Please, Say Gay

By Kenneth J. Bartschi, Partner

Florida is on the verge of passing the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill, which would limit teachers’ ability to address issues of sexual orientation or gender identity. It is a cruel and needless piece of work that attacks vulnerable populations for perceived political gain. It is a step backwards for LGBTQ people who seem to be the punching bag du jour for some politicians.

When I was in school in the 1970s and early ‘80s, we had Don’t Say Gay. Well, that’s not actually true. Gay people were occasionally discussed – with derision. The message I received as a gay boy in a small town in Upstate New York was that being gay was very bad. Gay people were weak, disgusting, loathsome. Being gay was the worst thing you could be. I was in high school when AIDS first appeared and remember hearing adults say that it wasn’t a problem but a solution. Imagine being 15 and queer and that was all you heard your entire life.

Not surprisingly, when I began to realize I might be gay I suppressed it and told myself that things would be different in college. I don’t know how that was to come about. I guess my fairy godmother would wave a wand or something and poof – I would be straight and therefore acceptable. But no fairy godmother was available for the task.

Growing up, I also thought I was the only person to feel this way. Turns out I was quite wrong on that front. After high school, I learned of a couple of close friends were also gay. And then reconnecting with folks on Facebook revealed several other classmates as well as at least one teacher were also part of my tribe. Imagine if we could have said gay in a positive way. Growing up would have been so much less painful and isolating.

I was fortunate enough to go to school for music and meet people who were out, even in the 1980s. I spent most of my college career inching my way out of the closet cautiously. Eventually I told my parents, which was much scarier than arguing in the Connecticut Supreme Court in front of Chief Justice Peters. My parents reacted much better than I could have hoped and a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. After grad school, I worked in arts management for a firm owned by three gay men. And I have been out at my firm since I was a law clerk. Oh, and the people I grew up with have largely become allies even if their attitudes were not so great when I was a kid.

But not everyone is so lucky. There was a girl in my high school from a religious family who committed suicide. As I recall, she took a bunch of pills and went into the woods and froze to death. The rumor was that she was a lesbian. I have no doubt the rumors were correct, and that was why she took her life given the messages she was hearing about the value of LGBTQ people.

It is true that it is much better today for LGBTQ people than it was back then. Schools have gay-straight alliances. Kids are out much earlier. Society is much more accepting. Come June, most major corporations will incorporate the rainbow flag into their logo and line up to be in pride parades.

But the progress is not universal. Too many LGBTQ kids still contemplate suicide, and some carry it out like the girl from my home town. Too many families still will not accept their queer kids and will throw them out of their home or worse, send them to life-destroying conversion “therapy.” Too many kids still feel at sea when they realize their sexual orientation or gender identity does not align with the heteronormative model that prevails in society. Schools need to be able to say gay, and bi, and trans, and lesbian, and non-binary so that these kids know that there is a place in the world for them.

This is a law blog, so I should probably offer up some equal protection analysis or due process claim or some other theory why queer kids should not be mistreated. I could talk about the vagueness of the law and the problems with requiring schools to out kids to their families, regardless of the consequences. (Yes, this is part of the law. I guess they wanted to make it as ugly as possible.) But why should an erudite legal analysis be necessary at all?

I have spent much of my life arguing in some form or another for my own humanity. It is exhausting. And yet here we are again having our basic humanity challenged. Because in the minds of the legislators, being LGBTQ is bad, so we shouldn’t talk about it lest it turn kids gay. (Psst. They’re already queer. Suppressing won’t make it go away. Trust me on this.)

I hope that Florida teachers will say gay anyway. That when a first grader asks why their friend has two dads, the teacher can say it is because families come in different forms. That when a seventh grader thinks they might be gay, they can confide safely in a trusted teacher so they don’t have to learn about their sexuality solely from the internet or worse. That queer kids will know that they are safe in school even when they might not be at home or in church. That LGBTQ kids don’t have to go through what I and my friends experienced when we were growing up. Is that really too much to ask?

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