Content warning: this article contains mention of homophobia and mental health conditions
Being gay is not a choice. It never has been and never will be; hence, students in K-12 schools need to be educated on what it means to be LGBTQ+. However, it becomes almost a strenuous task to relay this sentiment to others when bills like “Don’t Say Gay” just passed in the Florida Senate, where “instruction on gender and sexuality would be constrained in all grades,” according to a New York Times Education Briefing analysis of the bill. People know that this will obviously impact those who live in Florida. What people aren’t discussing is the impact of the bill on its potential to harm Generation Z, regardless of what state someone is in.
First, I need to acknowledge that I’m writing this column from a position of privilege: I go to an Ivy League school, not to mention one that’s said to be ranked number one for LGBT+ studies. I was able to take a class last semester on AMST 2335: Making Public Queer History, where I researched (with the Human Sexuality Archives) the intersection of HIV/AIDS in Latinx communities. New York is a very progressive state; upstate New York isn’t the most liberal, but Ithaca seems to share most of the same values as New York City, whose mayor just condemned the bill. Everything isn’t perfect, considering the demographics of Ivies lean primarily white and wealthy (like several LGBTQ+ students from each Ivy said so in a group interview), hence not the most “diverse” set of schools. I even wrote in an earlier column how I moved out of my first fall semester dorm because of a homophobic suitemate I encountered.
With that being said, I’ve realized how much of a platform I have. I want people to understand that the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill can harm your average Cornell student living as a publicly-out queer student but has family in Florida they’re not out to yet. It’s scary to consider that they might go home to a place where even their younger sibling is taught that “being gay is so bad, we must not speak about it.”
There are endless hypothetical scenarios that come to mind. Think about how this bill likley made national headlines, running across the TV screens of families who agree with it, saying it’s a huge “win” while their closeted child leaves to cry in the bathroom. Most people have heard of this bill by now, no matter if they’re from Florida or not. Simply mentioning the bill allows people who are homophobic to start to feel “comfortable” with their homophobia, setting a dangerous social norm that can impact any community.
For instance, the high school I attended prior to coming to Cornell, Dougherty Valley High, recently became the center of local controversy when senior Rhea Braganza wrote in a public Instagram post how “Dougherty’s Administration omitted the words ‘I’m not straight’ in the Senior Wildcat [performance]” because of its potential to be “offensive” to the audience, not “family-friendly.” The Administration even compared such a performance to “masturbating on stage.” You never know what could be going through someone’s head, especially when they’re already conditioned to suffer in silence in an environment where being gay isn’t wildly accepted.
It’s not really a stretch to consider that there might be a kid in a blue state, like California, who doesn’t necessarily feel unsafe at home but who doesn’t feel like they belong anywhere either. Maybe they came across a social media post about the gay panic defense, spiraled and decided that their life might not be worth living anymore if they can’t live freely. The Trevor Project conducted its annual mental health survey in 2021. A simple “command/control + F” search of keywords like “suicide” shows it’s mentioned 37 times in their findings. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill will also prevent people from spreading resources related to LGBTQ+ mental health, a rather dangerous concept.
Just like how you don’t get to choose if your body goes through puberty, you need to be educated about your body from a young age. It’s why sex-ed classes exist (and unfortunately, these aren’t all created equal, that’s a topic for another column). Most sex-ed classes, at the bare minimum, teach how babies are made, what intercourse is and what a heterosexual relationship looks like.
When it comes to homosexual relationships (or any relationship other than heterosexual ones), most students are lucky if they get a glimpse of information. I got barely any, and I went to a public high school in the Bay Area. My heart breaks for those who don’t get any education on homosexual relationships, let alone on anything LGBTQ+-related.
The bottom line is that there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty for LGBTQ+ youth/individuals in America, a kind of uncertainty that should be followed up with a guarantee of human rights. Instead, America responds with the constitutional uncertainty brought on by the vague language of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
As Vox emphasizes, the bill does not define key terms like “age-appropriate” or “developmentally appropriate.” It doesn’t even define the term “classroom instruction.” Vox posed a hypothetical example about a second-grade teacher mentioning she went out shopping “with her wife.”Based on the current language within the bill, it’s unclear whether this would be acceptable or not. This makes my stomach churn with anger. No straight person has ever needed to hide mention of their spouse for fear it would be illegal.
Who knows how many students in the incoming first-year class at Cornell are leaving their hometown because they don’t feel safe? Maybe they once did feel safe but no longer do because of the environment a bill like “Don’t Say Gay” creates from a nationwide lens. The day where “coming out” becomes obsolete is the day when “don’t say gay” can have a different meaning, one where no one will say “gay” in a derogatory manner.
Daniela Wise-Rojas (she/her) is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. She currently serves as assistant dining editor on the 140th Editorial Board. Anything But MunDANIties runs every other Wednesday this semester.