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Photography Denin Lawley

‘Lives will be lost’: the real cost of Florida’s new Don’t Say Gay bill

The controversial bill is now set to be signed into law – but how will it work in practice?

Last week, Republican lawmakers in Florida passed the Don’t Say Gay Bill – a controversial piece of legislation that will restrict schools from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity. Formally named the ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill, the legislation states that classroom teaching “on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade three” or “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate”. Now that the bill has been passed, it’s expected to be signed into law by Republican governor Ron DeSantis. But how exactly will the bill work in practice – and how will it really affect LGBTQ+ children?

Brandon Wolf, Press Secretary at LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Florida, is concerned by the innumerable questions raised by the bill. “The potential impacts of this bill remain unclear and broad. That is by design,” he says. “Would an LGBTQ+ educator recognising their own family in the classroom constitute a violation of the law? Will visibility of a child's LGBTQ+ parents invoke a lawsuit? If an LGBTQ+ student is being bullied, will a teacher be allowed to instruct the class to treat LGBTQ+ people with respect? These are the questions that schools will now face. And they are questions designed to chill speech about LGBTQ+ people as cash-strapped schools pull back on inclusion in order to avoid legal liability.” Given that many already face bullying and exclusion, the bill will only make life even harder for LGBTQ+ children. This in turn will doubtless have a detrimental impact on their mental health.

Chris Grant is a psychotherapist specialising in queer and gender-affirming therapy. “We are facing a reality where section 28 has returned to a new home in Florida where the pain, confusion and devastating impact of restrictions like this will be felt across a whole new generation of our queer community,” they say. “What we’re talking about is the right for LGBTQ+ children to develop within and have access to a safe space at school. The Don’t Say Gay bill communicates a clear message to queer children and queer families; that their identities are unacceptable, unwelcome and stigmatized in these environments.”

They add that the harm caused by the bill cannot be overstated. “We know that stigmatisation of LGBTQ+ identities results in long term mental health issues and higher rates of suicide across the lifespan,” they explain. “There is no other way to say it: the Don’t Say Gay bill will mean loss of LGBTQ+ lives.” US transport secretary Pete Buttigieg – the first-ever openly gay White House cabinet member – has also stressed that the bill could cause an increase in teen suicides. 

A 2021 report from The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organisation for LGBTQ+ young people, found that LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely to seriously consider, plan or attempt suicide than their peers. Another report from the same organisation found that LGBTQ+ young people who learned about LGBTQ+ people or issues in school were 23 per cent less likely to report a suicide attempt within the last year.

“There is no other way to say it: the Don’t Say Gay bill will mean loss of LGBTQ+ lives” – Chris Grant

“There is no question that this bill and the conversation around it will do harm to the mental health of young LGBTQ+ people,” Wolf adds. “In fact, it already has. In a recent poll from The Trevor Project, 66 per cent of LGBTQ+ youth in America – and 85 per cent of transgender and nonbinary youth specifically – said that these political debates over their basic humanity have negatively impacted their mental health.”

It’s a small relief to know that the bill has been met with widespread condemnation and criticism. Thousands of students across Florida have been staging walkouts to protest the bill’s passage. On Instagram, Ariana Grande called the bill “really disgusting”, while President Joe Biden described the bill as “hateful” and told Florida students that they “are loved and accepted just as you are”. He wrote: “I have your back, and my administration will continue to fight for the protection and safety you deserve.”

Wolf tells Dazed that “school is often the safest space LGBTQ+ students have” and stresses that lawmakers should be focusing on protecting vulnerable students rather than attacking them. “One classroom, one teacher, one affirming voice may be their only lifeline during a challenging period of growth as a young person,” he says. “At a time when LGBTQ+ youth are four times as likely as their peers to attempt suicide before graduation, we should be working to safeguard and expand those safe spaces – not diminish and politicise them.”