What Tennessee's 'Don't Say Gay' Bill Would Have Done to Me

By Joshua Alston

I spent a lot of my last two years of high school staring at Mike. His name wasn't really Mike but a euphonic West African name as unique as he was. He had all the markings of a stereotypically gay kid: He was sensitive and soft-spoken, and he never hung around guys, preferring to surround himself with a coterie of female tastemakers.

If one lawmaker has his way, kids like Mike would have the targets on their backs widened. Last week Tennessee state senator Stacey Campfield reanimated the "Classroom Protection Act," a bill he introduced in 2011 that failed to pass the state legislature. The bill would prevent teachers and staff in K-8 schools from providing instruction or counseling that is "inconsistent with human reproduction." In other words, it would bar teachers from mentioning homosexuality, hence its nickname, "the 'don't say gay' bill." More than that, Campfield's latest version of the bill would require teachers or school administrators to out suspected gay youth to their parents.

I'm going to put aside for a moment how deeply offensive this legislation is to me, and how downright goofy it strikes me as being -- as though hearing the word "gay" will subconsciously activate the next generation of Rachel Maddows and George Takeis like the mention of solitaire did for the Manchurian candidate. I suspect that Campfield misunderstands how kids, even young kids, figure out who they are -- and how important it is not to interfere with that process.

I never spoke to Mike, but we communicated more deeply through eye contact than I was communicating with my loved ones at the time. We stared at each other every time we passed in the hall. By the end of high school, I was fumbling with the realization that I was gay, but there was nothing remotely sexual about the staring. It was about an understanding that Mike and I felt but didn't know how to broach. We stared at each other the way infants do -- confident that they have some important commonalities to discuss, but frustrated by their inability to do so. It's only now that I realize how instrumental those stares were for me in approaching and understanding my sexuality. It would be years before I properly contextualized those moments; I knew I was gay years before I was ready to acknowledge it. It was even longer before I was ready to talk about my sexuality publicly, but my journey was my own. I got there when I got there, and I'm grateful for that.

I fear that Campfield's bill would rob even grade schools kids of the opportunity to dictate and pace their own journeys the way I was able to do. I'm of the opinion that adults, however well-intentioned they may be, shouldn't nudge kids in a specific direction; instead, they should let them untangle life's complexities on their own. There is risk in telling a kid that he's going to grow up to be an engineer just like his dad if the kid wants to be a ballerina. That type of comment is innocuous on its face, but it serves to narrow a child's perception of his or her options during that challenging, exciting and auspicious time when options seem infinite.

It seems that Campbell's hope is that under his bill, parents will be notified that their kids may be gay so that they can talk them out of it, which is kind of silly, regardless of whether or not one believes that sexuality is inborn.

The biggest hurdle to gay and lesbian equality is not the infernal "nature vs. nurture" debate but our seemingly unbreakable habit of framing sexuality in a simplistic, binary way: People are gay or straight; they are born one way or the other; there's nothing to parse, or weigh, or consider. Sexuality can be confusing -- even as confusing for straight kids as for gay ones, at times, albeit briefly. It's messy and complex for everyone, and it doesn't follow a linear path. I had the latitude to figure out how I felt and what I wanted to do with relatively little interference, and that proved vitally important to my development.

The lesbian and gay community has evolved toward maximum inclusiveness, first becoming the LGB community, then LGBT and eventually LGBTQ, where the "Q" stands for "questioning." That "Q" isn't mentioned very often, perhaps because it's too cumbersome, or because some members of the community can't stomach uncertainty as the "with us or against us" mentality that permeates all civil rights movements spreads to this one. It's a shame, though, because for young people, the "Q" is the most important thing of all.

I believe kids need the freedom to figure out who they are, whether through quiet introspection, furtive hallway glances with their own Mikes or conversation with trusted adults that should remain confidential. The issue with Campfield's bill isn't just that it's offensive but that it would prevent kids from learning their most important skill: to think critically and decide for themselves.