Opinion by Amit Paley and Joe Saunders
Note: Amit Paley is the CEO and executive director of The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people. Joe Saunders is the senior political director for Equality Florida, an LGBTQ civil rights organization. In 2012, he became the first LGBTQ state lawmaker to take the oath of office in Florida. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors.
Being an LGBTQ young person can be tough. Depending on where you live and whether or not you have access to a supportive community, the world can be a very lonely place.
As leaders in two LGBTQ organizations, we’ve been astonished to witness the progress we have made over the last decade. But it’s also clear that our community’s increased visibility has led to a backlash. There are currently more than 100 anti-LGBTQ bills — the majority of which target transgender and nonbinary youth — moving through state legislatures across the country, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
One of the most extreme examples is a piece of legislation in Florida known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It states school districts “may not encourage discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” The language, which is vague and could apply to K-12 classrooms across Florida, could be used to prohibit open discussions of LGBTQ people and issues.
If passed, it would effectively erase entire chapters of history, literature, and critical health information in schools — and silence LGBTQ students and those with LGBTQ parents or family members. It’s just one of several divisive and dehumanizing bills in Florida that use LGBTQ youth as political pawns to limit conversations about gender and sexual identity.
Let’s be clear: The “Don’t Say Gay” bill will do real and lasting harm. All students should learn about the LGBTQ community’s important contributions to US history and culture. Landmark events, ranging from the Stonewall Riots to Supreme Court decisions in cases such as Obergefell v. Hodges and Bostock v. Clayton County, should be included in any comprehensive lesson plan on modern history and civil rights movements.
LGBTQ students deserve to see their own history and experiences reflected in their education, just like their peers. Learning about LGBTQ civil rights heroes, like Marsha P. Johnson, Harvey Milk and Bayard Rustin can work to inspire LGBTQ students, make them feel proud of who they are and help them envision a brighter future.
The Trevor Project’s research has found that LGBTQ students who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school were 23% less likely to attempt suicide in the past year. Conversely, when LGBTQ topics are made taboo, that stigma is often internalized and can negatively impact a student’s mental health and sense of self.
Learning about the LGBTQ community can also foster acceptance among peers and contribute to a positive school climate, which is still very much needed. Tragically, a majority of LGBTQ youth in middle and high school reported being bullied either in person or electronically in the past year — and those who did were three times more likely to attempt suicide.
And given that only 1 in 3 LGBTQ youth find their home to be LGBTQ-affirming, it’s all the more important to make schools — the place where young people spend a significant portion of their waking hours — as accepting as possible.
At a time when 42% of LGBTQ youth, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth, seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, according to a national survey conducted by The Trevor Project, fostering an affirming school environment is more critical than ever. That’s why lawmakers should be expanding support systems for LGBTQ students and encouraging teachers to create safe and inclusive learning environments, not fueling stigma and shame.
Making LGBTQ students scared to discuss their identities, their community or their families at school is as cruel as it is dangerous.
If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678.
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