The Harm of “Don’t Say Gay”

Introduction — my exposure to queerness as a kid

I grew up on a farm. My childhood home was surrounded on three sides by huge fields of corn, soybeans, and hay. The student population of my entire PreK-12 district is smaller than the high school graduating classes of most of my urban or suburban friends. I teach at a very small high school in New York City– the enrollment of 13 grades in south-central Illinois and the enrollment of this school are essentially equal — around 470 students.

To drive around my town–not that there’s much, blink for too long while you’re peeling down Illinois Highway 51 and you’ll miss it entirely–is to take a tour through the various flavors of Protestantism to have settled the area through time. We’ve got Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, a few Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the closest thing to a Southern Baptist Megachurch a town of 1,100 can sustain.

I was raised Catholic.

In this town, queer was a stone’s throw from the worst thing someone could be. I remember the way both kids and adults alike spoke about community members who remained unmarried after the ripe age of thirty and eye of suspicion with which they were watched.

Homophobic and transphobic slurs rolled off of their tongues with the same ease as racism. I remember the first time I was called a faggot- a misattribution caused by limited vocabulary that turned out to be correct without meaning to be. I was not allowed to dress myself until I had a driver’s license to ensure I was presenting myself as an “appropriate” young woman. My most common punishment was having my books taken out of my room and replaced with Seventeen, Teen Vogue, and Tiger Beat.

I was grounded for dating someone my mom thought was queer. My friendships, debit card transactions, and text messages were monitored regularly to ostensibly prevent my gayification.

We can all see how well that turned out.

What “Don’t Say Gay” Actually Does.

I’m thinking a lot about my exposure to queerness during childhood as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill becomes law in Florida. All things considered, my exposure was minimal and negative; what impact did that environment have on me?

The law known as “Don’t Say Gay” does three things.

  • Bans instruction on and classroom discussion of gender from grades K-3 and mandates that all instruction/discussion after that point be “developmentally appropriate”
  • Empowers parents to sue schools over curricular materials they don’t like.
  • Requires schools to inform parents when their child receives mental health services.

The Homophobic Conflation of Orientation and Sexual Behavior

The full depth of insanity in the discourse around this issue is beyond the purview of this piece, but I will take on the most common refrain I’ve heard, which centers around the fact that “five year olds shouldn’t be taught about sex.”

Let me let you in on a little secret: I am just as queer at work or on the subway or brushing my teeth, or grocery shopping as I am when I’m actively having sex. I could take an oath of celibacy for the rest of my life and I’d still be queer.

There is a pervasive and disturbing tendency to view queer couples exclusively through the lens of their sex lives. Heterosexual couples are not subject to the same treatment. There is a cishet assumption that queer people cannot possibly love each other, that sex is the only thing that connects queer people. This is not true. Queer people are no more inherently sexual than heterosexual people–although arguments can be made about the quality of sexual engagement.

Let me let you in on another secret: I was queer before I ever experienced any sexual desire.

The earliest puppy-love crushes I had as an elementary school kid had nothing to do with sex, but they were queer.

The Ambiguity of Developmentally Appropriate

Who decides what is developmentally appropriate?

When it comes to sex education, the United States has been universally garbage. If sex education is offered at all, it is typically offered once in middle school and once in high school. Parents are allowed to opt their children out of the instruction, effectively leaving them with nothing. Sex ed in the US also focuses primarily on prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, ignoring entirely sexual orientation, healthy relationships, pleasure, and boundary development.

Northern European countries have long been far better at this, beginning “developmentally appropriate” sex education to children as young as five years old. No one is asking a kindergartener to put a condom on a banana–that is a strawman argument that makes no sense. At that age, sex ed focuses mostly on bodily autonomy and setting boundaries; teaching children not to allow adults to touch them inappropriately and allowig them the freedom to avoid touch from other children as well.

There is no age at which knowing that queer people exist is developmentally inappropriate. Children of any age can understand romantic or domestic partnerships between people of any gender. Since gender is socially constructed and children have less social programming, they are likely to push back against gender expansiveness than adults.

Book Bans & How I’m Bi and Trans Despite Reading Every Jane Austen book

Do parents think they will be arbiters of what is and is not “developmentally” appropriate?

In some ways, the state has de-facto deputized them without the benefit of any expertise whatsoever. Parents are not child psychologists. They are not teachers. They are not curriculum designers.

I think about my own academic experience and am utterly horrified by the prospect of parents dictating what should be included in the curriculum. The vast majority of parents in my hometown barely graduated high school and if they’d been responsible for what I learned in school, I don’t think I would have survived my teens.

I don’t know where this misconception comes from, but one certainly exists that exposure to certain information will change the trajectory of one’s identity development. Books about queer people and Black liberation are being banned from schools and public libraries left and right out of fear that they will “turn” them queer or make them “feel bad about themselves” for being white.

To illustrate just how ridiculous this is, know that I read all of the classics of chick-lit: I’ve read everything by Austen, all three Bronte sisters, Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter, and so on — despite my biology and these valuable texts, I’m still not a woman. I’m still not straight. So why would we expect the opposite direction to be any more impactful?

“Grooming, ” Disclosure, and Exploitation

The two most disturbing aspects of “Don’t Say Gay” are the least spoken about: the derision of queer teachers (and those advocating for queer inclusion in schools) as “groomers” and the requirement for schools to disclose mental health services and queer identities to parents.

Grooming refers to the practice of adults building relationships, trust, and emotional bonds with children for the purpose of manipulation and exploitation. This exploitation is often sexual, but it does not have to be. It is a serious problem and one that impacts thousands of lives every year. Grooming can take many forms, but the one we’re most familiar with as a society (albeit not necessarily by its name) is the kind of grooming we see on popular TV programs like To Catch A Predator.

Grooming requires an age gap, a substantial power differential, and a motivation to take something from the young person in question–usually sex but can be companionship, caretaking, or service of some other form.

What grooming is not? Being queer in a room with a child.

Simply existing as a queer teacher is not grooming, and the vast majority of teachers who are caught engaging in grooming behaviors are heterosexual men who prey on young girls.

Muddying the waters of this term will have real impact on the lives of many teenagers as their actual abuse flies under the radar due to the unnecessary focus on queer adults in spaces with children. As prom season approaches, grooming becomes more apparent. Every year there are seventeen year old girls asking to bring twenty-five year old men to the school dance and blind eyes are turned to this behavior.

Grooming lasts longer than childhood. The impacts and wounds of grooming take decades to unlearn and heal from if that healing comes at all. Republicans decry people like me as groomers but will allow Matt Gaetz, an actual groomer and pedophile, to remain a US Representative.

Even grooming’s potential for abuse pales in comparison to disclosing someone’s gender or sexual orientation to a homophobic parent. Conversion therapy is still legal in many places, and violence against queer kids is a perpetual danger. Homophobic parents may try to counteract queerness in any number of ways, sharply increasing risk of youth suicide. In my own experience, I knew I did not have a right to privacy in my own school environment, so I trusted literally no adult with any aspect of my identity. I didn’t tell a single soul that I was queer until after I’d run away to New York City at seventeen.

This law is dangerous, and the fact that it is being replicated in other states should terrify everyone. I wish my thoughts on this were more coherent, and more will come out, I’m sure.

There are a few states–namely California, Minnesota, and New York–who are actively working to protect trans people from the reach of these state laws. We can hopefully come out of this if we stick together and continue to fight these capricious laws that will cost us lives.

Camp NaNoWriMo Day 27

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Topher Bigelow

Topher Bigelow

(he/they) Queer, educator, city kid. Writer of words, questioner of social norms, collector of degrees, lovechild of Captain Janeway and Q