A protestor holds a sign that reads "Standing with LGBTQ families" while another protestor holds a sign that reads "Proud to be Gay" in opposition to the 'Don't Say Gay' bill
Anasofia Pelaez (left) and Kimberly Blandon protest in front of Florida State Sen. Ileana Garcia's office on March 9, 2022, after the passage of the Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by LGBTQ activists in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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As a teenager, Leo Lam Haines wanted to be left alone. When they came out as transgender in Miami public schools in the 2010s, Haines faced discrimination and bullying. But they found a safe space to express their identity at the local nonprofit Pridelines, which offers health and social support services for LGBTQ youth.

Haines, 22, now a Pridelines staffer, has seen a marked shift in the coming-out process for LGBTQ youth over the past decade: High school students now believe “their identities should be celebrated and affirmed” in school. But Haines thinks outside support will be needed even more urgently in the wake of Florida’s new restrictions on public school instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” by LGBTQ advocates, the Parental Rights in Education law prohibits such instruction from kindergarten to third grade and when “not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” The legislation, signed into law Monday and effective in July, also permits parents to sue school districts for policy violations.

Pridelines is responding by working to create a network throughout South Florida for LGBTQ youth to have access to resources and places to be their authentic selves.

Ambiguity in the law’s language already is having a chilling effect beyond grade school. Haines said a middle school student who wanted to start a gender and sexuality alliance club was discouraged from doing so by school faculty who feared repercussions. High schoolers active in such clubs have told Haines they’re concerned they won’t receive administrative approval for Pridelines to visit and facilitate conversations. And Haines has heard from LGBTQ teachers who fear they could be penalized under the new law if they don’t keep their identity secret.

“They’re approaching those permission requests and their own personal disclosure differently in the wake of this,” said Haines, Pridelines’ head of special initiatives. 

Pridelines is seeking to bring programs and services into the community now that identity-affirming clubs at schools are at risk, said CEO Victor Diaz-Herman. The organization recently applied for a grant to fund a mobile unit in South Florida that would offer snacks and meals, access to emergency services for youth experiencing homelessness, peer-led support groups and clothing. 

Pridelines, which also hopes to provide LGBTQ-affirming training for local businesses and faith-based organizations to become safe spaces for youth, already offers youth programs and services in person at the Miami center, through video chat on Discord and on weekends at parks.

Diaz-Herman fears that the law will lead LGBTQ youth to repress their identity, as well as foster shame and stigma that could result in suicidal thoughts and long-term mental health issues. A gay man raised by lesbian mothers, Diaz-Herman attended a private school without supportive spaces, which caused him to repress his sexual orientation until he was in his late 20s. 

A 2021 Trevor Project survey on LGBTQ youth mental health found that out of nearly 35,000 respondents ages 13 to 24, 42% had seriously contemplated killing themselves in the past year, including over half of transgender and nonbinary people. Respondents who had access to identity-affirming spaces were less likely to attempt suicide. 

Haines is all too familiar with the risk factors for LGBTQ youth who don’t have access to identity-affirming spaces. Some of Haines’ closest childhood friends have misused substances or died after facing discrimination for coming out as transgender. 

“That’s a lonely experience, to be reflecting on the loss of such young peers at my young age,” Haines said. 

They’ve also seen progress in the past decade around the understanding of gender diversity, and they say that jeopardizing that risks lives. 

Diaz-Herman foresees an increase in harassment, bullying and hate speech following laws like Florida’s. “The conversation is going to be more around surviving in, than living in, communities that don’t have access to safe and affirming spaces,” Diaz-Herman said. 

Florida’s action reflects a broader trend of states restricting classroom discussion around contested topics, such as critical race theory. Bills recently introduced in the Georgia and Louisiana legislatures echoed language in the Florida law, and a Michigan Republican state house candidate has promised to introduce similar legislation if elected. 

On Thursday, several parents, students, LGBTQ rights advocacy groups and a teacher filed a federal lawsuit against the Florida ban.

Students are part of the pushback to the Florida law in other ways too. High school students waving rainbow-colored pride flags and chanting “We say gay!” have staged walkouts throughout the state. 

“It’s our young people not being satisfied with how we approach things today … that ends up driving a lot of the positive change that ultimately makes us a more inclusive community,” Haines said. 

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Melissa Hellmann is an award-winning reporter who covers racial, gender and economic inequality. Prior...