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The stunning mental health fallout of Don’t Say Gay bills like Florida’s

The mere existence of these discriminatory bills, masked as parents’ rights protections, are already having a negative effect on LGBTQ well-being.

The stunning mental health fallout of Don’t Say Gay bills like Florida’s
[Source Photo: Tanya Constantine/Blend Images/Getty Images]

Last week, Florida’s Republican-controlled Senate passed the Parental Rights in Education bill, sending it to Governor Ron DeSantis’ desk to become law. Colloquially known as the Don’t Say Gay bill, the ominous law would ban classroom discussion on topics regarding sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools—and grant parents the right to sue school districts for apparent violations.

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Advocacy groups concerned with LGBTQ well-being worry about the toll of such legislation on mental health—especially given that 42% of LGBTQ youth already seriously considered suicide last year, including more than half of trans and nonbinary youth. Florida’s bill threatens to take away the solace of school, where many young people can freely embrace their identities. Similar bills are springing up around the country, in various forms, which the groups say are simply ways to discriminate against an already vulnerable population. And, with midterms looming, more proposals may keep coming.

By barring classroom discussion, the Florida bill would theoretically prohibit teaching about civil rights heroes, such as Harvey Milk or Bayard Rustin, staples of some curricula. These figures can serve as role models; queer youth who learned about these histories were 23% less likely to report suicide attempts, according to a 2021 report by The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth. Requiring all students to learn about these issues has also shown increased acceptance among peers, and lower rates of bullying.

Crucially, the ban on discussions also extends to personal identity, erasing potentially life-saving support systems at school; 50% of surveyed youth said school was an affirming space for them. Under the law, if kids shared information about their own orientations or identities with teachers, those educators would be obligated to report them to parents, effectively outing them against their will. “We are disciplining our best teachers, chilling them from the kind of interactions with students that make them good teachers,” says Sam Ames, The Trevor Project’s director of advocacy and government affairs.

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While the version of the bill that passed asserts that the law applies to kindergarten through Grade 3, that is still an essential developmental stage for kids who are beginning to understand who they are. What’s more, the bill’s language is intentionally vague, and allows a loophole to the age limit by adding that it would also apply to any discussion “that is not age appropriate.”

Though further ahead in the process, Florida is not alone. At least 15 of these education bills have reportedly sprung up, including an Arizona bill that would force teachers to out students to parents, and a Kansas bill that would deem classroom materials promoting homosexuality as an obscene act and a Class B misdemeanor.

In the Florida bill’s language, the rationale of the disclosure clause is “to reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children.” But Ames says “parents’ rights” is a facade to mask pure discrimination. There are more than 100 anti-trans measures circulating around the country, in different forms: Bills passed in Utah and South Dakota threaten to limit trans sports participation. A bill in Idaho could give doctors life sentences for providing gender-affirming healthcare to trans youth, and a Texas bill, now law, treats the provision of gender-affirming healthcare as child abuse; the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has already started investigating cases. “They have nothing in common when it comes to subject matter,” Ames says. “What they have in common is their target.”

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Don’t Say Gay will go into law in Florida in July, assuming DeSantis signs it. That seems likely. When Disney denounced the bill, DeSantis criticized the corporation and said there was “zero” chance he’d give into what he called “fraudulent media narratives or pressure from woke corporations.” Even if they’re not passed, the mere existence of bills of this type is damaging to mental health, Ames says. Another Trevor Project survey found that 85% of trans and nonbinary youth, and 66% of all LGBTQ youth, say recent debates around bills have impacted their mental health; 47% are feeling nervous or scared about legislation that would out them to parents without their consent.

The number of proposals looks likely to increase with the midterms coming up, and a possible red wave that could put more Republican lawmakers in charge. They’re creating a wedge issue, Ames says: “It is not an accident. This is a national coordinated strategy.” It’s reminiscent of the playbook used in the Virginia gubernatorial race, when Glenn Youngkin found a winning formula by running on “parents’ rights” but around teaching about race in schools. “It’s the worst kind of politics,” Ames says, “that assumes an acceptable risk of casualties.”

The Trevor Project is working to extinguish these bills. It’s partnering with local organizations on the ground, including Equality Florida and The Transgender Education Network of Texas, by going to various states to speak at hearings and to share their research. It’s also filed amicus briefs in support of lawsuits against the impending bills.

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Ames says ordinary people can help LGBTQ youth by contacting their representatives, speaking out, and protesting—just as several Florida students did with school walkouts. And, they can be allies. Trevor Project’s research shows that one supportive adult in a trans child’s life can reduce their suicide risk by 40%. “Be that adult in a kid’s life,” Ames says. That effectively sends a message that they’re not alone in the fight against “powerful lawmakers who are trying to regulate them out of existence.”

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