LGBTQ youth fight back against Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill

Courtesy Maxx Fenning

(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) — When CJ Walden heard the news that some Florida classrooms would limit LGBTQ topics under a proposed bill in the state legislature, first he felt shock. Then, the pain set in.

“This bill will lead to more pain, depression and suicide and self-harm,” CJ told ABC News. He is the vice president of Florida-based youth LGBTQ activism group PRISM. “To make students have to hide who they really are will just make our schooling experience more challenging for them.”

Stories and histories about people like CJ — a gay, 17-year-old boy — would not be allowed to be taught in classrooms from kindergarten to third grade if the legislation, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, is implemented, limiting classroom curriculum on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“They won’t know who they are, they won’t be able to express themselves,” CJ said about students in classrooms where these lessons are banned.

So, many LGBTQ students, including CJ, are fighting back with protests, letter-writing campaigns and confrontations with the lawmakers themselves.

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Maxx Fenning, the 19-year-old president of PRISM who attends the University of Florida, went to Tallahassee, the state capital, with a group of students from South Florida to speak to legislators about the damage they say this bill will cause.

“I really think this sends a message to students, to staff, to our community, that there is something wrong with being gay or that is something that is too taboo to be discussed and that we are something that should be in the shadows,” Fenning said. “That is so dehumanizing. That’s so demeaning.”

Rep. Joe Harding, who introduced the bill, told ABC News podcast “Start Here” that teachers and students can still discuss sexual orientation and gender identity in their classrooms, there just can’t be a curriculum or lessons on it.

The Gender Sexuality Alliance in CJ’s South Florida school is organizing a letter-writing campaign to spell out the ways in which they believe this bill would be harmful.

“Me and my other fellow GSA members did feel a little powerless when we first heard about this bill,” CJ said.

“Lawmakers need to know that this is not a game that they are playing, they are going to be causing severe, severe consequences if this bill passes,” CJ said, referring to the higher rates of mental illness, suicide and substance abuse issues LGBTQ youth face due to harassment, isolation and victimization, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Across the state, students of all ages are also taking to the streets in protest of this law. Students from the University of Florida and St. Johns County schools and protesters from the LGBTQ education advocacy group Safe Schools South Florida have already marched and rallied in protest, according to local reports from ABC affiliate WCJB and the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

LGBTQ activist groups across the state, including the ACLU of Florida, plan to continue fighting. It is helping critics of the bill send letters to local legislators in protest.

“The government should never have the power to censor and control classroom and school discussions,” the organization said in a statement against the bill. “Yet, the leadership of the state legislature is fast-tracking an anti-LGBTQ+ bill that would do just that.”

Activists have likened the bill to a gag order or to the “No Promo Homo” laws of the 1990s that barred educators from discussing queer topics in schools.

While the bill would ban lessons concerning gender or sexual orientation in classrooms from kindergarten to third grade, it would also not allow them when it is age-inappropriate or not in line with state standards.

However, standards on gender and sexual identity have yet to be carved out, according to Harding.

The legislation allows parents to sue schools or teachers that teach on these topics.

The bill passed the state House of Representatives on Thursday. It has not yet passed the state Senate or been approved by the governor.

Harding said he wants parents to be involved in the decision-making of these discussions.

“Families are families. Let the families be families, and the school district doesn’t need to insert themselves at that point when children are still learning how to read and do basic math,” he told “Start Here.”

But LGBTQ youth activists say representation and inclusion can help students feel accepted — or learn to be accepting — from a young age.

“Regardless of whether this bill passes or not, gay kids and trans kids are still going to be in schools, are still going to be experiencing being gay and being trans,” Fenning said. “The only difference is that they’re not going to be able to talk about it.”

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