rights in Education, has ignited fierce political debate and, just days after it was signed, Gov. DeSantis and the state of Florida were hit with a lawsuit filed by advocacy groups who say the new law violates students and families’ constitutionally protected rights of free speech, equal protection under the law and due process.

“I thank God for the checks and balances that have been put in place by our forefathers – that’s called the courts,” Florida’s first openly gay and Black State Sen. Shevrin Jones told theGrio.

Jones said he hopes the courts will “look at this as being discriminatory on the surface” and that the legal challenge against the Don’t Say Gay law will send a strong message to other states contemplating similar legislation.

Senator Jones, who, alongside his Democratic colleagues, tried to stop the bill from being passed in the state Senate, slammed Gov. DeSantis and Republicans for igniting a “culture war” with a bill he dismissed as vague in language and unnecessary.

“There is no school district – nowhere in this country – no standard that currently teaches [about sexual orientation or gender identity] to kids in kindergarten or the third grade,” Jones told theGrio.

“As a matter of fact, it’s barely taught in fourth grade when we’re talking about sex education. Now, if they want to convolute sex education for sexual orientation and gender identity, well they used the wrong words in the bill language. And our amendment was filed to deal with that, but they denied it because they knew exactly what this bill was and what they wanted it to do.”

He said the law as it’s written is “left up for interpretation.”

Jones also pushed back against Republicans’ arguments that children should simply discuss LGBTQ+ topics at home and not in schools, noting that “we already have a problem with adoptions and foster care and realizing a lot of young people don’t have anybody to go home to and have this conversation with…sometimes teachers are the first responders [and] the first people who [students] can and they want to talk to because they trust them.”

He argued that not having a teacher they can trust and talk about these issues could lead them to “turn to the streets.”

Sen. Jones made headlines last month in the state Senate when the bill was being taken up by the upper house after he tearfully delivered an emotional speech about his journey of coming out. “I never knew that living my truth would cause church members to leave my dad’s church or friends to stop talking to me,” said an emotional Jones to his colleagues.

“I didn’t even expect to tell my story in that moment,” Sen. Jones revealed to theGrio.
“I used that as the opportunity to share my story because I needed to make it real for them. Everybody was speaking in hypotheticals when I’m actually a real person who actually sits in the chambers with you. So I wanted to bring that to light.”

Jones, who was recently appointed by President Joe Biden to join his board of advisors on HBCUs, said he was compelled to speak out in the way that he did after seeing countless youth advocates inside the Senate building chanting “We Say Gay” as a counter to Florida’s bill.

“I looked at those children who came to my office, who were outside of the chambers chanting…you could hear these young people [chanting] to the top of their lungs, who wanted us to hear that we’re out here, and you’re about to vote against our interests in front of our faces,” Jones recalled. “That’s what really made me cry because I thought about the 16, 17, 18-year-old Shevrin, who wouldn’t have had the strength or the support from home to do something like that.”

He added, “even if I wasn’t the first openly gay person to be elected to the Florida Senate, I would’ve still advocated the same way because it is a humanitarian issue. And I think we so often in politics get so caught up in the policy that we forget that you’re dealing with real people behind this legislation.”

When it comes to public opinion on broader anti-LGBTQ bills, Mitchm noted another study conducted by The Trevor Project and Morning Consult that found that a majority of adults support educational and health resources for LGBTQ+ youth.

The study concludes that 57% of adults oppose blocking students from accessing LGBTQ resources and educational content on the internet at school; 56% oppose the banning of LGBTQ-friendly books from libraries, and 52% of adults oppose bills like Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law.

On the policy front, both Mitchum and Jones said they would like to see the United States Congress pass The Equality Act, which has been stalled in the U.S. Senate for more than a year. The law would prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in education and other public facilities.

Mitchum commended the Biden-Harris administration for speaking out against the Don’t Say Gay bill and similar laws. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called the bill “pure hatred” and said that the law indicated that in America there are “bullies…right in our own backyard.”

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra issued a memo in response to a similar “Don’t Say Gay” bill being considered in Texas. In a statement reaffirming his department’s support for LGBTQ+ youth, Secretary Becerra provided a list of guidelines on how his department and state agencies can support LGBTQ+ youth, particularly trans youth, and their families.

“HHS is committed to protecting young Americans who are targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and supporting their parents, caretakers and families,” said Becerra. “That is why I directed my team to evaluate the tools at our disposal to protect trans and gender diverse youth in Texas, and today I am announcing several steps we can take to protect them.”

During Monday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki categorically condemned Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law and those like it.

“What we think it’s a reflection of is politicians in Florida propagating misinformed, hateful policies that do absolutely nothing to address the real issues. The Department of Education is well positioned and ready to evaluate what to do next and when and its implementation, whether its implementation violates federal civil rights law,” said Psaki.

“But I would note that parents across the country are looking to national, state and district leaders to support our nation’s students [and] to ensure that kids are treated equally in schools and that is certainly this is not a reflection of that.”

She added, “I think this is a politically charged, harsh law that is putting parents and LGBTQ+ kids in a very difficult, heartbreaking circumstance.”

Story Credit: Gerren Keith Gaynor/thegrio

Photo Credit: Rick Wilson/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation