When I was in kindergarten, I attended Arts and Crafts class every week. One day, my teacher changed the seating chart, for no apparent reason. My new assigned seat was at a circular table in the far back left corner of the room. I sat down across from a classmate of mine whose name and face I do not remember, the only thing that I can recall about this child was that they were a boy like me. It was just the two of us at this table. I am not sure exactly what led to it, but we ended up kissing each other during class. I remember feeling both nervous and excited, like I had discovered some buried treasure that no one knew existed. While the meaning of this incident remained a mystery to me for some time, I never forgot how it made me feel.
As class ended and everyone started getting ready to leave, the Arts and Crafts teacher asked me and my classmate to stay behind. Once the other students had left, our teacher told us that she saw what we had done. She said our behavior was inappropriate and that boys kissing boys was not normal. She threatened to tell our parents if we ever did something like that again and forbade us from sitting next to each other. I did not realize it then, but this moment would be the first of many lessons on how to hate myself.
Incidences like this are common for many LGBTQ+ people to experience during their youth. Whether it comes from educators, parents, community leaders, or society-at-large, these hateful interactions lay the foundation for an immense internal struggle that leaves many queer people isolated and questioning their value from an early age. Recent polling shows that 76% of Americans support laws protecting queer people from discrimination, yet a record number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been filed this year. One law in particular that garnered national attention recently was Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill.
TRICKLE DOWN DISCRIMINATION
Back in March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed by its critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Governor DeSantis stated that the bill’s objective is to prevent any “sexual instruction” to children in pre-K through third grade. Essentially, DeSantis describes the law as an outright prohibition against discussing the topic of sex in classrooms for children in specific grade levels.
Supporters of the legislation argue topics such as gender identity and sexual orientation are inappropriate for teachers to discuss with students and that parents should decide how to approach these issues. They also highlight how the law empowers parents to have greater say over what their children are taught in school. While this may seem reasonable, there are major flaws in this legislation that negatively impact LGBTQ+ children disproportionately compared to their heterosexual and cis-gender counterparts.
Many LGBTQ+ students rely on schools to provide a safe space because their homes are not as welcoming or accepting. Florida’s bill leaves queer youths who can’t talk to their parents about their sexuality or gender identity to suffer alone in silence and shame.
A primary concern about the Parental Rights in Education bill is its potential to severely impact the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth. Studies have found that queer youths are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual and cisgender peers. The bill could worsen this issue by creating an unsafe environment that makes LGBTQ+ students feel unwelcome or unwanted. Additionally, the bill allows parents to sue school districts if the policy is violated, putting teachers in a very precarious position that may force them to avoid offering support to their queer students out of fear of a lawsuit. The legislation also requires schools to notify parents if their child receives mental health services related to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Many LGBTQ+ students rely on schools to provide a safe space because their homes are not as welcoming or accepting. This bill leaves queer youths who can’t talk to their parents about their sexuality or gender identity to suffer alone in silence and shame.
Overall, the Parental Rights in Education bill enhances the rights of parents at the expense of LGBTQ+ youths’ security and safety. In the United States, queer youths make up less than 10% of the entire adolescent population but account for 40% of the homeless youth population. The number one reason queer youths end up homeless is due to their parents or legal guardians rejecting them. Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill’s mental health service mandate risks outing LGBTQ+ students to unsupportive parents, leaving them at a greater risk of being kicked out on the street. This bill does not serve the interests of children and puts those who identify as queer in a vulnerable position.
Furthermore, methods like conversion therapy allow parents to attempt to change their child’s sexual orientation or gender expression. Queer youths may flee from their homes out of fear that they could be sent to conversion therapy. So far, 20 states have passed legislation banning licensed mental health practitioners from subjecting queer minors to conversion therapy, however, these laws do not prohibit religious providers from doing so. Research shows that LGBTQ+ youth who are subjected to conversion therapy are twice as likely to attempt suicide. The bill’s mental health policies, therefore, jeopardize LGBTQ+ youths’ mental health by creating an atmosphere in which students seeking to improve their mental health through the services at their schools are systematically outed to their parents, who may send them to conversion therapy or kick them out, thereby worsening their mental health and overall safety.
While LGBTQ+ youths experience homelessness at a higher rate than their non-LGBTQ+ peers, the Parental Rights in Education bill threatens to do more than just increase the number of queer youth living on the street. Research shows that homelessness can have adverse consequences that make it hard for people to better themselves in the future. Homeless students in the United States are less likely to graduate from high school than the general population. After not graduating, these same students are more likely to experience higher rates of poverty than their graduated counterparts. This leaves many queer homeless youths unable to pursue economic opportunities that would allow them to get off the street. Legislation that systematically exposes the sexual orientation or gender identity of students to their legal guardians will increase queer youth homelessness and limit the educational and economic opportunities of LGBTQ+ youths.
As a result of being homeless, queer youths are also more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system. LGBTQ+ youths account for 20% of the overall juvenile justice system’s population; this figure is higher among girls in the youth legal system with 40% identifying as queer. The main reason LGBTQ+ youths are overrepresented in the incarcerated youth population is systemic prejudices, which lead to higher rates of contact with law enforcement and receiving disproportionate punishment. A recent study found that incarcerated juveniles were more likely to end up in prison as adults. This means that queer youths who are detained as juveniles are at an increased risk of going to prison later in life. Formerly incarcerated individuals then face stark employment prospects, which make it hard to provide for themselves and successfully integrate back into society.
WHY THIS MATTERS TO US NATIONAL SECURITY
Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill should be a concern for US security policymakers for the following reasons. First, the bill jeopardizes the mental health, physical well-being, and economic stability of many LGBTQ+ youths at a time when the US military is desperate for recruits. Currently, 70% of Americans between the age of 17–24 are ineligible for military service due to mental health, obesity, past drug use, criminal records, or lack of a high school diploma. The Don’t Say Gay bill unfairly targets LGBTQ+ youths and increases their exposure to issues that could disqualify them from military service. Policies that reduce the eligible number of young people fit for service hinder US military readiness and undermine US national security.
Second, the US government must be able to acquire talent from a variety of communities in order to maximize the full potential of US national power. The Parental Rights in Education bill isolates the queer community and limits their participation in American society at an early age. By enacting policies that alienate specific populations, countries lose access to those communities. This harms US national security interests because it restricts innovation and creativity. When organizations, especially government agencies, are heavily composed of individuals from the same background, they tend to have similar life experiences that limit their ability to address the concerns of communities to which they do not belong. By being able to recruit individuals from different backgrounds, the US government is able to assess challenges and develop holistic policies that serve the entire population.
Third, both Democratic and Republican administrations have stated that promoting human rights is fundamentally important to US national security; however, when it comes to protecting the rights of children, the United States is falling behind the rest of the world. The United States remains the only member of the UN that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is particularly puzzling considering that the US State Department has viewed human rights promotion as a key pillar of US foreign policy going back 200 years. The Parental Rights in Education bill does not advance human rights; it undermines them and places LGBTQ+youths in an unsafe educational environment that refuses to acknowledge their existence. If the United States wants to remain a legitimate advocate for human rights on the international stage, then legislation that contradicts and compromises US credibility on human rights cannot be allowed to go unchecked.
The Parental Rights in Education bill is not just about parents having control over their child’s education. This law has the potential to have devastating consequences for LGBTQ+ youths and could have negative long-term effects on their lives. Additionally, the bill’s characterization of sexual orientation and gender identity as inappropriate topics for children is inaccurate and only serves to further stigmatize queer people. The bill also adds to the US military’s recruitment issues and could potentially worsen relations between the LGBTQ+ community and American society. Advocates of the bill believe there are no downsides and that the law only serves to empower parents. But this is an oversimplification and policymakers should take a step back before they consider moving forward with legislation that places parents first and children second.
Cody Kennedy has an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University.