Truth Wins Out:

The bigoted bill would harm LGBTQ Youth, but also backfire on Religious Right

In 1991, at the age of twenty, I partied nearly every weekend at the euphoric menagerie of LGBTQ nightclubs in South Florida. The region was quickly becoming the LGBTQ club capital of the world, with a huge scene in Fort Lauderdale and a rising gay mecca in South Beach. The one weekend I didn’t go out, an attention-seeking stage horse, Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro, ordered a homophobic raid on two LGBTQ nightspots that I regularly frequented.

One of the discotheques assaulted was Club 21, which hosted a weekly college night. When masked goons from the Broward Sheriff’s office burst into the bar, Club 21 was filled with terrified LGBTQ teenagers who were there that night for a social event sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Youth Group of South Florida.

In The Advocate, Byron Jones recalled the terrible aftermath of the raid.

“Most of our members had their parents called, many of them outed to family members who were not ready to accept their gay children, and especially angry over the way they found out…In the weeks that followed, we heard from many young people who were being harassed by family and school members over what happened. While it is difficult to track the full aftermath, I know firsthand of one member whose family situation became much worse, and he took his life as a result.”

This story is newly relevant because State Rep. Joe Harding (R) has introduced the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida. It would prohibit teachers from encouraging discussions about LGBTQ issues “in a way that is age or developmentally inappropriate.” LGBTQ Nation reports that there is also “a proposed amendment…that would give teachers six weeks to out gay and bisexual students to their parents if they find out that a student isn’t straight.”

The experience from Club 21 shows that prematurely outing students often ends in tragedy. This is particularly true if the LGBTQ youth’s parents are strict fundamentalists who view being gay or trans as an unforgivable sin. Some of these youth may react by resorting to self-harm. Others could be traumatized by parents who enroll them in toxic “ex-gay” conversion programs that decimate self-esteem and increase self-loathing. If this harmful bill becomes law, its right-wing sponsors will surely have blood on their hands.   

In response to this legislative monstrosity, Chasten Buttigieg, husband of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Tweeted a Trever Project statistic that “42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide last year.” Then he rhetorically asked, “Now they can’t talk to their teachers?”

Pete also warned on CNN of unforeseen consequences. “Chasten, my husband, pointed out that if our kids someday, some Monday morning come into class, you know, and kids are sitting around and the teacher’s got the morning circle talking about how everybody’s weekends went, and one of them says, ‘I had the best weekend with my dad’s,’ is the teacher supposed to say, ‘No, we don’t talk about that here’?” 

“Any age where it’s appropriate to talk about a kid’s mom and dad, then it should be appropriate to talk about a kid’s mom and mom or dad and dad or whatever family structure we live with. That’s part of what it means to be pro-family is to be pro-every family.”

Meanwhile, state Rep. Ana Eskamani (D) filed an amendment that would allow students to sue the Florida Department of Education for damages and attorney fees if they are harmed by the mandatory outing law. Once again, Florida Republicans are selfishly indulging their fanatical fetiches, while state taxpayers are expected to foot their frivolous legal bills.  

While the “Don’t Say Gay” effort will surely be destructive, it’s also worth considering how it may ultimately backfire on the Religious Right. Paradoxically, the more our foes wage their cruel culture war, the more the LGBTQ movement advances. When the extremists attacked us over the AIDS epidemic, countless people came out and it propelled the movement forward. When they fought to ban gays in the military, it gave us a platform, allowed us to share our journeys and helped us gain new allies. The same pattern occurred during the fight for marriage equality – with 70% of Americans now in support of gay unions.

Indeed, the Public Opinion Research Lab (PORL) at the University of North Florida found 49% of respondents oppose the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation and 40% support it, either somewhat or strongly. Even in conservative Florida, the Religious Right is on the wrong side of public opinion. They don’t speak for “the people” as they arrogantly claim. Instead, they represent a shrinking base of angry puritans at odds with the fair-minded majority.  

This counterintuitive phenomenon is why our fervent right-wing foes have waved the white flag. They’ve thrown in the towel. They’ve cowered from the competition. They know they can’t win on a level playing field, so they have instead moved to change the rules of the game. After all, LGBTQ activists can’t win arguments if they are forbidden by law from arguing.

That’s why the most important part of this sinister bill isn’t “gay”, it’s “Don’t Say”. This noxious effort is a bad faith censorship scheme to forcibly impose right wing Christian values on all Floridians. These are the same people who whine about “religious freedom”, while moving to enact legislation to short circuit freedom of speech for people with whom they disagree.   

The paradigm to ban free speech for the LGBTQ community was first introduced by the World Congress of Families, an American-based international organization cofounded by U.S. citizens and Russians. In 2013, they teamed up with authoritarian Russian legislators to pass the “gay propaganda” law, that severely restricts freedom of speech and assembly for LGBTQ activists. A similar conspiracy of silence is what they hope to create in the U.S., with Florida as their testing grounds.

Once a vacuum of silence is established, it can be filled with outrageous lies, false stereotypes and ugly distortions. If LGBTQ activists aren’t allowed to provide facts, our opponents can offer fear and fiction. They also want to create a hushed atmosphere, that itself creates the feeling that being gay, or transgender, is dirty and scandalous. They want to relabel our mostly mundane lives as “adult content” that can only be discussed after hours in shameful whispers.  

The Religious Right defends the Florida bill by claiming that it wants to return schools to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. However, they don’t seem to have a problem adding religious proselytizing to the curriculum. For example, in a West Virginia public school, students were required to attend an anti-LGBTQ Christian revival meeting. This prompted more that 100 students to walk out of the sectarian event, claiming it violated their religious freedom.

The Religious Right should also be careful of their wishes coming true. If they can ban gay topics from being discussed, what’s to stop progressive states from instituting “Don’t Say Evangelical” rules, considering new empirical evidence that “for every 10 percent additional evangelical in a county, the number of hate groups in that county increases by 17 percent.”   

Our foes need to wake up and realize that they aren’t Cher and can’t “turn back time.” They can pass whatever cruel legislation they want, but LGBTQ youth will still be able to find information online that wasn’t readily available in the past. What we are witnessing on the right is aging control freaks who are flipping out because they have lost the ability to interfere, unobstructed in peoples’ lives.    

“You have an emerging generation that is multiracial, multicultural, where no single ethnic or racial group is the majority, and it has struck an existential fear within those who are used to controlling everything, from the boardroom to the White House,” Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, explained to CNN. “So, what we are seeing here is people playing on that fear of that graying generation that votes with regularity and feels as though something is slipping away.”

If the Florida bill becomes law, it will likely ruin the lives of many vulnerable teenagers. But it will also force more students to come out of the closet at younger ages. The injustice experienced at Club 21, decades earlier, led to indisputable harm, but it also inspired those who survived being outed to stand up and fight for equality.

Though not known for their deep reflection, leaders of the religious right in Florida should ask: When has an increase in LGBTQ people coming out ever advanced their wicked goals?

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