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These trans youth say Florida's so-called 'Don't Say Gay' bill puts them at risk

A young afro latino trans man  with short, curly dark hair and wearing a blue button up shirt stands next to a white trans woman with pink hair and a great sweater. They're both smiling.
Daylina Miller
/
WUSF Public Media
Rain Weinstein, left, and Sage Ackerman, right, head up a TikTok account called "High School Resistance," which documents LGBTQ+ protests at schools, and student experiences.

Ambiguity in the bill's language has transgender youth and therapists worried. They say it could lead to further restrictions.

What critics call the "Don't Say Gay" bill, Gov. Ron DeSantis called in an email to supporters “a Florida bill that sensibly prohibits K-3rd graders from being indoctrinated with transgenderism and R-rated lessons about sexuality."

Supporters of the bill say it's about "parental rights." Opponents say the vagueness of the bill's language opens it up to wiping out all mentions of sexual orientation and gender identity at all grade levels — virtually erasing queer students, teachers and families.

"It's an intentional vagueness about age appropriate conversations, which leads to just the general stereotype of queerness being sexually deviant and dangerous to youth, which is completely untrue, and leads many people to just hate themselves,” said Rain Weinstein, a transgender 18-year-old senior at Palm Harbor University High School.

He's one of several youth documenting his experiences as a queer student in a TikTok account that has garnered nearly 20,000 followers: "High School Resistance."

The governor has repeatedly said the bill does not specify gay — or any other queer identity — but critics say that's not true.

"The bill does say gender identity and sexual orientation. And because of the place that it's coming from, it implies gay and trans,” said Steph Ostrow, a transgender and non-binary registered mental health counseling intern in Pinellas County.

“And so words like ‘appropriate’ have been weaponized. It's a coded word. It really comes from this place of presuming that teachers, faculty, staff, and guardians and family members, and students themselves are all heterosexual and cisgender. And that any variation from that is not appropriate."

"My retort is," Ostrow said, "are we going to keep cisgender and heterosexual sexual teachers, faculty, and staff from having pictures of their partners and children on their desks? Because that might bring up a conversation about gender identity and sexual orientation? Are we going to exclude books that say the words boy and girl, because that is the gender identity?"

"My friends, and the queer youth that I know, are still finding out their identity and just being in an environment where they know that the government does not see them as valid, is just like a hard environment to grow up in."
Sage Ackerman, 17

In fact, several proposed amendments that would have clarified the language failed to pass.

According to LGBT rights researcher Ryan Thoreson, who works at Human Rights Watch, these include:

  • Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D) proposed an amendment that would prohibit discussion of sexual activity, rather than sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Sen. Jeff Brandes (R) proposed an amendment to make the bill about human sexuality more broad
  • Sen. Lauren Brook (D), proposed an amendment to clarify that discussing same-sex families, history, bullying, questions asked by students, etc., would be permitted
  • Sen. Randolph Bracy (D) and Rep. Marie Woodson (D) proposed amendments to clarify that conversations among LGBT students would be permitted
  • Sen. Tina Polsky (D) proposed an amendment clarifying that sexual orientation and gender identity include heterosexuality and cisgender identity

The bill's language refers to "age appropriate" classroom instruction and discussion. But Ostrow said kids begin to recognize stereotypes — including gender — between 18 months and three years of age.
"It's suggested that it's developmentally appropriate to discuss sexual attraction variation with children between the ages of 5 to 8. And that's a direct quote from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center," Ostrow said.

"And so the concept of gender constancy also develops when we're between the ages usually of like 12 to 15. So the languaging of what is developmentally appropriate in the bill really targets kids past the K through three, that it specifies you cannot talk about sexuality or gender or gender identity. And it's also worth noting that there are enough people that experience gender, as a nonlinear experience or a fluid experience, for us to be talking to kids about that."

Salem Smith, a non-binary 16-year-old student at Blake High School, is worried that kids who aren’t exposed to different sexual orientations and gender identities at school will suffer if they’re not being educated and supported at home.

He said being exposed to the LGBTQ+ plus community does not make students queer and that they’re going to explore their sexuality and gender identity regardless of what’s allowed at school. But blocking exposure to other queer students and teachers is harmful.

”It puts a block on young kids that maybe they they're not exposed to that, or they don't ever read about that," Smith said. "And I feel like that could be their awakening or what they need to hear. And I feel like the fact that (the state) wants to block that is awful.”

Maryn Russ, a non-binary sixth grade student at Pine View Middle School in Land O’ Lakes, is worried about the provision that says requires teachers and schools to notify parents “if there is a change in the student's services or monitoring related to the student's mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being and the school's ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student.”

They say that could lead to teachers being forced to disclose to parents if a student uses a new name or pronouns at school. Russ said not every parent is as supportive as theirs.

“I'm worried for my friends, because you could possibly be outed for it,” Russ said.

Ostrow said trans youth who don't have their identity affirmed often experience high rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, panic attacks, and agoraphobia.

According to the Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.

"And the reason for that is directly related to the social discourse about their worthiness to exist," Ostrow said. "We thrive in connection, we thrive in community, and these bills disrupt. And it's very, very intentional."

“My friends, and the queer youth that I know, are still finding out their identity and just being in an environment where they know that the government does not see them as valid, is just like a hard environment to grow up in,” said Sage Ackerman, a 17-year-old trans girl and senior at Palm Harbor University High School.

Critics of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, including Rain Weinstein, point to other states that have enacted similar legislation. This includes Texas, which regards gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth as child abuse. It’s being challenged in court, but investigations have already started.

"That's their point. It's to push us out of the school system (and) to push us out of any safe place that we're supposed to have,” Weinstein said.

He said the bill could lead to further restrictions on trans youth across the state.

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.
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