On Monday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that has been universally panned by LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and joins a chorus of similarly chilling pieces of legislation popping up across the United States. It’s officially called the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, but those of us who have been watching in unified horror across the country have been calling it what it is: “Don’t Say Gay.” The bill isn’t especially long, but it boils down to a concept that might seem simple if you don’t think about it very hard. It instructs that, in K-3 classrooms, “a school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The naive way to read this bill is that it protects children from adult discussions they aren’t ready for, shielding impressionable kids from crass and inappropriate lessons about bodies and sex. Any reasonable person, it would seem, doesn’t think that a kindergartener should be receiving instruction about such obviously adult topics.
The reality, however, is that children are introduced to sexual orientation and gender identity from the moment they’re born. We read them stories and let them watch movies about love and marriage, we give them names and dress them in colors and outfits according to their genders, we tease them about playground crushes and smile as they play “house.” We explain that their aunt is expecting a girl, and that’s why the baby shower is decorated with pink streamers and glitter and ballerinas.
So really, sexual orientation isn’t an “adult” topic when it’s the (cis, straight) one you’re raised to expect.
Gender identity isn’t adult when it’s shot out of a confetti cannon at a baby shower.
What’s really being argued is that the gender and the sexuality that aren’t appropriate for children are the queer ones, the ones that belong to people like me.
As an educator, it’s clear that the intentionally vague language of the bill is designed to be threatening enough to scare teachers away from having developmentally appropriate conversations with their young students while avoiding specific language that would paint its champions as “super-duper obviously homophobic.” But if that’s not the point, as many advocates of the bill are arguing, then what problem is “Parental Rights in Education” really looking to solve? Are we to believe DeSantis’s press secretary, who argued on Twitter that it exists to prevent the “grooming” of young children? Is that currently a problem in Florida? Is there a swarm of licensed kindergarten teachers plotting to infect their curriculum with graphic sexual content? Does anyone actually believe that?
Gender identity isn’t adult when it’s shot out of a confetti cannon at a baby shower.
Whatever fear is gripping the hearts of lawmakers like DeSantis seems to be an epidemic, if legislative trends can be believed. Many other bills currently snaking their way through the plumbing of their state legislature look like they could be cousins to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay.” In just the last couple of months, a handful of states seem to be racing to see who can front the most direct attack on LGBTQ+ children. Utah made its ban on transgender girls in sports official on Friday, following Idaho’s blanket ban on gender-affirming care for trans children at the beginning of the month. And of course, all of this is in the looming shadow of the great state of Texas, which is still fighting to not only ban trans-affirming healthcare for children, but criminalize the families who love and support them.
It’s hard not to be reminded of 2016’s HB2 bill in all of this: the very public fight over trans people’s right to use the bathrooms that align with their identities that began in North Carolina and quickly became a national argument. That conversation also started with children, with public schools as the battleground, and still haunts trans students across the country today.
And for what?
This is the question many of us who are perplexed and horrified by these bills keep returning to.
In the landscape of national issues on which to focus, of problems to solve, of threats that loom and make heavy the burden of state leadership, why is the enemy that so many lawmakers are zooming in on queer children?
We know that even when these bills don’t pass, the harm they do is devastating. In states that measure this data, we know that LGBTQ children of all age groups experience higher rates of bullying and harassment than their peers, and are at a significantly higher risk for violence, self harm, and attempts on their own lives. We know that gender-affirming healthcare saves lives at every age, and that no one is arguing for anything stronger than puberty blockers for children under 18. We know that supporting and loving queer children doesn’t disintegrate the fabric of society, it just assures that they get the chance to grow into queer adults. And we know that learning all of this is easy, and that every major respected social and medical institution in the country agrees. We also know that, according to data by the Census Bureau, about 8% of our population identifies as LGBTQ, with trans people making up only 1%.
In the landscape of national issues on which to focus, why is the enemy that so many lawmakers are zooming in on trans children?
So why focus so much energy on something that causes so much harm to such a small number of people?
It might be because it’s easy.
When an enemy is so far away, so separate from the lives of your constituents, it’s much easier to transform them into the villain you need them to be. For lawmakers like DeSantis, it’s simpler to demonize the teachers he has and point the finger at a queer minority than to propose a plan to solve the teacher and staff shortage in Florida that has only been expanding since the start of the pandemic. That is an issue that takes money and time, one that has a clear and measurable outcome of success. By refocusing the attention to perceived moral pitfalls within individual classrooms, the outrage shifts away from lawmakers and settles in on communities who have been suffering under it for decades.
Politicians in Texas are likely hoping for a similar outcome. While voters are busy screaming about healthcare for transgender kids, they’re much less likely to focus on Texas’s ranking as 45th in the country for access to healthcare overall, with the highest uninsured rate in the country, and spiking shortages of doctors are nurses. It turns out invented problems are a lot easier to solve.
Or maybe it’s because they’re afraid.
While voters are busy screaming about healthcare for transgender kids, they’re much less likely to focus on Texas’s ranking as 45th in the country for access to healthcare overall, with the highest uninsured rate in the country.
Many families have made peace intellectually with the existence of queer people, but struggle with the knowledge that there may be some of us living among them. There’s no shortage of stories from queer youth of optimistic coming-outs gone wrong, where they learn that a lifetime of “we support the LGBT community” really means out there, not in here.
Kids… targeting kids https://t.co/BLEXSrvyzO
— Kai Shappley HER/SHE 🍫 (@KaiShappley) March 30, 2022
When the call is coming from inside the house, many people aren’t quite as progressive as they think they are, and there’s a fear that grips them when they realize that they won’t know what to do if their own child turns out to be part of our community.
When the call is coming from inside the house, many people aren’t quite as progressive as they think they are.
They might think that outside influences are what makes someone gay or trans, and that limiting the opportunities for their children to see and hear from us will stamp down any queer spark that might be kindling.
But that’s not true either.
When they are kept from queer stories and queer people, from healthcare and sports and bathrooms and curriculum, all children really learn is shame.
So maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the real reason why politicians and lawmakers keep zeroing in on queer children when their seats are up for grabs and their power is threatened: maybe it’s jealousy.
We might still have a long way to go toward real equality in this country, but the opportunities that kids have now to understand and connect with their communities far outpaces that of any generation in history. Even when families turn their backs and teachers are silenced and books are banned, our community grows and thrives and makes room for more of us. We aren’t alone anymore, and we have people who are willing to fight for our right to exist in peace.
For a lawmaker who has lived a life of bitterness, who never had room to explore all of the different ways love can look, who has maybe felt stifled and troubled by their own expectations of their gender, that kind of freedom and acceptance has got to sting.
For them, maybe ignorance and anger are favorable to the unthinkable alternative: that there’s something beautiful they’re missing over here.♦