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America goes back to school amid right-wing wave of homophobia

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Photo by Stephane Mahe / Reuters
Photo by Stephane Mahe / Reuters

Six months after Florida passed the Parental Rights in Education Act, parents, students, and educators across the country are entering the new school year with a new sense of uncertainty.

To recap: In March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed what quickly came to be known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill into law, banning classrooms across the state from offering instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation in grades K-3.

The law, however, only provided ambiguous terms and parameters for classroom instruction, leaving educators to wonder what is and isn't allowed in their lessons. A key section of the legislation reads: "Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards."

As schools have been opening up over the last few weeks for the 2022-23 school year, teachers are returning to a work environment marked by uncertainty and speculation, regardless of what state they live in. While the abovementioned bill was exclusive to Florida, many other states have been seen following suit in passing conservative legislation, leaving people across the country wondering what the future holds.

National concerns
Just three months into the new year, Florida's new law signified what we know now is one of the most anti-Queer and anti-Trans years in American politics. Since then, and in light of Texas's targeting of gender-reaffirming surgeries as "child abuse" earlier in February, both of which attracted national attention, several other states have followed suit in passing increasingly discriminatory legislation against Queer, specifically Trans, people.

The Idaho House also passed legislation (HB 675) that would ban medical practitioners from giving gender-reaffirming care to youth throughout the state. Luckily, this bill was rejected by the Senate.

Louisiana Rep. Gabe Firment sponsored rather similar legislation, the "Save Adolescents from Experimentation" Act (HB 570), which would prohibit healthcare professionals from providing gender-related treatment to Trans youth. The bill has not been passed as of now.

Elsewhere, Kentucky, Iowa, and Missouri (to name just a few) all proposed and/or passed legislation that would prohibit Trans athletes from participating in sports according to their gender identity, instead pushing Trans boys and men into female sports and vice versa.

Photo by Octavio Jones / Reuters  

Effects on Washington state
Thankfully, as we all know, Washington is on the safer and more liberal end of the spectrum in terms of sexuality and gender expression.

That being said, it is nowhere near perfect. According to the legislative tracking feature on the Freedom for All Americans website, the Washington legislature has acted upon five separate anti-LGBTQIA+ bills in the past decade, including two that targeted the Trans community, another two concerning education policy, and one that addressed youth sports.

On the bright side, all of these bills died before they could be passed into law.

On the municipal level, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) does not currently acknowledge or adhere to any policies that are discriminatory, homophobic, or transphobic by nature. On March 5, 2020, about two years before Gov. DeSantis essentially spearheaded what now feels like America's anti-Queer policy year, SPS Superintendent Denise Juneau signed the "Nondiscrimination and Affirmative Action: Transgender and Gender-Expansive Student Rights and Supports" document, which establishes rights and accessibility for students — regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

While this is a huge step in the right direction — when I was still in high school in Seattle, we had what felt like very little acknowledgment or inclusivity of gender diversity — SPS still has a lot of work to do to create a safe and healing space for all of its students. Policy is a great first start, but concrete action and advocacy are needed in order to keep moving forward.

Effect on Queer and Trans youth
There are, however, concerns that go beyond the legislative realm. The Human Rights Campaign reported last month that "the average number of tweets per day using slurs such as 'groomer' and 'pedophile' in relation to LGBTQ+ people surged by 406% in the month after the Florida bill was passed," illustrating the increasing normalization of homophobia and transphobia in the wake of the "Don't Say Gay" bill.

Now not only are Queer and Trans people experiencing significantly higher rates of violence and targeting, but youth in these communities also have one less place to turn to for support now that schools are censoring their identities. In 2020, The HRC reported that LGBTQIA+ youth are over two times more likely to face bullying at school and struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts than their cis-het counterparts. Furthermore, the Trevor Project reported that "LGBTQ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity reported lower rates of attempting suicide than those who did not."

While the trend of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation that is being proposed and at times passed into law throughout the country is a concern in and of itself, it is also contributing to a growing foundation for violence and aggression that festers digitally, socially, and intellectually.

As long as national and state policies are informed by narratives of intolerance, our collective well-being is threatened on both psychical and psychological levels, reminding us that the Florida law is only the tip of the iceberg and leaving us to wonder what might come next.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidality or thoughts of self-harm, please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 for support.