By Mehak Walia and R Butt
*Content warning: mentions of suicide *
About 52 years ago, the world celebrated Christopher Street Liberation Day which marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots with a march from Sheridan Square to the Sheep Meadow in New York. This was the very first Pride march in history. This was a march that raised a war against inequality for the rights of the entire community. And whilst that moment in history was pivotal and this month there’s been Pride marches all over the world, it’s worth thinking about how relatively short 50 years is. It’s less than the ages of many of our parents and their generation.
And the fight of that generation is now picked up by the youth today. A few weeks ago, a viral video showed students of Seattle Pacific University protesting their school’s anti-LGBTQIA+ president by handing him the Pride flag when receiving their diplomas. The Tiktok says “POV: the president of your university thinks being LGBTQ+ is a 'lifestyle choice' and a 'morality issue' so you decide to give him a gift at graduation”. Props to the account holder for the most Gen-Z video caption possible. Students had also been protesting outside his office and around the school for over a month against the policies that ban same-sex relationships.
Similarly, Zander Moricz, student and class president of Pine View college in Florida, gave a speech replacing what should’ve been the word “gay” with “curly hair”. He talked about how he first wanted to “straighten” his curly hair, but gradually came to accept and embrace it with the help of his peers despite how hard it is to have “curly hair” in Florida. He said, “There are going to be so many kids with curly hair who need a community like Pine View and they won’t have one. Instead, they’ll try to fix themselves so they can exist in Florida’s humid climate.”
He deserves every bit of praise for his speech. But why does a college kid need to use an analogy of curly hair for his sexuality? Because of the school’s restrictions in line with Florida’s new bill. Because he couldn’t say “gay”.
What is the bill?
Signed into law by Republican Florida Senator Ron DeSanti, the legislation prevents schools from engaging in conversations around the topic of sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade, with teachers opening themselves up to lawsuits should they fail to comply. Called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill for obvious reasons, it includes any other language deemed “age-inappropriate” to be prohibited. The legislation is actually, and ironically, called the Parental Rights in Education bill. The bill requires parents to be notified if there’s a change in a student’s mental, emotional, physical health or well-being, or if schools help a child transition to a different gender. An earlier version of the bill required teachers to disclose the students’ sexual orientation to their parents after learning that they were not straight.
DeSanti states that his goal is to “educate kids on the subjects, math, reading, science, all the things that are so important. I don’t want the schools to kind of be a playground for ideological disputes.” He claims that the bill addresses “sexual stuff” and “telling kids they may be able to pick genders and all that” – none of which is included in the bill explicitly, but it’s broad scope is intended to cast a wide net over LGBTQIA+ issues. It’s funny because America loves to wield the right to free speech as one of its core principles, but this bill confirms what many already know: speech isn’t quite free for everyone, especially if you’re a minority.
There’s been plenty of ongoing opposition to the bill, as well as students protesting in Florida against it and online social media awareness by groups like Prism. Just before it passed in Florida’s Republican-dominated House of Representatives, Florida’s first openly LGBTQIA+ senate member Shevrin Jones made a last-ditch appeal for proponents of the bill to reject it because it could forcibly “out” LGBT+ students. His appeal failed and the bill was signed into law on March 8th.
On March 31st, a group of LGBT+ advocacy organisations and civil rights attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against DeSantis and the state’s education officials to block the enforcement of the law. Even Disney, yes Disney, the third-largest global media conglomerate and Florida’s biggest private employer, has voiced its opposition to the bill. In a statement, Disney said “it could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, non-binary and transgender kids and families,” and called for the courts to invalidate it.
The Bill’s Effects
The bill restricts young people from having unbiased opinions about various communities and exploring their own identities in a safe environment. Florida teachers raised the point that the inclusive environment they’ve been trying to build for years is being stripped and taken away. The bill is visibly an attempt to weaponize the idea of parental rights to marginalise LGBTQIA+ people and affect the minds of children. It’s effectively a double-edged sword - on the one hand, suppressing the exploration and education of identities, but on the other hand, increasing surveillance and potential harm to kids who may be or are suspected to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Such discriminatory laws can increase bullying and suicide rates, especially in the LGBTQIA+ community. Coping with discrimination and oppression, coming out to one’s family, and figuring out an authentic sense of self in the face of social expectations and pressures can lead to higher levels of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues in the life of the entire community. Data from the CDC’s National Youth Risk Behaviour Surveillance in 2019 29% of transgender youth, 21% of gay and lesbian youth and 22% of bisexual youth have attempted suicide. The trends follow the same year on year - LGBTQ students are more likely to experience victimisation, violence and suicidality.
Trevor Project data shows that discrimination and suicide rates increase for LGBTQIA+ youth that are also non-white. Half of all LGBTQ youth of colour reported discrimination based on their race/ethnicity in the past year, including 67% of Black LGBTQ youth and 60% of Asian/Pacific Islander LGBTQ youth. 12% of white youth attempted suicide compared to 31% of Native/Indigenous youth, 21% of Black youth, 21% of multiracial youth, 18% of Latinx youth, and 12% of Asian/Pacific Islander youth.
And whilst the bill’s advocates argue that it should be parents, not teachers, who speak to their child about such issues, for many youths this isn’t a viable option. According to the Trevor Project, only 1 in 3 LGBTQ youth found their homes to be LGBTQ-affirming. LGBTQ youth that have access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity reported lower rates of attempting suicide than those who did not. More than 80% of LGBTQ youth stated that COVID-19 made their living situation more stressful. The bill takes away the school as a potentially safe place for kids who need the support they don’t receive at home and prevents teachers from becoming confidants or giving guidance.
A Wider Trend
The data paints a pretty dire picture of what the realities are for a lot of LGBTQIA+ youth. Not only is the bill likely to cause further animosity for kids at school, it in turn could contribute to the worsening of those statistics. And whilst the bill isn’t surprising given the rise of anti-LGBTQ legislation this year, it’s even less surprising when you take into account Florida’s anti-gay history. The state of Tennessee is drafting an even worse version of Florida’s bill, stating that “public and charter schools shall not locally adopt or use in the public schools of this state, textbooks and instructional materials or supplemental instructional materials that promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.”
And it’s not in isolation, but coincides with an uptick of anti-gay and anti-trans legislation. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), nearly 670 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed since 2018 in the US, with all 50 state legislatures having weighed at least one bill. Since 2020, 100 bills attacking transgender people have been introduced in state legislatures. This increase is not in America alone, but many other countries have slowly but surely rolled back civil liberties in regards to transgender rights. In England, instead of outright banning conversion therapy, the Conservative government’s legislation only part restricts it, allowing for it to be admissible if it target gender (the pseudoscientific practice of trying to “convert” a person – even a child – from being trans or non-binary to being cis).
As for South Asia, the region stands in a middle ground, still struggling to grapple with the complexities around LGBTQIA+ issues. In Bangladesh last year proposed that businesses, where trans people make up 10% of the total workforce or have at least 100 trans staff members, would be eligible for a tax rebate, in order to boost economic participation and employment. India lies somewhere in the middle – with a watered-down section 377 in its statute books, it is no longer a crime to enter into an adult, consensual, and private same-sex relationships. However, the absence of robust LGBTQIA+ inclusive policies at the union, state and district levels, and an overall lack of political will to create better laws for LGBTQIA+ people means that issues like legalising same-sex marriages are bound to take a back seat.
Thankfully, we seem to be moving ahead, slowly yet steadily. The court is set to hear a batch of petitions filed by several same-sex couples seeking a declaration recognising their marriages under the Special Marriage Act, the Hindu Marriage Act and the Foreign Marriage Act. A total of eight petitions have been filed in the high court on the issue.
Whilst Pride is a month to celebrate oneself, the community, and the advancements that have been made, it’s hard to ignore the seemingly frail state of things. The skyrocketing of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation has made courts, political institutions and public forums - social media mostly - a culture war battleground against who deserves what, and frankly I’m tired of it. It feels like a never-ending case of one step forward, two steps back. This increase in transphobic and homophobic legislation forces us to confront that the confines of legal and political systems - no matter what party is in power - are never really a true guarantee of liberation.
Indian LGBTQIA+ rights activist, the late Urvashi Vaid, gives us something to think about in Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation:
“We must supplement the limited politics of civil rights with a broader and more inclusive commitment to cultural transformation. The tension between civil rights and social change has long been argued among us. Both visions have contributed to gay and lesbian progress. But civil rights politics have predominated. I believe this was logical; it was dictated by our characterization as criminal, ill, and somehow less than human. The urgency for fair treatment grew with the spread of AIDS and with its exploitation by the right. But our movement’s abandonment of the politics of liberation for the more limited politics of civil rights led us to the insecure status we now enjoy. Virtual equality is the best that the politics of civil rights can deliver on its own.”
“A focus on legal and political rights is essential to gay and lesbian civic equality. What I urge instead is expansion: gay civil rights must be seen as part of a broader focus on human rights, sexual and gender equality, social & economic justice, and faith in a multiracial society.”
About the authors
Mehak Walia is a writer who loves to use her words to create the rare merge of storytelling, correctness, readability and clarity. She has also written four fiction books and has been a part of various anthologies - short stories and poetry. Follow her on Instagram at @mehakwalia28
R. Butt is The Lipstick Politico’s senior editor.