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Coming back to middle school after the pandemic lockdown was scary for me. I worried about not feeling accepted in my school community.

I’m a 14-year-old nonbinary Black artist. I use they/she pronouns, and I don’t have any specific sexual orientation, so I identify as queer.

As a result, I worry about laws being proposed and passed around the country to restrict LGBTQ+ people like me.

Related: In the wake of ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ LGBTQ students won’t be silenced

In Florida, they passed the so-called Don’t Say Gay law in March, which prohibits teachers from discussing sexual orientation with young students. Preventing discussion will prevent self-expression and will cause more identity issues. Queer students are in danger and in fear.

This law and similar legislation are a threat to students like me, because we rely on safe spaces in schools to develop personally and academically. LGBTQ+ clubs in schools led by caring teachers can provide a sense of community and nurturing spaces for queer students to safely explore their identities.

Imagine growing up feeling like you were born in the wrong body, but no one helped you understand that feeling? When a person feels like something is out of place, they do something to make it better. But if students don’t have the tools to make it better themselves, they can be negatively impacted by their choices and the choices of others.

I worry about laws being proposed and passed around the country to restrict LGBTQ+ people like me.

At my middle school, the READI (Rainbow Education Alliance for Diverse Individuals) club is a space for supporters and members of the LGBTQ+ community to learn more about themselves and others and also connect with our local community through service.

When I joined, I was excited about the opportunities waiting for me and my peers. It felt nice to finally have a space to be myself around people who would listen and understand me.

The performances and projects that we do in READI club are both fun and meaningful. We’ve had discussions about queer artists and leaders who provided lots of inspiration not only for us, but for people all over the globe.

Not being treated differently, knowing that we’re not abnormal, is appreciated. It’s especially helpful seeing people like us being successful. Learning about these things was important to me. It feels right to credit the people who have fought for our opportunities.

When students have trouble turning to family members for support, schools must act as safe spaces and provide welcoming communities. LGBTQ+ clubs encourage teens to educate their peers and teachers about how they can support queer students, and teach queer students how to connect with their identities and practice self-empowerment.

Related: COLUMN: A lesson in hypocrisy — what’s really behind the ‘parental rights’ movement

My community in the READI club is much different from my school and community as a whole. My community outside of READI club does not always make me feel welcomed or accepted. But that is precisely why the READI club is such a unique and special space. The community of teens in READI club don’t make jokes about me being queer like it’s an insult. They don’t ask me invasive questions about my identity.

The READI club has helped me feel more comfortable and confident with my identity so that no matter what community I am in, I feel safe to still be my authentic self.

LGBTQ+ clubs in schools can and should also connect queer youth to the larger LGBTQ+ community outside of schools through service work. Because of the connections I’ve made in READI club, I feel like I can learn and understand more about other people in and outside of my community. I get to discover the beauty of simply embracing identity.

I feel no harsh or tense air around the topic of LGBTQ+ anymore. I am open to expressing myself anywhere that I want.

I encourage students and educators to create an LGBTQ+ club at their school and to stand in unity with queer youth across the country and in their communities. The time to create safe spaces in schools is now — before it’s too late.

My hope and dream for the future is to live freely as a Black queer person — and for other queer people to live freely as well.

Makayla Brown is an eighth grader from New Jersey.

This story about LGBTQ+ in schools 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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