Outcry over 'Don't Say Gay' bill has fueled activism across the state. Here's one student's story
Students across the state have organized a wave of protests against House Bill 1557. Dozens of students staged a walkout at iPrep Academy in Miami this week, waving pride flags and carrying signs that said “don’t silence queer kids” and “gay is okay”.
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“We will not be silent!” they chanted. “Trans is ok! Gay is ok!”
Javier Gomez led this rally. He’s a senior and the president of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance club.
“When I was about five to eight years old, I knew that I was different,” Gomez said. “Obviously, I was bullied at school for my pitched voice, for my girly hand gestures. I was called these pungent words that really silenced me."
"But there was this one teacher, my fifth grade teacher, he was openly gay himself. So seeing that, and seeing him be authentically himself was that kind of notion for me to feel represented and safe."
Gomez said having people at school he could trust and confide in helped him come out to his parents.
“I promise you if it wasn't for my counselors and my teachers, I would probably still be confined into this box,” Gomez said. "I know that kids that are not out yet and don't have that support system at home are also terrified because sometimes teachers are our best support systems. We’re with them eight hours a day, five times a week. So it's just, it's scary.”
He felt supported at school, studying the Stonewall riots in American history class and talking about identity in his GSA.
“Learning about queer history, learning about different pronouns, different gender identities and sexual orientations. Really learning about the community. That helped me kind of come to terms myself.”
Gomez worries other students won’t have the same chance at acceptance he did under the new legislation. He even traveled to Tallahassee with the organization Safe Schools South Florida to lobby against it.
The measure bans classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, and in higher grades if it’s not considered “age appropriate." Gomez said that for LGBTQ students and parents, that feels like a denial of who they are.
“My philosophy, obviously, is that you're born this way, just like [Lady] Gaga said,” Gomez explained. “It takes time for you to discover yourself. But a lot of people know that they're trans, that they're gay, they're lesbian. They know at a very young age. So to actively tell them that there is something wrong with them, or they're incorrect under someone's eyes — it's demeaning and it's demoralizing.”
Supporters of the policy say parents need more control over their children’s education. The measure would prohibit districts from withholding information about kids’ health and wellbeing. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the bill sponsor is targeting policies in Broward and Palm Beach counties that discourage schools from revealing a student’s gender identity or sexual orientation to their parent without their consent.
Gomez worries the legislation could force schools to out students.
“And that's something that is incredibly dangerous,” Gomez said. “We've seen that LGBTQ+ youth, their suicide rates are incredibly high, and mental health crises are prominent, are prevalent in the community.”
Twenty-one percent of gay and lesbian young people and 22% of bisexual kids have attempted suicide, compared to 7% of their heteresexual peers, according to the Human Rights Campaign. That number jumps to 29% for transgender kids.
The legislation would allow parents to sue school districts if they don’t comply. Gomez said that could have a chilling effect on students, teachers and GSA chapters. As worried as he is about this measure, Gomez is motivated to keep organizing.
"Now I can actively tell people, hey, you need to vote. You need to vote them out. You need to pay attention to what's happening in both Tallahassee and America."
"Because if we don't stop it, as us young voters, as millennial voters, as elder voters, if we don't stop this now, then the future generation is going to have a lot of trouble,” Gomez said.
At a rally he organized in his school’s cafeteria this month, Gomez led dozens of students in calling out state lawmakers.
“Vote them out!” the students chanted. “Vote them out!”
Gomez will turn 18 soon — and he has his eye on the midterms.