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LGBTQ+ community rights may now be threatened

By Lisa Brody

Once upon a time, in what seems like another era, “gay” was a term meaning “cheerful,” “carefree,” or “bright and showy.” By the 1960s, the word “gay” was being adopted by homosexual men to describe their sexual orientation, and by the end of the 20th century, according to the GLAAD Media Reference Guide, the word was recommended by major LGBT groups and style guides to describe people attracted to members of the same sex.

In 2022, for most members of the LGBTQ+ community, they would likely tell you there is nothing cheerful or carefree about the term “gay,” nor about the assaults, both literally and critically, on those in their community. From increased attacks and killings of transgender women to “Don't Say Gay” laws being introduced and signed into law across the country, beginning in Florida, those questioning and identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ are finding their place in society less sure and secure. And the most vulnerable, adolescents and those who teach them, are discovering that schools are not the safe haven they had envisioned it to be, precipitating a greater mental health crisis.

­­“If people tell you enough times you need to fix yourself, you're either going to believe you can, or that you are the only one who can't and that you are uniquely extra broken,” said Blake Bonkowski, coordinator, Oakland University's Gender and Sexuality Center. “The reality is that LGBTQ+ people have always existed.

“We're fighting this coalition of hate with a coalition of knowledge.”

Oakland University's Gender and Sexuality Center is a haven on the OU campus. “We are still often the first affirming place a student has,” Bonkowski said, who originally discovered the center as a questioning student several years ago, ultimately becoming its coordinator. “I am often the first adult who has affirmed their identity, and in the case of trans or non-binary students, where they can use their authentic name and pronoun.

“A huge part of what we do is offer the place to meet others that share their identities,” he said. “The importance of that is when you see others who identify as your community, when things are challenging, you can get advice from people who have experienced it and you can see from others that your identity is real and valid, and that our community is one of the only ones where people tell us that our identity is not real or we could change it – so where you have a community you can share and see it with others – when you experience it, it makes it harder to internalize the negativity that you hear outside the community and harder for people to gaslight you.”

“That's part of the struggle of being gay – that push and pull of being who I am because I don't know if society will accept me,” said Noah Arbit, a Democratic candidate for the 20th state House seat, to represent West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Township and Commerce Township, who came out publicly as gay in his mid-20s. “When you talk to people, is it safe to come out – is it safe to be me – and you have the Republican Party telling them it's not. I cannot think of anything more destructive to a young person's psyche than that.

“This is a road map to trauma, that would institutionalize trauma for gay teens,” Arbit said, expanding, “It's hypocritical to talk about mental health and mental health services when this (Don't Say Gay bills) would create more mental health challenges for young gay kids and teens. It's very scary. We are definitely moving backwards.”

According to a 2017 National School Climate Survey done by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), almost 90 percent of LGBTQ students experienced harassment or assault based on “personal characteristics, including sexual orientation, gender expression, gender, religion, actual or perceived race and ethnicity, and actual or perceived disability. Nearly two-thirds reported experiencing LGBTQ-related discriminatory policies or practices at school.”

The report notes that while every student's experience is different, “queer students face a number of challenges when interacting with their peers, teachers, administrators, parents of their peers, and overall community. Even seemingly small actions like hearing the word 'gay' used in a negative way can build up. More than 90 percent of LGBTQ students said they felt distressed because of this language.

“These kinds of challenges pull focus away from learning, which should be the number one priority of every student when they enter school.”

For many students, the conversation has changed as gay students – or those who are questioning their sexuality and gender – have had the laser of the nation's culture wars turned on them after a decade or so of progress, including with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in June 2015, making gay marriage a Constitutional right nationwide. While the 5-4 decision in Obergefell v Hodges was a fountain of jubilation for those in the gay community and their friends, families and colleagues, for those in religious or right wing groups, it appeared as a betrayal of all they stood for and believed in.

“I think it's partly about people who are intolerant about society and values that are not ordered consistent with their values and beliefs, so they demand change,” Noah Arbit hypothesized. “People are just asking for tolerance.”

In 2021, Gallup noted that a record high of 70 percent of all people in the United States support same-sex marriage – including 55 percent of Republicans. Eighty-three percent of Democrats support same-sex marriage, with Independents at 73 percent supporting.

A movement has been underfoot to undermine the legitimacy of those affiliated – no matter if they are a son, a daughter, a parent, a nephew or niece, a friend or acquaintance. Its culmination was The Parental Rights in Education Act enacted by the Florida legislature, and signed into law on March 28, 2022, by Governor Ron DeSantis. A part of the act reads: “It is the natural, fundamental right of parents and legal guardians to determine and direct the care, teaching, and education of their children.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon has proposed her own version of the “Don't Say Gay” bill for Michigan which she said she would bar discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, and has said she would support a statewide ban on “pornographic” books in schools.

“This movement to ban books is deeply undemocratic, in that it often seeks to impose restrictions on all students and families based on the preferences of those calling for the bans,” Pen America said in a recent report.

But Dixon defines it as leadership. “Leadership is being unafraid to say that if an adult is caught showing pornographic materials to children and talking to them about sex in school without their parents’ consent, that adult will be prosecuted just as they would be if they did it at the school bus,” Dixon said. When asked by other publications what “pornographic” books were in school, she declined to name any specific titles.

“A lot of this is a political calculation by certain politicians that they think will be beneficial for their base, even if it will harm a very vulnerable group of people,” said Jay Kaplan, ACLU staff attorney for the LGBT Project. “They don't care if it will hurt if it will solidify their support at the expense of these students.”

Florida is the first state to codify new statutes into legislation for primary education, notably “for prohibiting classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to grade 3 in Florida's public school districts, or instruction or sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner that is not 'age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students' in any grade, and prohibiting schools from restricting parental access to their student's education and health records,” according to Florida House Bill 1557.

While some who are challenging the legislation cite First Amendment right violations, others support it, calling it the “anti-grooming bill,” although there is no documentation that gay teachers “groom” or encourage students to become gay. According to an online poll conducted by Ipsos, more than six in 10 Americans oppose laws like the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act.

But Florida is not the only state with this proposed legislation. Indiana, Utah, Texas, and other states have enacted similar legislation, including Texas' Parents Bill of Rights; Utah's bill which centers on “sensitive material in schools;” In alliance with Dixon, Michigan already has similar proposed legislation, by state Sen. Lana Theis (R-Plymouth), chair of the Senate's education committee. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has repeatedly stated she would veto the bill if it came to her desk. Legislators or governors in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Iowa, Wyoming and South Dakota have killed or vetoed similar bills.

Other Republican candidates in Michigan have said if elected in 2022 they would introduce similar legislation, including Jon Rocha of Hastings, running in the 78th District, who said his proposal would ban “discussion, or dissemination of materials that involves sexual orientation, gender identity, or any sexually explicit content, in kindergarten through fourth grade. Elementary kids should be learning math, science, history and how to read and write.”

“Some of the politicians are cynics, and don't even believe in it,” Kaplan said. “We're very fortunate we live in a state where our governor has said she will veto all these kinds of bills.”

Educators are mobilizing against these kinds of bills, which have been filed or introduced in at least 35 states in the past year. Teachers and teacher unions say the legislation would place an undue burden on educators who have been overextended during the coronavirus pandemic, yet parents infiltrating school boards, such as Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, which supports curriculum oversight bills and are supporting several local school board candidates, said “that the weakening of legislation like Utah’s HB 234, which would require a local educational agency to include parents who are reflective of a school's community when determining whether instructional material is sensitive material, stems from lawmakers compromising away parental rights in education.”

Kaplan said Theis first introduced a bill regarding transgender youth not playing sports, which so far has only had one hearing in 2021. “It was not based on experts, but on misinformation and fear,” he said.

Now, he said, “Some right wing activists have turned their focus to school boards, which is why we're seeing school boards taking stances in things they didn't even agree with, or wouldn't have before.”

Richard Friedman, professor at University of Michigan Law School, said these laws are open-ended, and leaves it open to doubt and for parents to sue, “so it would leave it to teachers to be very nervous about any discussion. It would chill activity because teachers would have reasonable fear that this would be within the statute and they could be found liable – and everyone want to avoid being sued.”

Kaplan pointed out that individuals are coming before boards of education “and they may not even be from the local community, and so school boards may decide to go along with things for political reasons, fear, or because it's easier – even if school district attorneys tell them not to.

“Kids get harmed by this… There are certain parents who want to control what values or what is taught in schools.”

Justice said, “Parental rights bills make it clear that the boundary between home and school should be respected and that families should be part of all discussions regarding the mental and physical health of their children.”

Justice's, and Moms for Liberty's, stance is different, educators note, than advocating by a parent for an individual child, but making determinations for an entire community or school district by their personal values.

Catherine Archibald, law professor at University of Detroit Mercy Law School, said just having the legislation introduced is harmful, even if it has not been passed and signed into law in Michigan.

“They're very harmful, even if they're just proposed, because it shows a lack of acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, and them as a group,” Archibald said. “We know schools that have a lack of acceptance of individuals have more bullying, have greater harassment as well as bullying towards other groups, like disabled individuals. Whereas, when there is a welcoming environment, whether rainbow flags or a show of acceptance, the whole school is more accepting to all differences, not just to the LGBTQ community. It's a more welcoming environment.”

Archibald pointed out that gay teens have a higher rate of depression, mental health issues and suicide.

“They don't have a choice – they have to go to school,” she noted. “And they spend so much time there. This is their peer group and the adults they are with.”

Some schools have gay/straight alliances, usually an after school club, that is a student-led organization in high schools, middle schools and universities.

Local schools contacted did not want to weigh in on pending legislation, but noted they were open and welcoming to their student population.