Here’s Why The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill Won’t Work

I was 25 when I realized I wasn’t straight. Or, rather, I was 25 when I was finally ready to admit it: I found myself staring at Avengers: Infinity War’s Gamora just a smidge too long, and even amongst the chaos of grad school, I knew that I couldn’t ignore my queerness any longer. 

At 25, I was lucky: I had the internet. I had queer friends. I knew my family, and larger community, would accept me. If I needed a new label to describe myself, all I had to do was find the word that made the most sense. It was, all in all, an easy coming out—even if I did feel “too old,” comparatively, to be exploring sexuality.

I was even luckier that politics didn’t factor into my journey. It’s a luxury that today’s students don’t have, between policies like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and the Texas directive that orders state agencies to investigate gender-confirming care. In Florida, the bill “prohibits the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the state’s primary schools,” and in Texas, the directive allows the parents of transgender kids to be charged with child abuse. Both of these policies come at a time when research suggests that more teens are (openly) queer than ever before.

Here’s why these policies won’t work: I grew up in the ‘90s and aughts, at a time when there were virtually no queer role models. During puberty, I didn’t have any examples of what crushing on a woman might look like. Author Grace Perry referred to that time as “a weird lull” in lesbian representation in her book, The 2000s Made Me Gay.

I missed the cultural moments that did exist: I was too young to have been impacted by Ellen DeGeneres coming out in the ‘90s, too young for Buffy the Vampire SlayerWill & Grace, and the original run of Queer as Folk, and definitely too young for The L Word, which premiered in 2004.  

In 2009, we’d have Glee, but by the time Kurt Hummel hit the screen, I was 17 and positive I was straight (my obsession with his rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Blaine was, apparently, not enough of a clue). After all, Kurt seemed obviously and confidently gay. If I was gay, I’d be the same—and I wasn’t. Therefore, my teenage brain concluded, I couldn’t be gay.

None of this, of course, actually changed the fact that I’m queer. Instead, this lack of vocabulary just left me feeling confused, for a long time—and it’s this sense of confusion and shame that policy like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and the Texas directive will bring to kids in these states. These policies jeopardize queer students by shaming them into silence, and they already face harrowing statistics: The Trevor Project estimates that LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely to consider, plan, and commit suicide. The CDC states that the risk is especially great for those under 25—which is heartbreaking, regardless of political affiliation.

During puberty, I didn’t see examples of what crushing on a woman looked like. This did not change the fact that I’m queer. It just left me feeling confused—the same sense of confusion the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and the Texas anti-trans directive will bring to kids.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention notes that rejection by one’s family is linked to wellbeing for LGBTQIA+ youth. They sponsor presentations called Talk Saves Lives to raise awareness about the intersect between queerness and suicide. This is where policy such as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and the Texas directive hurts the most: if curriculum excludes queer history, current events, writers, and stories, and queer students are scared to come out, who gets hurt? Queer kids. After all, avoiding these topics won’t stop them from being queer—it will just leave them feeling isolated. It will leave them closeted and at risk.

And they don’t have to be. Representation is much better now than it was 15 years ago. We’ve had openly queer characters on Schitt’s Creek and The Owl House and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology was a smash hit. Long-running video game series, like farming and dating simulator Story of Seasons (which began as Harvest Moon in the ‘90s), now allow for same-sex relationships. We even had Jojo Siwa on Dancing with the Stars, dancing lead—a stereotypically male role. It’s not perfect representation, but it’s progress.

Had I had more queer role models, maybe I would’ve understood my sexuality long before 25. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so behind. Kids and teens today are better set up to understand themselves, thanks to diverse representation—and we can’t afford to slide backwards. 

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Natalie Schriefer, MFA, often writes about pop culture, sexuality and coming of age. She's currently querying a YA novel with an asexual protagonist. Say hi on Twitter: @schriefern1.