Advocates worry about “Don’t Say Gay” bill’s effect on children’s mental health

The controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed the Florida Senate last week and Gov. Ron DeSantis has indicated he will sign it into law. If this happens, it will go into effect July 1. The bill bans teaching of sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. 

Republican State Rep. Joe Harding introduced the measure, saying its intention is to inform parents of what their children are being taught at school. Opponents contend it’s a solution looking for a problem, as parents in Florida already have a say in what their children are taught and can even opt out of certain topics, such as sex education. LGBTQ advocates vehemently oppose the bill, not only because they feel it is discriminatory, but also due to what they say are the harmful psychological consequences it could have on LGBTQ students. 

“We hosted three different rallies in South Florida,” Safe Schools South Florida executive director Scott Galvin told SFMN. “We flew airplane banners over Dade and Broward counties against it. We organized a Wear Purple Day. We did a bunch of different things to show opposition.”

Galvin goes on to explain how this bill could be harmful to children who may have LGBTQ family members.  

“What do you do when Tommy, who has two moms, is asked to draw a picture of his family on vacation?” Galvin said. “Do the other students get to present their families and then Tommy is told not to? That’ll obviously leave Tommy wondering what’s wrong with his family that they can’t be talked about. It’s got a lot of room to harm kids.” 

Although the bill applies to kindergarten through third grade, Galvin believes it will impact older children and teenagers. “I think gay-straight alliances are going to be severely curtailed if not eliminated because teachers and school systems can be sued.”

Jordan Williams is a 10th grader at Coral Springs Charter School and president of his school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club. He identifies as transmasculine and bisexual, and remembers being bullied during his middle school years for his gender and sexual identity. He fears this bill will encourage bullying for vulnerable students that already lack a support system. 

“There are going to be kids who don’t understand the community and who now cannot access information to learn about the community,” Williams said. “You see that the bill mostly affects kindergarteners through third grade. But what people don’t realize is that those are some of the most impressionable school years where you’re learning, growing and developing your opinions. Without proper exposure to a wide range of culture and identities, it becomes a lot more difficult later in life to be accepting of ideas you weren’t introduced to.”

Williams believes that there will be a rise in calls to suicide hotlines like the Trevor Project as well, since there will be less of a support system for LGBTQ kids at home and in school. 

Dr. Erica Friedman, the associate director of FIU’s Pride Center at the Office of Social Justice and Inclusion, worries about suicide rates as well. 

“While we won’t know the exact effects of this bill until we do the research later, we do have some jarring statistics that speak to the fact that less support for LGBTQ youth has negative mental health outcomes,” said Friedman. “The Trevor Project conducted a national survey in 2021 on LGBTQ youth mental health which found that 42% of LGBTQ youth from ages 13-24 seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. More than half of that was from transgender and nonbinary youth.”

Another major concern is that the bill will open the doors for similar bills in other states. Both Galvin and Williams fear other Southern states following Florida’s footsteps. In Georgia, legislators introduced a similar bill not long after the Florida Senate passed its bill. 

“Other states are going to be inclined to say, ‘Well, they did it in Florida’,” said Galvin. “There’s a lot of political jockeying right now. Clearly Ron DeSantis here in Florida wants to run for president, so they’re all going to want to outdo each other.” 

Williams points to Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott is already passing what opponents consider to be extremely conservative and controversial bills. 

Williams says despite the bill’s passage, he will continue showing LGBT pride. 

“I personally wear my pride flags to school as resistance,” said Williams. “I just wear the Bi flag on or around my neck. I will never press anybody to do it themselves if they are not out or ready because that is dangerous. But I will encourage them and be like ‘hey if you want to, here are the ways in which you can show your pride, whether it is subtle or out’.” 

Williams adds that the focus now should be on supporting organizations that provide support for LGBTQ youth.  Dr. Friedman agrees and believes donating to these types of organizations would provide the best help.  “People can help donate or fund the many LGBTQ+ youth organizations that exist outside of home or school,” said Friedman. “For example, the GLBTQ Youth Alliance is a great organization right here in South Florida. Donate to organizations like this and work with youth directly to determine preventative factors in their ability to access these organizations’ services.”

Gabriela Enamorado is a junior at Florida International University majoring in journalism and minoring in History. She grew up in Fort Lauderdale and hopes to one day work for a magazine or newspaper.