Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Florida’s LGBTQ Students And Teachers Are Losing Safe Spaces To Its “Don’t Say Gay” Law

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The next day, I met a group of Booker High students and graduates at another Starbucks filled with soccer moms and college kids typing away on laptops. When I walked in, Anthony Frisbee, a 2021 graduate of Booker High, was sitting at the end of a long table in front of the barista; seniors Nora Mitchell and Helen Mosquera came rushing in 10 minutes later, after multiple texts apologizing for their lateness.

Mitchell, who founded the social justice group Sarasota Students for Justice in 2020, was full of energy, apparent even behind her face mask. “Don’t Say Gay” has “allowed the Sarasota County School Board to create new policies that are, for lack of better words, extremely repressive within our school,” Mitchell said. She is particularly upset about the possibility that a teacher might have to out a student to their parent or guardian and that teachers may be required to use a student’s birth name or pronouns if their parents don’t approve of their gender identity.

Frisbee, who is gay, said that he’d seen the effects of “Don’t Say Gay” when he visited his alma mater a month earlier. “I understand what it feels like to be denied your identity based on your sexual orientation, and it’s painful.”

Mosquera, who is in her fourth year at Booker, said she’d also seen the fallout firsthand. “You can see them just start to cry because of how long the process even takes [to get the name change] … It’s so difficult for so many students, because it’s constantly being denied who you truly are,” she said. “It used to just be, ‘Hey, I want to go by so and so, these are my pronouns,’ and it will be automatically respected.”

Mitchell said she had come out to friends and teachers, including Foreman, right before “Don’t Say Gay” was announced. “There was certainly a lot of trepidation because I’m not out to my mom,” she said. She fears that, because of the law, other students won’t be able to come out in a supportive environment. “The only place I have felt comfortable coming out was school,” she said. “My biggest fear when the law was initially announced was, Am I going to be ratted out because I’ve already shared?

Thousands of students come out to their teachers every year. A 2012 survey by the Human Rights Campaign of 10,000 LGBT teens found that 38% were out to their teachers. Given that a 2020 UCLA fact sheet estimated that there are just under 2 million LGBT teens in the United States, it’s possible that hundreds of thousands of teens have come out to their teachers. LGBTQ students often fear that if they come out to their parents they’ll be ridiculed, sent to conversion therapy, or kicked out of the house. And these aren’t idle worries. A 2021 Trevor Project study found that 14% of surveyed LGBTQ youth had reported “that they had slept away from parents or caregivers because they were kicked out or abandoned.” LGBTQ youth who experience homelessness or housing instability are more likely than their straight, cisgender counterparts to become depressed, engage in self-harm, and die by suicide.

Since March, Booker School administrators have not only asked teachers and students to take down rainbow-themed imagery — posters featuring balled fists and symbols associated with Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ rights have also been targeted. “The comparisons to totalitarianism are very apparent. [Extremist elements of the GOP] ban books, they ban the ideas, they ban symbols,” Frisbee said. Two banners Mitchell had created for her school clubs — one, created for Black History Month, said “Black Minds Matter,” and the other featured pride flags and the slogan “We are all welcome here” — were taken down because they were “too political,” Mitchell said. “[School administrators] did not give those back to me. They threw them away. … [Government officials] want school to feel unsafe, and they want schools to be spaces where they can impress their own values of heterosexuality of whiteness. They want to reaffirm those values.”

Sarasota spokesperson Maniglia denied that this event took place.

Frisbee, Mosquera, and Mitchell think that Booker High is responding to “Don’t Say Gay” in a more extreme way than other schools. “I visited a different high school in Sarasota County. They still had their pride flags up,” Mosquera said. I was just shocked to see that there’s just so much prejudice at one of the schools that are more diverse racially and more out in the LGBTQIA plus community.”



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