Will doesn’t know where they would be today if they didn’t have LGBTQ-affirming teachers to support them.
A 17-year-old junior in Florida, Will had a rough start to the year after beginning in-person school last fall. Will is nonbinary, and when they were finally going to get to go to high school with other students, Will said, they felt empowered to “dress the way I wanted to,” including by wearing makeup.
Classmates didn’t embrace their gender expression the way Will had hoped. Someone recorded them walking through the hall and uploaded it to social media with the caption “Didn’t know this f****t actually existed.” Students repeatedly harassed Will in the bathroom and filmed themselves tearing down posters on LGBTQ suicide prevention put up by the school’s Queer Student Union.
At a Halloween party, a group of boys “surrounded me, called me slurs, told me I was going to hell, and told me they were going to beat me up if I didn’t leave,” Will said.
The abuse didn’t stop even after Will reported it, and they said they “turned to substances” to cope. “I had such a deep hatred for myself,” Will said of the period. “Queer teens are more likely to have higher rates of self-harm and drug abuse, and I’ve been there because of the sheer amount of bullshit.”
Will said they “broke down crying” one day in the classroom of a teacher they often sought out for help. Will expected the teacher to be empathetic but didn’t realize they had been through many of the same struggles. That day, Will’s teacher came out to them as pansexual and gave them advice about how to deal with the situation as someone who had made it through to the other side.
That moment was “life-saving,” Will said. Feeling seen by an authority figure, they explained, “opened up this light at the end of the tunnel.”
“A lot of kids are only able to find solace at school,” they said. “Having teachers and adults that they can turn to when they can’t turn to their parents or when they’re going through stuff, for some people, it’s the only thing keeping them going.”
LGBTQ students fear that the passage of Florida’s controversial House Bill 1557 will take away some of the few supportive resources they have. Referred to by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the legislation seeks to ban “classroom instruction” on topics related to sexual orientation or gender identity until students enter the fourth grade, according to its text. As widely expected, the bill was signed into law on Monday by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
Opponents have taken issue with H.B. 1557 for being overly broad and vague in its wording, and LGBTQ advocates remain unsure how it stands to impact schools. But queer and trans students in Florida predict the newly signed law will make the routine terror they live with every day so much worse.
Many of the LGBTQ youth who spoke with HuffPost, whose last names are being withheld to protect their safety, face overwhelming bullying at school and are struggling to get by as it is. With H.B. 1557 on the books, they worry they will have nowhere to go for help.
“Going to school as an openly LGBTQ student already is terrifying with the amount of harassment that we endure daily,” said Sebastian, a 17-year-old trans student. “This bill is just enabling people to be ignorant, and it’s letting the ignorant people have all the power. It’s going to enable the people who are already harassing us to continue harassing us without repercussions.”
A Chilling Effect
Before it was even signed into law, Florida’s H.B. 1557 was met with national criticism.
After the legislation passed the Florida Senate in March in its final hurdle prior to reaching DeSantis’ desk, President Joe Biden referred to it as “hateful.” Chasten Buttigieg, husband of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and a former educator, tweeted in February that H.B. 1557 “will kill kids,” citing the higher rates of suicidal ideation among LGBTQ youth. Disney joined over 200 companies in condemning the legislation after being called out for donating at least $250,000 to the bill’s supporters.
Following H.B. 1557’s enactment on Monday, the national LGBTQ group Human Rights Campaign pledged in a statement to lobby for its “full repeal,” while the National Center for Lesbian Rights sued the state over the law on Thursday on behalf of Family Equality and Equality Florida. Equality Florida’s executive director, Nadine Smith, confirmed to HuffPost that the group is in the process of creating a “defense fund” for schools that may face scrutiny for continuing to support LGBTQ students.
“This language is intended to stigmatize, isolate, and intimidate LGBTQ students, and kids of gay parents in particular,” Smith said. “It’s written in such a broad way that if you’re inclined to create a more hostile environment, it gives you license to do so.”
While defenders of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law claim it’s intended to prevent young children from accessing sexually explicit material, it could impact virtually any positive interaction on LGBTQ topics in any grade. For instance, its text asserts that conversations regarding sexual orientation and gender identity must be “age appropriate” without detailing what exactly that means. Supporters of H.B. 1557 reportedly rejected numerous amendments to clarify the bill’s language.
The law’s critics say its lack of specificity is already having a chilling effect on schools. Equality Florida said it has received reports of teachers being forced to remove “Safe Space” stickers from their doors to comply with the law and of a principal telling students they aren’t allowed to discuss being trans on school grounds, even privately.
Florida state Rep. Michele Rayner (D), who is openly queer, told HuffPost she recently received a message from a woman whose partner is a teacher and took down pictures of their family in the classroom for fear of being targeted under the law.
“You’re going to have teachers afraid of talking to students and having conversations about what families look like,” Rayner said. “You’re going to have students who are afraid to come out or be part of Gay-Straight Alliances. That is hurtful and harmful. What it’s saying is that if you love a certain way, your life doesn’t matter.”
“It just reinforces the idea that no one cares about us. They want to pretend that we don’t exist.”
If educators choose not to comply with the “Don’t Say Gay” law, the fallout could be ruinous. Similar to Texas’ abortion bounty law, H.B. 1557 empowers parents to bring forth lawsuits if they believe that their school district has contravened the mandate.
Fearing costly litigation, LGBTQ youth in Florida anticipate that teachers will be even less motivated to stop harassment with H.B. 1557 in place. And things are already bad: A 2019 report from the national advocacy group GLSEN found that 80% of LGBTQ youth in Florida “regularly” heard homophobic or transphobic remarks at school, including from teachers. Just over one-quarter (28%) said that faculty and staff “effectively” intervened to stop the abuse.
Aubrey, 14, said her school has failed to act as other students have tried to bully her into taking her own life. In one incident, a group of students threatened her with rape, she said. “We’re going to turn you,” one student told her. Another chimed in: “Yeah, we’re going to rape you straight.”
Aubrey said she and her family have attempted to speak about the incident to school administrators on numerous occasions, to no avail. Her principal, she said, blamed the issue on her “mental health.” Instead of taking action, she added, the principal outed her to her father by CCing him in an email chain on which he had purposefully not been included because he was not yet aware of her gender identity.
“It takes so much out of all my friends to go to school each day knowing that we’re going to get picked on and knowing that no one wants to advocate for us,” she said. “It just reinforces the idea that no one cares about us. They want to pretend that we don’t exist and that we’re not here because our existence is an inconvenience for them.”
Other students at Aubrey’s school often pelt LGBTQ kids with erasers and pencils when teachers’ backs are turned, she said. A trans classmate, Tyler, was squirted with ketchup packets during lunch. Although the ringleader was suspended for three days, Tyler said his school’s solution to prevent further incidents was to advise him that he was free to transfer to another campus in the area.
“What it said to me was: If you don’t like it, you can move because we’re not going to do anything about it,” said Tyler, who asked that his real name not be printed out of concern for his privacy.
Sebastian said he had a similar experience at his school when he attempted to report an incident in which classmates ripped down a bulletin board reading: “LGBT Youth Belong.” When Sebastian, who is president of his school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, posted about the incident on Instagram, several students called him a “f****t” in the comments, and he received a death threat from an anonymous account. He said he’s stalked on a routine basis by classmates who follow him in the halls, taking pictures of him to post online.
When he took the matter to school administration, Sebastian said, a dean told him that “we chose this lifestyle and should expect to get called slurs.” He believes that the new law means the adults in charge “won’t feel pressured to listen to our complaints and to reprimand those who are harassing us.”
“It’s exhausting,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been fighting all year. Earlier this year, I ran for homecoming king, and when that happened, I would have people harassing me in the hallways and during lunch. It got to the point where I had to eat in a closet because I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. It’s really exhausting having to fight at school every day when I come to school to learn, not to be an activist.”
When contacted by HuffPost for comment, a representative for Sebastian’s school district called the dean’s alleged comment “unacceptable and inappropriate.”
“As we look at this issue, it’s hard to figure out the motivation behind what one person said at one point,” the district spokesperson said. “We’re not exactly sure [of] the context of the meeting, but we’re very sensitive to the way it was maybe interpreted by the student. That’s what’s important: making sure that they understand that’s not appropriate.”
Aubrey and Tyler’s school district declined to answer HuffPost’s questions, citing student privacy. “Generally speaking, our staff promptly responds to parent and student concerns and acts in accordance to School Board policy,” which “prohibits bullying and harassment and outlines consequences, reporting, and the investigative process,” a district spokesperson wrote in a statement to HuffPost.
Will’s school did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for a statement.
Despite the overwhelming challenges they face in the shadow of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, LGBTQ students are fighting back.
Last month, a group of Florida students met with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine to urge them to take action to support vulnerable LGBTQ youth. In 2021, the White House joined litigation against laws passed in Arkansas and West Virginia that, respectively, ban trans youth from accessing gender-affirming medical care and limit their ability to participate in school sports. Both laws were temporarily blocked by federal courts.
Although many LGBTQ youth haven’t had the privilege of being affirmed by a supportive teacher, the students who spoke to the White House on March 18 said these all-too-rare moments made a major difference in their lives. Javier, now 17, told HuffPost that seeing his fifth-grade teacher wear rainbow socks to school every day made him feel like he “had the safe space” in the classroom that he didn’t have at home.
Javier credited that positive influence with finding the courage to come out as gay at 13 years old.
“It was a small gesture, but it was so beautiful,” said Javier, who added that he hopes, as president of his school’s GSA, to create a haven for LGBTQ students who don’t have any other spaces to be seen for who they are. “They come to school to achieve that. We all call it ‘chosen family,’ but I like to call it ‘chosen home.’”
“A lot of kids are only able to find solace at school. ... For some people, it’s the only thing keeping them going.”
As an LGBTQ adult, state Rep. Rayner said that having someone affirm that it was OK to be herself at a younger age would have changed everything. Growing up, she said, she “didn’t have the language” for what she was feeling inside when everything around her was telling her that how she loved was sinful. It took until her 30s and surviving an abusive marriage until she was able to say: “This is who I am.” She married her wife, Bianca Goolsby, in 2018.
Goolsby is an educator, and throughout her career, she has had the opportunity to be the LGBTQ role model that Rayner never had. Rayner said she worries that her state is “taking that away from children.”
“She has had students come out to her because they felt safe,” Rayner said of her wife. “She was there to be a sounding board for them as a responsible adult. I think about where I would be if I had that.”
As they work with advocates toward H.B. 1557’s repeal, LGBTQ students said they will do what it takes to create environments where they can thrive. Will co-organized a walkout on March 8 in which 500 of their classmates joined in protesting the bill, an action echoed by more than a dozen other schools across the state. Students at Will’s school held signs reading “Protect Trans Kids” while chanting, “We say gay!”
Will said the protest was intended to show Florida leaders that “what they’re doing doesn’t represent us,” and they believe the turnout shows that students “accomplished our mission.”
The demonstration also made a major impact on campus, they said. Over the past three weeks, students they’ve never met before have started high-fiving them in the hallways between classes. If they’re harassed in the bathroom, Will said, newfound allies have started intervening to stop it.
While they admitted that the reality is that “homophobes will stay homophobes,” Will believes the drastic shift at their school was motivated by “turning the neutral people into advocates.” Many students told them that they were unaware before the walkout that LGBTQ people still experience discrimination.
If the “Don’t Say Gay” law remains in place, it would be difficult to keep educating fellow students on the struggles that LGBTQ people face, Will said.
“It made a bunch of kids who previously were bystanders become advocates and feel like they were part of something,” they said of the outcry over the law. “If you’re going to silence and censor education, you’re going to prevent things like this. It’s just proof that education will save lives.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.