The Advocate July/Aug 2022
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As the 'Don't Say Gay' Law Goes Into Effect, LGBTQ+ Lives Are Erased

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Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Equal Pride.

Today, Florida's "don't say gay" law goes into effect, and school districts will begin implementing policies to limit discussions about LGBTQ+ people, experiences, and topics in public schools. This is tantamount to erasure. This bill is a direct attack on the LGBTQ+ community and its allies, and it will have a detrimental impact on the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ+ children in Florida.

Unfortunately, we knew of the detrimental impact when this bill was introduced, debated, and pushed through our hyperpartisan legislature in Florida months ago. This legislation was passed in direct defiance of the hundreds of constituents who traveled to Tallahassee to make their voices heard, the youth who organized marches and protests at their schools, and lastly the parents and LGTBQ+ folks in Florida whose everyday lives now face an increased threat due to state-sanctioned hostility.

As the first out Black queer woman to ever hold public office in Florida, I felt the weight of this session and my role in it to speak up, especially when it was clear my Republican colleagues had the intent and votes to pass this harmful legislation. I wanted history to have a record of this dark time and who stood on the side of justice and equality. More importantly, I wanted to make sure that every concerned child and their family had some reassurance. That is a vow I will continue to carry out as we head into likely more contentious legislative sessions. With Gov. Ron DeSantis's eyes on the White House, Floridians will continue to be collateral damage as he prioritizes divisive policies to rile up his base and gain their votes.

Our LGBTQ+ families refuse to be pawns in anyone's political grandstanding. But that is exactly what has happened after months of coded rhetoric and the peddling of misinformation, conspiracies, and outright lies. And for legislation that is ironically for parental rights, there were too many attempts to imply that LGBTQ+ parents are predators and to outright invalidate the existence of gender fluidity and individuality of our youth. Bottom line: It is OK to be gay. It is OK to be trans. It is OK to be you. It is more than OK — you are seen, valued, and loved.

I want to live in a world where every child can go home to their parents and guardians and talk about the things they are curious about or notice within their own bodies whether it relates to gender identity and sexual orientation or not. The sad reality is that it is far from where we are as a society. Many times, children seek sanctuary at school and with their teachers. We are now implementing punishments for those students who may already be confused and scared with no one to talk to because they fear retaliation. Rates of suicide among LGBTQ+ youth grew in Florida over the last two years, and even state health officials are aware of this but not addressing it. They are too busy gaslighting the public into thinking they’re working in their best interests. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ youth face increased ostracization and mental health challenges, and it’s clear to see why that would be the case.

Florida Republicans raised the alarms and created an issue where there was none so they could step in and pass self-serving legislation under the guise of parental rights. Now rainbow flags are being taken down in schools, and this vague legislation forces parents and schools to litigate its enforcement.

At this point, Florida Republicans have done more to address a nonissue than the real and rising threat of gun violence that has scarred Floridians and our nation many times over. This is just one glaring example of what the priorities are for the majority party in our state. It is not lost on me that other bills designed to chip away at our democracy are going into effect today too, like the Stop WOKE Act, which prohibits discussions about race in schools. Today is also overshadowed by the crisis in our democracy unfolding on the national level.

Abortion rights have been set back decades, environmental protections have been gutted, the separating line between church and state has been blurred, and the list goes on. All of it can be traced back to an election that was won on either gerrymandering, voter suppression, or other authoritarian tactics and messaging that have divided our country. But it is also the main tool and mechanism for change that we have. Voting is the first step, but the fight for an equitable and more just democracy never stops.

Our laws are an expression of our politics. We have a system of checks and balances to make sure that our fundamental rights and the laws that guarantee them are above that, but we have all seen the system's flaws and how it has been weaponized. While it may look like everything has happened in the span of a few months, this has been decades in the making. I know that people are jaded and there is a collective fatigue present, but we will undo the harm that has been caused no matter how long it takes. That is why we must remain vigilant, organize, mobilize, and find a political home to do that with. Every day, we see more representation of historically excluded communities at every level of government, and while I'm the first queer Black woman in the Florida legislature, I know I won't be the last.

Michele Rayner is the state representative for the newly drawn Florida House District 67. Born and raised in Pinellas County, she is a widely respected civil rights attorney and social justice advocate. Michele and her wife, Bianca, live in St. Petersburg, Fla., with their dogs.

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