Their words (and a few of mine): School should be safe for all students

On Friday I got a text from a teacher at Fort Walton Beach High School who didn’t know I’d left the world of newspapers to write on my own terms. It read: “FWBHS where, by order of the governor, some of my students are known and valued, and the rest we need to hide away.”

This teacher was referencing the legislation dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which sailed through the Florida House and Senate, and awaits Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature. It bans discussion or mention of gender issues in primary schools, arguing that school is not the place where children should learn about sexuality. For Florida and for the nation, the bill has triggered debate over whether it infringes on free speech in its stated attempt to protect parental rights.

However, beyond free speech, and the logistics of schools enforcing such a law, educators, school staff, and, most importantly, students, cite worries, fears, and disagreements with the law. For many, even if their home environment is supportive, school is where teens and preteens spend most of their waking hours, where they are exposed to a diverse group of adult counselors and leaders and where they make friends, argue with friends and fall in and out of love. For others who lack a supportive home environment, the bill threatens more than their free speech—it threatens their ability to be themselves.

“I’m lucky enough to have parents who will love and support me no matter what, but I also know some students whose parents are not supporting of their gender/sexual orientation and for them, school is one of the only places where they can feel free to express themselves,” a 17-year-old non-binary student told me.

They and several other students mentioned the damage of LGBTQIA+ history being erased and how that will perpetuate the stigma that something about them is “off” or “different.”

The students acknowledged that the bill specifically addresses the primary school years but noted language that is vague enough to effectively muffle discussion in any schools where students may not be “mature enough” for it to be “appropriate.”

The student who told me she was fortunate enough to have a supportive family hasn’t actually come out to them yet. She said she only recently been “completely honest and out to myself,” so telling her family is the next step. But, like other students, she told me she is comfortable with her sexual identity at Fort Walton Beach High School, which all the students I spoke to affirmed as an accepting place where they can be themselves.

An 18-year-old student who is not out to her family called school a “safe outlet.”

“It’s just a place where I can be me,” she said.

She said she’s known she was different since the sixth grade, a year she spent doing virtual school online. Initially, her social outlet was also online.

Later, when she went back to brick and mortar classrooms, she had the chance to expand that social circle in person.

If the bill had been in place when she was still learning about her sexuality, she would still be fully in the closet, she guesses. She wouldn’t even be discussing it with friends out of fear that she could be outed if a teacher heard them talking.

“Though the online space can be great being able to talk about how you are, it’s not great for mental health,” she said.

Concerned students say the bill could actually endanger the safety of LGBTQ+ kids, forcing them to live in a world where a legalized lack of acceptance could lead to violence and increased rates of teen suicide.

“That can put a lot of kids in danger who aren’t out to their parents,” a 17-year-old non-binary student told me.

“I’ve been called slurs,” the teen said. “I’ve had guys tell me the rudest things about being gay. I don’t want other kids to feel like they have nowhere to go.

“Being gay will be something to be ashamed of again. It will be something negative and bad. It’s something that can really hurt kids.”

A 17-year-old straight senior also opposes the bill. She said she was raised to understand that everyone is important, unique and special. Her cousin, who does not live in Florida, has recently transitioned, and she filters everything through her love of him.

“I’m super close to that cousin and he means a lot to me,” she said, adding that he would not be safe if a law like the one being considered in Florida were passed where her cousin lives. “To be able to stand up for him and for my friends in the LGBTQ+ community, it broke my heart to know this was going on.”

The bill will “tell kids that are queer and kids that fall into any spectrum of sexuality that being queer is a bad thing,” she said. “It is pushing this message. That we won’t need to talk about it. It doesn’t need to be said. It becomes a thing that’s not OK to be talked about. It’s something that needs to be in our classrooms whether it’s educational discussions or part of our curriculum.”

A 17-year-old junior at Fort Walton Beach High School, who identifies as a straight ally to the LGBTQ+ community, said she understands the intent of the bill, but that the damage it will cause could be far-reaching.

In her words: “Personally, I can understand the desire to limit explicit topics for very young elementary aged children. That being said, this bill is being brought up in a very archaic way. If this bill passes as is, it is going to harm a lot of LGQBT+ teachers from sharing in a way that straight teachers can … 42% of LGBT youth has considered taking their own life and 67% of LGBT use report that they live in unaccepting households. This bill could skyrocket the first statistic and out those in the second statistic, potentially exposing them to dangerous family situations.”

These teens, along with others and some school leaders, are holding a peaceful gathering Monday, March 14 at 2 p.m. around the flagpole in front of Fort Walton Beach High School. They represent a cross-section of the student body, each with their own identity and proudly displaying their pronouns of choice, which is how teens and young adults communicate the complexities of who they are.

They are hoping that the acceptance they find at the school and hope to find at home, will continue to grow. They fear that it won’t.

One teen told me that she repressed her sexual orientation due to generational expectations and strong messages about how important it was for a woman to find a good husband. She has just made peace with herself and is working through fears of disappointing their family.

“I know that the people who truly support and love me will do so no matter who I bring home for Thanksgiving dinner or how I identify,” she said.

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