[Editor's note: This article was published on April 4, 2022]
Stella, 10, attends a private school in Atlanta, Georgia, and explains to friends that she has four moms. Two of them are the lesbian couple that adopted her. The other two are her birth parents, one of whom recently came out as a transgender woman.
“I’m so grateful that [Stella] is somewhere that sees” the family “as what it is: her moms just love her”, said Kelsey Hanley, Stella’s birth mother, who lives in Kissimmee, Florida.
But Hanley, 30, worries that children who have multiple moms or dads or are LGBTQ+ themselves won’t get the same acceptance in Florida.
That’s because the state recently approved legislation that bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade and prohibits such lessons for older students unless they are “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate”.
Hanley and some pediatric psychologists say the law stigmatizes being gay or transgender and could harm the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth, who are already more likely to face bullying and attempt suicide than children who are cisgender and straight.
“We all have processes around clarifying who we know in our heads and hearts we are and who we are drawn to or attracted to,” said Laura Anderson, a child and family psychologist in Hawaii whose focus is LGBTQ+ youth and their families. “To make an increasingly large percentage of the population’s experience invisible and taboo is just so harmful and unsafe for all kids.”
The Parental Rights in Education legislation, which opponents labeled the “don’t say gay” bill, is part of a flurry of measures introduced by Republican lawmakers around the country. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, reports that lawmakers have introduced 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills this year.
The wave not only includes laws similar to Florida restricting instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation but also ones that criminalize gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth.
Child psychologists say that such laws create an unsafe environment for LGBTQ+ children.
Two-thirds of LGBTQ+ youth said debates concerning the state laws have had a negative impact on their mental health, according to a poll from the Trevor Project, an intervention and suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ+ youth.
And transgender people, in particular, already often face greater psychological distress than the US general population. The National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 US Transgender Survey found that 40% of transgender respondents had attempted suicide, which is nine times the rate of the general population.
“We have governors – that have no education or basis or expertise in child mental health – that impose such laws that are going to have horrendous impacts on kids,” said Natasha Poulopoulos, a pediatric psychologist in Miami.
Supporters of the Florida law claim it’s necessary because children are being exposed to “radical concepts regarding sexual orientation and gender identity”.
“What’s even more concerning about this is that parents are not just not being included but are being treated as the enemy here,” said Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, which supported the legislation in Florida and similar bills in other states. “This legislation is not only good, it’s necessary to protect children and their innocence.”
But groups such as the Florida Education Association, the state’s teachers union, say that elementary school teachers do not teach curriculum regarding sexuality and that Republicans are just using it as a cynical political wedge issue.
Rather than protect children, the Florida law stigmatizes gender exploration, which is a normal part of child development, Poulopoulos said.
“It’s healthy and normal for kids to go out of specific gender roles that have been extremely outdated. Even if a child was assigned female at birth and identifies as female, it’s OK for a child to explore things that may be considered more gender-stereotypical for boys,” said Poulopoulos.
The legislation puts negative rhetoric “around aspects of gender identity and sexual orientation that are not heteronormative, so for example, if you are not cisgender and heterosexual, you are to be shamed”, said Poulopoulos.
To prevent that shame, child psychologists say that it’s important for children to see themselves and their families represented in stories.
For elementary school students, this could mean “using very simple language like: families can look diverse. Some families only have one parent. Some families have a grandparent and a mom. Some have two moms. Some have a mom and a dad,” said Poulopoulos. “That simple language is by no means sexualizing children. It is simply explaining the concepts of family structure, of sexual orientation and gender identity in a very developmentally appropriate way.”
A 2019 report from GLSEN, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, found that two-thirds of LGBTQ+ youth respondents had not been exposed to representations of LGBTQ+ people, history or events in lessons at school. At schools that did have an LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum, 59% of respondents said they often or frequently heard the word “gay” used in a negative way, compared with almost 80% of students at schools that did not have inclusive curriculum.
“If you are a family or a child that is figuring this stuff out about your identity and don’t see yourself anywhere, in curriculum, in stories,” that absence means they must “undo the harm of their child having felt othered forever”, said Anderson, the psychologist in Hawaii.
If that’s something that can’t be discussed in school, they are going to feel like they can’t talk about it at home Kelsey Hanley
Two LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations shared the child psychologists’ concern and filed a lawsuit last week challenging the Florida law, describing it as an “unlawful attempt to stigmatize, silence and erase LGBTQ people in Florida’s public schools”.
A spokeswoman for DeSantis said of the lawsuit: “This calculated, politically motivated, virtue-signaling lawsuit is meritless, and we will defend the legality of parents to protect their young children from sexual content in Florida public schools.”
But Hanley, the Florida mom, said the law tries to shield students from something they are going to encounter anyways. Hanley, who works in customer service, said she was attracted to women before she was attracted to men and realized she was bisexual in middle school.
“They are going to go grocery shopping, and they are going to see two women holding hands. They are going to see two men holding hands, and if that’s something that can’t be discussed in school, they are going to feel like they can’t talk about it at home,” said Hanley. "And if their parents think it’s not appropriate to talk about, then their response is going to be: ‘If I have to hide this part of myself, do I have to hide that I’m on substances? Do I have to hide that I have a crush on somebody?’ They are not going to have any kind of openness.”
Hanley also worries about what rhetoric from advocates for the Florida law – about the need to “protect our children” – will mean for children like Stella.
“Stella would think that people want to protect children from her,” said Hanley. “And she would think: what do you need to protect yourself from?”