In her Intro to Black LGBTQ Studies class at Howard University, Dr. Jennifer Williams notices a difference in students now compared to when she was a student on the campus in the ’90s.
Back then, in the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Williams described the LGBTQ culture as “pretty silent.” While there were some “out” students, there wasn’t a queer presence on campus, nor were there LGBTQ organizations or courses.
But now, students in her class, which had a waitlist this semester, are enthusiastic about the topic and eager to engage in discussions.
“Our culture has made a shift,” Williams, an assistant professor of English, says, of attitudes toward and treatment of LGBTQ people. But if we needed proof that more change is needed, look no further than Florida’s widely criticized “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The bill, which is officially titled “Parental Rights in Education” and was signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 28, bans discussions of gender and sexual orientation with younger students. Opponents believe the bill will further stigmatize LGBTQ students and their families, and lead to increased bullying.
The bill is a “series of gaslighting and political violence against minoritized populations,” Williams says, because, unlike the college students in her class, elementary school-age “kids aren’t having complicated conversations about queer theory.”
Williams questions how much exposure young students would even have in school to teacher-led classroom discussions about sexual orientation or activity of any kind.
“This bill is talking about protecting kids,” Williams says. “You protect kids by making them feel like they belong, that they are OK, and that their feelings are valid — not by shaming them into silence.”
How Florida’s Legislation Harms Black LGBTQ Students
A school is a place where children are supposed to learn and open their minds, says Sage Dolan-Sandrino, the National Black Justice Coalition Monica Roberts Fellow and member of the Youth & Young Adults Action Council. The only thing this bill is teaching children is to “silence, vilify, and erase” queer students, which would directly lead to harm against them everywhere.
“These kinds of bills set extremely dystopian and violent standards and norms that ultimately encourage and excuse cultures of violence against Black and Brown trans folks and queer folks,” Dolan-Sandrino says.
Black students at school deal with the intersectionality of racism, sexism, and anti-LGBTQ ideology and behavior. So on top of the anti-trans legislation in Texas and critical race theory bans nationwide, the Don’t Say Gay bill adds to the messaging that crucial aspects of Black LGBTQ students’ identities are taboo subjects.
“Too often, we are taught that our existences are political and that our existences are something that is up for debate,” Dolan-Sandrino says. “The message that sends to young Black students is that there’s something about our existence that we must defend.”
More Than Half of LGBTQ Youths Do Not Find School ‘Affirming’
Even before these many pieces of legislation started targeting Black students, fewer of them were finding school to be a safe or affirming space.
A 2020 report by GLSEN and NBJC focused on Black LGBTQ high school students found that among the reasons they didn’t feel safe at school, sexual orientation was the top reason, with more than 50% of respondents reporting this. Race or ethnicity ranked fourth, with around 31% reporting it. In fact, 30% said they missed at least one day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable. Further, around 40% of Black LGBTQ students reported being harassed or assaulted at school due to both their sexual orientation and race or ethnicity.
More than half of Black LGBTQ students who were harassed or assaulted did not report these experiences to staff, mostly because they didn’t think anyone would do anything about it.
“There are faculty and administrators who are not equipped with bias training or sensitivity training,” Dolan-Sandrino says. “Students don’t feel that there is any support system that they have.”
Indeed, less than half of these students told family members about the bullying and victimization they faced at school.
Schools not having proper support systems in place shows up in a variety of ways. Black students are already disproportionately targeted by school discipline policies, and LGBTQ intersectionality adds to that. About half of Black LGBTQ students faced disciplinary actions at school — like detention, out-of-school suspension, or expulsion — and, with increased social exclusion and victimization that comes with not identifying with any singular group, the rate was even higher for students who identify as multiracial Black.
The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey found LGBTQ youths were split on whether school was an affirming space, with 50% saying it wasn’t. Only 21%, or less than a quarter, of Black LGBTQ students were taught positive representations of LGBTQ people, history, or events through their school curriculum, according to the GLSEN and NBJC report.
“It’s no secret that many of us spend much more time at school than we do in our own homes and with our own families,” Dolan-Sandrino says. “The effect of being criminalized by identifying freely and authentically undoubtedly will cause irreparable harm.
Nearly 50% of Black LGBTQ Youths Considered Suicide in 2020
All of these factors have an impact. More than 10% of LGBTQ youths attempted suicide in 2020, but the number that “seriously considered” it was considerably higher, with Black youths only behind native and indigenous youths, according to the Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey.
White youths attempted suicide at a 12% rate, compared to 21% of Black youths and 18% of Latinx youths.
On top of that, 65% of Black LGBTQ youths reported experiencing symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. More than half of them wanted mental health care but did not receive it.
“I don’t think that Black communities are necessarily more homophobic than any other community,” Williams says, but there are stigmas around sexuality and masculinity. “The demands placed upon boys, specifically, to be certain kinds of masculine, and hold on [to] and perform this Black masculinity” have an effect on mental health.
The Best Thing You Can Do Is Listen — and Take Action Against Injustice
For many, the natural reaction is to want to help Black LGBTQ youths. But it’s important to make sure your actions are actually helping instead of inadvertently causing harm. The best things to do are listen, ask, and research the public needs in your community, Dolan-Sandrino says.
“Something that is very harmful is when we make assumptions of what queer people need — or we make assumptions of what to do in situations instead of asking queer people what they need,” she says.
There are many local mutual aid foundations all over the country that can help with rent and medical assistance. Or sometimes someone will need a ride to the doctor’s office, or money for groceries.
This, Dolan-Sandrino says, often falls upon deaf ears because that’s not how people want or feel best equipped to help. But she reiterates that it’s important to listen. Listen when the LGBTQ community speaks out against legislation like this, and stand up and fight against it. Vote against the legislation when you have a chance to. Start conversations to educate people in your family and community.
“Start conversations — and have them — because these conversations change lives and save lives,” Dolan-Sandrino says.
Education, Williams says, doesn’t stop at reading and arithmetic; it extends to civic and social education to be a better citizen and “fully actualized human being.” Adults, she says, should be able to model what it’s like to treat everyone with kindness and compassion.
In this regard, it’s adults who have a lot to learn from younger generations. Williams recalls the positive way a friend’s daughter interacts with other kids at school who have two mommies — and how normal it is for a classmate to use gender affirming pronouns such as “they” instead of “she.”
“They seem to be really mature about it,” Williams says. “I’m going to have kids like her as my students in the next few years, where they come in armed with a lot more security and feelings of safety and feelings of belonging than they would otherwise if they were shamed into silence.”
This story was updated on March 28 with the news of the bill being signed into law.