Comment: Florida’s ‘don’t say gay’ law a threat to all students

As similar laws in the 1980s and ’90s showed, bullying, abuse and suicide will follow for students, gay or straight.

By Marie-Amélie George / Special To The Washington Post

Florida made headlines in late February when its House of Representatives approved a bill that critics have dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill. On Tuesday, the state Senate followed and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has indicated he will sign the law, officially titled the Parental Rights in Education bill, which limits discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3. The bill also encourages parents to sue schools and educators that address these topics.

The proposal has sparked protests. Critics fear the law will become a de facto ban on teaching LGBTQ history and will prevent educators from addressing queer identity in schools. That concern is well-grounded, given that religious conservatives have spent almost five decades trying to limit what children can learn about same-sex sexuality. This history reveals just how harmful the ban would be for Florida students; LGBTQ and straight.

The gay rights movement that gained steam throughout the 1970s provoked a fierce backlash from religious conservatives. In 1978, schools became the focus of the religious right’s efforts to curtail gay rights and address the perceived threat of same-sex sexuality. That year, California state Sen. John Briggs, a Republican, sponsored a statewide ballot proposition that would have prohibited public schools from employing people who engaged in “public homosexual conduct” or “advocate[d]” for homosexuality. Briggs maintained that his purpose was to prevent educators from “teaching lifestyles” or “encourag[ing] a youngster to commit a homosexual act.” Briggs’s much-publicized effort failed, arousing opposition even from former governor and presidential aspirant Ronald Reagan.

Yet with much less fanfare, Oklahoma enacted a similar law that same year, indicating the potential for such efforts to succeed; especially ones that stuck to material taught in schools, not teachers’ personal lives.

In the 1980s, therefore, religious conservatives shifted their attention from teachers to curricular policy. They succeeded in convincing school boards to frame same-sex sexuality as deviant and LGBTQ individuals as diseased. Alabama and Texas began requiring schools to teach that homosexuality was an unacceptable lifestyle and a criminal offense. Other states took more circuitous yet no less damaging approaches by introducing an abstinence-only curriculum that framed homosexuality in the context of AIDS. One of the most popular abstinence programs during this period, “Sex Respect,” identified the AIDS epidemic as “nature’s way of ‘making some kind of comment on sexual behavior.’”

The impact of such curriculums was devastating — even deadly — for queer youths. Such lessons taught these students shame, guilt and rejection. LGBTQ teens suffered from so much verbal harassment and physical abuse at the hands of their classmates that many abused alcohol and drugs; some even dropped out of school.

For others, the situation was so dire that suicide seemed like the only option. Researchers reported that between a third and a half of gay students attempted suicide at least once before reaching adulthood. By the end of the decade, suicide had become the leading cause of death for gay and lesbian teens.

Straight teens did not just torment their LGBTQ peers. They also took their hatred beyond the schoolhouse doors, violently assaulting gay and lesbian adults. In 1981, gay men and lesbians suffered 400 violent attacks in San Francisco alone. Most of the assailants were adolescents. In New York, the results of a survey of high school juniors and seniors shocked the Governor’s Task Force on Bias-Related Violence: 69 percent reported they would not tolerate having gay neighbors.

Over the course of the 1980s, the rate of violent crime against sexual minorities only increased. California’s Office of the Attorney General ultimately argued that unless schools began dispelling myths and stereotypes about gay and lesbian sexuality, the state could not effectively combat hate crimes.

California was not the only state to draw this conclusion. When repeated studies showed that schools were sowing seeds of dangerous prejudice, districts across America launched programs to inculcate tolerance for sexual minorities. In New York City and Los Angeles, they introduced lessons about LGBTQ history and trained teachers to respect queer youths. Thousands of schools around the country began sponsoring gay-straight alliances, which created more welcoming environments.

These efforts transformed the lives of students such as Greg Cartwright, who as a teenager considered dropping out because of the violence he endured. Instead, he transferred to a high school with a support program for LGBTQ youths, where he graduated as valedictorian in 1988. Gay and lesbian rights advocates used Cartwright’s story to convince schools to adopt similar programs.

Yet districts with inclusive policies remained in the minority. Christian conservatives’ extensive lobbying campaign soon extended beyond sex education, infusing every part of the curriculum with anti-LGBTQ content.

By the middle of the 1990s, school boards from Minnesota to Indiana had passed sweeping policies that banned any activity or instruction that had “the effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative.” In Merrimack, N.H., teachers struggled to implement the law’s vague contours. They removed canonical works, including William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” from the curriculum. They also eliminated instructional materials, including one that referenced Walt Whitman’s sexuality, and stopped teaching students about AIDS prevention. In the frenzy to stigmatize same-sex sexuality, these school boards instituted policies that harmed all students by limiting their education.

The results of these policies could border on the absurd. In 1994, a school principal in Sawyers Bar, Calif., had to review episodes of “Sesame Street” before teachers could show them to kindergarten classes after a parent objected that Bert and Ernie “promote homosexuality.” Questions about the fuzzy puppets’ sexuality generated so much attention that the show’s producers eventually issued a news release denying Bert and Ernie were dating.

In 1996, in Elizabethtown, Pa., the school district declared that it would never tolerate or accept “pro-homosexual concepts on sex and family.” The town’s administrators and music teachers consequently prohibited the school band from performing “YMCA,” reasoning that it was “associated with the gay lifestyle.”

Ultimately, the anti-LGBTQ laws imposed real harm on all students. They helped fuel anti-LGBTQ sentiment in schools, thereby exacerbating what was already a deadly environment for queer youths. That sentiment spilled outside schools as well, leading to violence and bigotry. But straight students lost out, too, as their education became circumscribed to satisfy sweeping anti-LGBTQ policies that teachers and administrators were forced to implement.

Florida has now passed a law that could be just as destructive as those policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s. This push comes even as schools continue to be perilous places for LGBTQ youths, who disproportionately suffer verbal harassment and physical abuse from their prejudiced peers. And the consequences of this abuse remain potentially deadly: Today, LGBTQ youths are four times more likely than their classmates to seriously consider suicide.

This history reveals that safeguarding the well-being of children — and providing the best education possible — demands rejecting such discriminatory laws. But that is not enough. As the efforts in New York and California in the 1980s revealed, only inclusive education can reduce prejudice, violence and abuse. A growing number of states are moving in this direction, but as the Florida law demonstrates, the battle is far from over.

Marie-Amélie George is a legal historian and assistant professor at Wake Forest University School of Law.

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