Student activist Kaylee Sandell speaks at a press conference at the Florida state capitol, hosted by Equality Florida, AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the Human Rights Campaign in opposition of HB 1577 (don't-say-gay bill) on Tuesday, February 15, 2022, in Tallahassee, Florida. (Rick Wilson/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

Talk about clueless. Last week, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem was asked why nearly 90% of her state’s LGBTQ youth reported in a recent survey that they suffer severe anxiety and depression. “I don’t know,” Ms. Noem – quelle surprise, a Republican – said. “That makes me sad, and we should figure it out.”

I have a few ideas for the governor.

Several states controlled by the GOP have introduced laws to curtail or prohibit public schools from addressing the needs of LGBTQ students or teaching tolerance for LGBTQ people. In Tennessee where I live, a bill has been proposed that would ban the use of “textbooks and instructional materials… that promote, normalize, support, or address [LGBT] lifestyles.” In Kansas, a bill would amend the state’s obscenity laws to make using such materials a class-B misdemeanor.

None, however, are as infamous as the bill currently being debated in the Florida legislature. Dubbed the “don’t-say-gay” bill, if enacted this law would forbid discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools throughout the Sunshine State. And though an even more nefarious amendment that would have required students to be outed to their parents was withdrawn, the bill will advance to a full House vote on Thursday (February 24, 2022).

To call these bills backward would be an understatement. They are literally a throwback to another era, albeit in another country. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party passed a law – Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 – which forbade local governments and schools to “intentionally promote homosexuality” or to “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

This law is something I know about, having studied and written about it in-depth. So is growing up gay in rural America. Twenty years ago, I was the only – and possibly the first – openly gay student in my small Eastern Kentucky high school. I’ve written before about how alienating and arduous that experience was – “a daily crucible of homophobia.” I shudder to think children today might suffer the same fate – because history shows us that laws like Section 28 and Florida’s don’t-say-gay bill only serve to make life worse for LGBTQ students.

2001 was as different from 1988 as it is from today. Unlike the kids who grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I had the internet as an outlet. I would talk with other gay folks – mostly teenagers, though some older. This was my sanctuary, a haven away from the hate and prejudice I experienced in the real world.

It was also not ideal. In my rural area, where access to a local gay village (like Boystown in Chicago) was restricted by travel. Being “the only gay in the village,” to borrow a comedic phrase from the BBC show “Little Britain,” it came as no surprise to me that in the survey Noem responded to, most of the states with the highest rates of depression among LGBTQ youth – South Dakota, Vermont, Montana, Tennessee, and Alaska were the top five – were largely rural.

The isolation was suffocating, even with the benefits of the internet. I was 15 and turning to strangers on the internet for affirmation and affection could have ended very badly. But still I learned. I connected. I was gay, despite my school’s best efforts.

If the goal is to stop students from learning about LGBTQ people, culture, and identities, that ship sailed down the information superhighway a long time ago. These bills will force children to seek community and information online, where context and safeguarding are rarely prioritized while chilling discussion around sexual orientation and gender identity in what should be a safe and nurturing environment – the classroom.

This has real consequences. A 2018 Northwestern University study found that more than half of sexually active gay adolescence have used Grindr to find sexual partners. According to a report by WGBH, an NPR member station in Boston, “since 2015, more than 100 men across the United States – including police officers, priests and teachers – have faced charges related to sexually assaulting minors or attempting sexual activity with youth they met on Grindr,” a gay dating app.

We need to be getting our children offline, where they are vulnerable to exploitation. Instead, Republicans in Florida and across the country are passing laws to push LGBTQ children further into the shadows.

These laws do not protect children. In fact, they do the opposite.  Section 28 was repealed by a Labour government in 2003, but for multiple generations of LGBT Brits, its effects linger. Divina De Campo – a former contestant on the TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race UK” – recalled the homophobic bullying they received in school, including physical and emotional harassment. “Because of Section 28, it meant that a lot of teachers felt like they couldn’t step in,” they said in a 2019 episode of the show.

Clearly, these laws do not have children’s welfare in mind. If they did, they would teach children an accurate depiction of American history and society, one that includes LGBTQ milestones like the Stonewall Uprising and luminaries like current Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. Yet under the don’t-say-gay bill, even mentioning Buttigieg’s husband – or his historic presidential run in 2020 – would be a crime.

Rather, such laws serve to reinforce the prevailing cultural hegemony – one that is white, straight, and Christian. They join other Republican policies, like opposition to gay marriage (still an official plank of the GOP platform) in marginalizing our community without protecting anyone from anything. Only this time, they’re coming for our kids.

If Noem truly cares about LGBTQ youth in South Dakota and wants to make it more inclusive and welcoming to LGBT people, including children, she and the Republican Party need to join us in the 21st century. Drop this don’t-say-gay nonsense and unequivocally state that you support equality and stand up for every child’s right to be their authentic self.

In short, they need to do the opposite of what they are doing now. They need to shout from the rooftops their support for gay rights. Say it loud and say it proud. Nothing short of that will suffice.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Independent, Newsweek, Business Insider, and elsewhere. He currently lives in East Tennessee.

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