This post was co-authored by CHILD USA Executive Director Jillian Ruck and Carter Timon, MBDS.
Florida has led the way, but other states are following suit, introducing “Don’t Say Gay” bills that unfortunately make children’s needs second to culture war politics. It is time for school policies to focus on the needs of the children. Children are the ones who will pay the price for such laws. As a researcher (Carter) and a former public school teacher (Jill), we are deeply concerned about the negative impact on children. To date, at least 10 states have passed similar pieces of legislation into law (some before Florida), and seven of those states are considering additional measures to further target LGBTQ youth expression. Likewise, 11 other states are currently considering legislation like Florida’s.
The language of the Florida law is here, but in summary, it allows parents to sue school districts if:
— The school provides any services to support the child’s physical, emotional, or mental well-being and does not inform the parent.
— The parent discovers there was classroom discussion regarding sexual orientation or gender identity, in “certain grade levels,” which are not specified.
We have to wonder what a bill like this will do to the classroom environment and culture. The goal of every good educator is to foster a positive and welcoming environment in their classroom, because that is the best environment in which children learn. A lot of learning involves children taking risks and asking questions when they don’t understand something. For a child, this is a vulnerable position to be in, especially in front of their peers, which is why teachers strive to make their classrooms safe and inviting, so that each child’s critical capacities are enriched. A Don’t Say Gay law would prevent them from being able to do this fully. Not being able to discuss something as natural as sexual orientation or gender identity is harmful for children. Most of today’s adult LGBTQ population grew up under these cultures of silence and policies like “don’t ask don’t tell,” and they can tell you how damaging it was for them.
Think of the child of two men or two women. Their parents have a constitutional right to marry, but the child is not permitted to discuss their family to keep the classroom free of words about sexual orientation. That is both stigmatizing the parents and teaching the children through silence and suppression of their questions that their parents aren’t “real” parents. Think about the child who is LGBTQ and is being told that part of their person must be kept in a closet until the school permits them to speak about it, if ever. These children are already at much higher risk of harm than others.
LGBTQ students are at greater risk of physical violence, emotional abuse, sexual assault, and other harmful events than their cisgender, heterosexual peers. Transgender and gender-non-conforming children experience elevated risk for polyvictimization – experiencing five or more different forms of victimization (e.g., bullying, sexual abuse, dating violence, etc.) in the last year. Perhaps these children would be better protected if their peers and school staff had encountered healthy discussion of LGBTQIA+ issues from a young age.
This law seems to be focusing on children whose parents don’t want them learning about these issues in the classroom because these parents want to be the ones who educate their children on gender and sexuality. But there is a glaring piece missing from this equation – the rights of the child. Specifically, children have a right to explore their identity outside of their home in a safe, healthy manner.
Sometimes, the home is not a safe place, let alone a healthy place to learn about sexuality and gender. Most child abuse is committed by people the child knows, including family members. Furthermore, many children who question their sexuality or gender are not treated positively by their families. LGBTQIA+ youth are disproportionately represented among homeless youth and the most common reason for these children’s homelessness is family rejection after coming out.,  How will these laws interact with the mandated reporting laws?
For many students, school may be the one place they can fully express themselves and explore their identity because those beliefs are not welcome at home. Indeed, expressing themselves at home may be extremely dangerous, leading to physical assault, sustained emotional abuse, or even homelessness. I (Jill) taught many children who only felt safe at school because they could be their true self (gay, trans, etc..) there, while at home they had to keep that a secret. Not allowing this topic at school would keep those children feeling unsafe in the learning environment, trapping them in a life of shame and pain – which impacts both their education and their health and well-being.
What we are seeing in education right now, both with this ‘Don’t say gay’ law in Florida and the various book bans, is an uptick in considering parents’ so-called “rights” above all else. Parents don’t have unlimited rights to destroy their children’s future through either educational or medical neglect, or through forcing them into labor rather than education, and those are just a few examples. But what about the children’s rights to a quality education? An education where they can see themselves reflected in the curriculum? An education whose content reflects the world they see and exist in everyday? What about the child who is aiming high and may well leave the fold of their parents’ making? For many children, if the material they are learning is not relevant to their lives, they often do not see the point of learning it. Ignoring that gay marriage is legal in this country by not letting them discuss gender identity and sexual orientation is to ignore the world in which these children live and must enter after their schooling is over. It’s the same as ignoring the historical context of this country and why it looks the way it does for children of color. In school we aim to teach children about the world, so they are able to navigate it after they leave and are adults. This attack on what can be taught and discussed in classrooms leaves children unprepared for the world as it currently exists, harms LGBTQ children, and threatens the rights of children. The time has come to focus on the children in education, and to remove the destructive politics that are being forced into the arena where all children should be nurtured.
 The legislation that has passed into law include Arizona HB 2035, Florida HB1557, Florida HB241, Louisiana HB484, Mississippi HB1304, Montana SB99, Oklahoma HB1476, Tennessee HB529/SB1229, and Texas HB949/SB404.
 Pending bills include Alabama HB 322, Arkansas SB 389 / Act 552, Georgia SB 613, Illinois HB 5505, Indiana SB 415, Iowa SF 2024, Kansas HB 2662, Kentucky HB 14, Louisiana HB 837, Missouri HB 1669, New Hampshire HB 1431, Ohio HB 616, Rhode Island H 7138, South Carolina H 4605, Tennessee HB 800, and Utah SB 157.
 Kann L, Olsen EO, McManus T, et al. (2016.) Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9–12 — United States and Selected Sites, 2015. MMWR Surveill Summ 65(No. SS-9):1-202. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.ss6509a1
 Sterzing, P. R., Ratliff, G. A., Gartner, R. E., McGeough, B. L., & Johnson, K. C. (2017). Social ecological correlates of polyvictimization among a national sample of transgender, genderqueer, and cisgender sexual minority adolescents. Child Abuse & Neglect, 67, 1-12.
 Ullman, S.E. (2007). Relationship to perpetrator, disclosure, social reactions, and PTSD symptoms in child sexual abuse survivors. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 16(1), 19-36.
 Montano, Gerald T. “Homelessness among LGBT youth in the United States.” Pediatric News, vol. 53, no. 2, Feb. 2019, p. 10. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A576784126/AONE?u=upenn_main&sid=summon&xid=8404c7e5. Accessed 5 Apr. 2022.
 Abramovich, I. A. (2012). No safe place to go-LGBTQ youth homelessness in Canada: Reviewing the literature. Canadian Journal of Family and Youth/Le Journal Canadien de Famille et de la Jeunesse, 4(1), 29-51.