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Why It’s a Mistake to Call Those Anti-LGBTQ Laws ‘Don’t Say Gay’

7 minute read
smith is a National Magazine Award–winning essayist and journalist

At least 16 states, including Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Alabama, have introduced or passed “parental rights” legislation that bars discussion of LGBTQ subjects in schools. Specifically, educators are not allowed to instruct students about sexuality and gender identity, ostensibly in sex-education contexts but with legislation so broadly worded that it implies educators shouldn’t discuss these issues at all. Collectively, these laws have come to be known as “Don’t Say Gay” bills, and as they gain momentum, they’re attracting national attention. They should. These bills will cause material harm to LGBTQ youth across the country, and they create a chilling effect in educational environments, especially since some also include “divisive concepts” like race in their instructional proscriptions.

“Don’t Say Gay” may be simple shorthand that can spread rapidly among allies, such as celebrities on the red carpet, but it’s a mistake. By using “gay” as a catchall, advocates leave out some key constituencies and obscure the true nature and intent of this legislation. Given that “trans” isn’t represented anywhere in “Don’t Say Gay,” the same thing that makes the turn of phrase so memorable serves to undercut the seriousness of bills that have annihilation at their heart.

Read More: I Know What It’s Like to Be a Florida Teen Who Can’t Say Gay. I Was One

It’s not that the authors of such bills want people to stop saying “gay” at school: It’s that they don’t want LGBTQ people to exist at all, and this is one way of slowly erasing them. It’s reminiscent of the U.K.’s infamous Section 28, enacted in 1988 to prohibit educators from “promoting homosexuality.” Section 28 devastated LGBTQ Britons, who were left isolated and without supports during the most vulnerable times in their lives; there were no LGBTQ texts at school, teachers weren’t allowed to make references, and LGBTQ teachers who taught under the law, which wasn’t fully repealed until 2003, reported being more vigilant and anxious at work.

“The Don’t Say Gay Bill is also a Don’t Say Trans bill,” tweeted civil rights attorney Chase Strangio. “And Texas, Idaho and Alabama have Don’t Be Trans orders and bills in effect or pending. Just a reminder.” This legislative landscape is also far larger than these particular “parental rights” bills, though their snowballing nature should be cause for concern, not just for LGBTQ people but for others. The same logic backs bills such as Florida’s “Stop Woke Act,” which targets critical race theory and restricts what schools and workplaces can teach in diversity trainings. It is awaiting the governor’s signature.

An unprecedented era of visibility and organizing among trans youth has been met with equal vitriol from conservative legislators, television personalities, and voters. More than 200 anti-LGBTQ bills, many anti-trans specifically, have been introduced by legislatures across the U.S. this year. These bills include restrictions on transition care, bathroom bills, bans on sports participation, bills allowing for religiously motivated discrimination against LGBTQ youth and parents in the foster and adoption systems, and “conscience exemptions” for health care providers who don’t want to treat LGBTQ patients. This is all in addition to policies like Texas’ recent directive that supportive parents of trans kids should be subject to investigation by child services. And just this week Florida’s Surgeon General announced that treatment for gender dysphoria in youth should not include medical (hormones or puberty blockers) or social (changing names, using different pronouns, dressing differently) transition. In other words, trans youth in Florida should receive no transition care.

Read More: ‘I Hope This Law Is Obliterated.’ Plaintiffs in the First Lawsuit Challenging ‘Don’t Say Gay’ in Florida Speak Out

“Don’t Say Gay” may be easy to put on protest signs, but it carries uneasy overtones of a long history of erasing trans people from the spaces they helped build. While Pride is often remembered as a watershed moment for gay people, for example, the actual events at the Stonewall were led by trans women. Mainstream LGBTQ rights organizations have similarly pushed concerns of the trans community aside to focus on achieving their goals, leading the New York Times to hold a debate on whether it was time to break the T from the LGBTQ movement in 2013 (it wasn’t and isn’t). For trans activists, the frustration was very real: during a battle over a version of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act that excluded trans people in the early 2000s, for example, the high-profile Human Rights Campaign declined to take a decisive stance. The mainstream movement’s heavy investment in marriage equality over other priorities through the 2015 Obergefell decision was also upsetting for activists concerned about issues like health care equity and the ability to pee in public restrooms.

Including trans kids isn’t just semantics or an internal squabble, it’s something with real stakes. School is sometimes the only safe place for trans youth to find each other, organize, and disseminate information. Being able to interact with publicly trans teachers, play sports, and use the right restroom is also a vital component of allowing trans kids to grow up and grow old. Transgender and nonbinary youth are nearly two and a half times more likely than cis LGBQ youth to attempt suicide. They are also more likely to experience sexual assault and homelessness. The vulnerability of trans youth, especially Black and brown kids, should be a critical component of conversations about the legislation that targets them.

All LGBTQ youth and families stand to be harmed, but it is trans youth who are being forced to flee their home states to live safely. In the U.K., it was trans youth who were dropped from a historic conversion therapy ban. And it is trans youth who live with the legacy of teenage murder victims such as Gwen Arujo, Nikki Kuhnhausen, Brayla Stone, Mercedes Williamson, and others.

Read More: Kid of the Year Finalist Kai Shappley, 11, Takes on Lawmakers in Her Fight for Trans Rights

By literally failing to say “trans,” advocates send a clear message to trans kids, who are already surrounded by clear signals that they shouldn’t exist, whether it’s a beloved children’s author making transphobic comments on social media or trolls posting hateful comments about trans athletes. It is critical to explicitly name trans youth in this moment; the disappearance of trans people from conversation about anti-trans legislation is disturbing.

What might another turn of phrase look like without turning to an awkward regurgitation of alphabet soup? Strangio refers to “don’t be trans” legislation, which is a to-the-point framing of bills like this and the larger flood of anti-LGBTQ laws. Some on social media have turned to “don’t say gay or trans,” which is straightforward, if a little longer, ensuring that trans kids feel seen. “We say gay. We say trans,” said Equality Ohio on Twitter, while others are sticking to another popular catchphrase: “Protect trans kids.”

There is power, value, and organizing utility in naming something clearly and explicitly: It’s why phrases such as Black Lives Matter and “Don’t Say Gay” become so iconic, and it’s especially valuable for reaching people who aren’t familiar with the issues or don’t understand why they matter. We need to say something in the face of this attack on LGBTQ youth, particularly trans youth, who are enduring its most vicious elements. But there has to be a way to convey the existential threat of laws like these and other anti-LGBTQ bills without in the process clumsily erasing some of the most vulnerable.

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