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On the day my state introduced a bill that would limit conversation around gender and sexual orientation in the classroom, I reposted the news to Twitter and cried myself to sleep.

Later that night, my phone buzzed. I squinted my eyes, trying to make sense of the words on the screen.

“I’m sorry that I couldn’t be there for you back then.”

The message was from my middle school counselor. I felt my heart sink as memories of growing up queer in the South came back to me — hearing classmates use “gay” as a pejorative, feeling them reject the identity I hadn’t yet had the space to embody.

I wondered how different it would have been if I’d had a teacher or counselor in my corner — someone I could trust and talk to about who I was and wanted to be.

Someone who truly made me feel like it was okay to be myself.

Ten years ago, there were no conversations around identity in my middle or high school. Without resources and support, even well-meaning educators like my counselor avoided discussing topics long considered off limits.

Now I fear a return to that, or worse, as anti-LGBTQ+ and “Don’t Say Gay” bills like Florida’s sweep the country. At least 15 states have passed or considered legislation that would affect how educators discuss gender identity and interact with LGBTQ+ students.

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I worry that this legislation, and the moral panic surrounding it, will have a chilling effect on conversations between students and teachers, making it harder for students to form the kind of supportive relationships with adults that can make a huge difference in their lives.

Much of the problem lies in the ambiguity of the laws and the charged rhetoric surrounding them. In addition to prohibiting instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in younger grades, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and similar bills include vague language about “age-appropriate” instruction at any grade level.

Within this climate of intense scrutiny and undefined boundaries, many educators will simply avoid any subject they fear could land them in hot water or elicit false accusations of “grooming,” a denigrating and inaccurate term used against those who oppose Florida-style legislation.

I wondered how different it would have been if I’d had a teacher or counselor in my corner — someone I could trust and talk to about who I was and wanted to be.

Even staff who personally agree with these laws may fear getting caught up in an overzealous lawsuit by litigious parents.

This is a recipe for disaster, given what we know about the importance of positive, healthy relationships in addressing the growing youth mental health crisis. As a queer student in the South, having a trusting relationship with an adult at school would have made me feel safer and more welcome.

Students who feel connected at school are significantly less likely to experience a host of negative mental health outcomes, including feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. The presence of a caring, supportive adult is particularly important for LGBTQ+ youth. Those with an accepting adult in their lives are 40 percent less likely to attempt suicide.

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When conversations between educators and students feel like navigating a minefield, these supportive and trusting relationships can’t develop. Even if many of these legislative proposals don’t pass, they have already created fear and anxiety in schools for students and teachers.

We can’t leave kids to face this alone. There is a pressing need for those of us outside of schools to find ways to provide support to LGBTQ+ youth.

One step that adults can take is to become a mentor to LGBTQ+ youth. Mentors can provide emotional support, help their mentees navigate challenges to their identities and help them envision a more hopeful and positive future.

Mentors can also be a source of affirmation at a time when many young people are internalizing the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric some politicians are using.

Mentoring advocates are joining educators across the country in speaking out against these discriminatory bills and finding ways to help LGBTQ+ students thrive. In Minneapolis, a new nonprofit called QUEERSPACE matches LGBTQ+ youth with LGBTQ+ mentors and works with community partners and families to reduce LGBTQ+ youth isolation, suicide and homelessness.

When my former school counselor reached out to me, I realized how daunting it can be for educators, too, to navigate these issues alone. Organizations like QUEERSPACE serve as a lifeline to students, families and educators alike.

Mentoring won’t solve the youth mental health crisis alone, nor is it a sufficient singular response to the wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. But it’s imperative that each of us find ways to combat or circumvent this legislation so that it doesn’t further isolate and marginalize young people and limit educators’ ability to help them.

We must try to be there for students and educators with the kind of affirming support and connection that can make all the difference.

Amaris Ramey is a graduate student pursuing a master’s in social innovation. They work as a grassroots organizing manager at MENTOR, a national nonprofit working to expand the quality and quantity of mentoring relationships for America’s young people.

This piece about “Don’t Say Gay” legislation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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  1. Dear Amaris Ramey, your article is false and gets the so-called, “Don’t Say Gay” bill mixed up. That name does not exist, it is it not called ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ it is called the “Parental Rights in Education” bill. The word “gay” is not mentioned once in the bill. It is to prevent carnal, licentious LGBTQ+ dogma to K-3. The majority of Democrats, Independents and Republicans deny this bill for many reasons:
    1. It’s indoctrination!
    2. Kids don’t need to learn about sexual-orientation, sexual subjects, gender identity, LGBTQ+ cultist dogma, and more.
    3. LGBTQ+ is unscientific, it’s a religion that has ambivalence, it’s societal, not factual or grounded in any reason, it’s a mental illness that is glorified, it should have no reason to be in school for kindergartners or third-graders.

    Older people and adolescents are okay to be suffocated with this crap, but not toddlers, kids and anything of such! If they want help with their mental illness, then they can seek a therapist, a doctor, an LGBTQ+ club or whatever. Keep it out of schools just like religion!

    I hope you can come to realize that the media makes caricatures about anything to be advantageous and to quantify their message. The “Don’t Say Gay Bill” never existed until the radical-media twisted it so it can fit their narrative and strategy. They’ll ostracize anyone who doesn’t conform to their ridiculous beliefs, same with radical-right religious people!

    Wake up!
    Clint.

    Sources:
    https://www.advocate.com/news/2022/5/24/parents-mixed-florida-dont-say-gay-laws-according-new-poll

    https://news.yahoo.com/poll-only-52-of-democrats-oppose-floridas-dont-say-gay-policy-214144683.html

    https://healthcare.utah.edu/healthfeed/postings/2021/07/lgbtqia_mental_health.php

    https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/205418

    https://www.debatingeurope.eu/2021/06/29/should-schools-teach-lgbt-issues/

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