Zen Nelson, an eighth-grader from Miami who is Afro Latinx, used gender-neutral pronouns and said that they had been subject to homophobic remarks from their classmates for at most the past four years.
Zen stated that they did not bring it up to school administrators as they were afraid their complaints might not be treated as seriously as their white, wealthier peers who were harassing Zen.
Now, the Florida Governor. As Ron DeSantis (a Republican) prepares to sign The Parental Rights In Education bill -- nicknamed the "Don't Say Gay Bill" by critics -- Zen fears that school will become a more hostile environment.
Zen, 13, said that every day in class, he makes a decision on whether he will speak up about it. Zen told NBC News. It is frightening every time I make that decision. The passage of this bill will only make me more afraid to go to school.
According to students of color in Florida like Zen, the "Don't Say Gay” bill has put them on edge. The bill would prohibit classroom instruction in sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through grade 3. Critics claim that the "age-appropriate " part of the bill is too vague, which could make it possible to enforce the ban well into the third grade.
The proposed legislation was passed by both chambers of the Florida Legislature just before the passage of the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act or the Stop WOKE Act. DeSantis is expected to sign it. This measure would ban the teaching of critical racism theory, a decades-old academic framework that explains how racism is perpetuated in American institutions and policies. It applies to grades K-12.
Advocates believe the "Don’t Say Gay” bill will have a significant impact on students of color, with more than half of Black LGBTQ students feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
David Johns, executive director of the coalition, stated that "this legislation is a direct assault on LGBTQ+ children, undermining them mental and emotional health and fostering an atmosphere of intolerance, ignorance and intolerance." He also said that Black LGBTQ children "who already face barriers to being safe and supported at school, those harms would be amplified 10fold."
Regina Livingston, a Black transgender women and founder of the trans advocacy group Unspoken Treasure Society said that students of color are already concerned about the proposed legislation's impact on their safety.
Livingston stated, "It's going be catastrophic." "Children are panicking, because they shouldn’t feel uncomfortable at school. I feel like this gateway leads to more."
'A method of erasure'
Transinclusive Group executive director Tatiana Williams worries that this measure will increase suicide risk once it is enacted. It would also make students of color feel less supported, she said.
Williams stated that "all of it is an act of erasure." It forces them to a place where they can't be seen.
A 2019 survey from GLSEN found that the majority of LGBTQ students in Florida claim to hear anti-LGBTQ comments from others students. 94 percent said they had heard "gay," while 72 percent claimed they have heard negative remarks about transgender students.
Three Latino seniors from Felix Varela Senior School in Miami are part of Safe Schools South Florida. This group advocates for LGBTQ students and says the bill is causing panic.
Denise Santiago (18) stated that teaching LGBTQ issues would only stigmatize LGBTQ students.
Santiago stated that homophobia is bullying, and now homophobia cannot be ignored. Teaching about the 1980s and HIV/AIDS epidemic, and all that goes with it, is now going to be a thing of the past.
Sofia Ramirez Hernandez, 18, described the bill as childish and said that it was a step in the wrong directions.
Ramirez-Hernandez stated, "We will be going in the opposite direction." It will discriminate youth and discourage them from evolving.
Gianna Mulle (17) shared these concerns about the bill's effect.
Mulle, a lesbian who uses the pronouns "she" or "they", said that she feels like "I feel like as soon this bill is going be passed, it's going to be so terrifying for all my peers." It's going to hurt regardless of what.
Students Push Back
In protest of the new legislation, students from Florida marched out of schools throughout Tampa, Orlando and Tallahassee earlier this month. Javier Gomez (17), president of the Gay Straight Alliance at Miami’s iPrep Academy said he led a walkout in protest to show students that their voices are heard.
Gomez, a senior who protested the bill at Florida's capitol, said that "I just wanted my school understand how pivotal their participation is." It shows Florida legislators that they are important. We must stand up for this community.
Raymond Adderly, a Fort Lauderdale High School senior who participated in similar walkouts, stated that students are decrying legislation for its large impact on the LGBTQ community.
"The answer was: "Absolutely not, we don’t want this bill passing." Adderly, a Black student, stated that they don't want the bill to be signed. "That was the most fervent cry of students in this district."
Students are mostly speaking out about the bill. Adderly stated that those who are not affected by it are making fun of it in school.
Gomez, a gay man, remembers being bullied at school for his feminine traits. He also struggled to receive support at home for his LGBTQ identity during that time.
He said that his family was very much a part the machismo culture and that it really hurt him. "I know many people who come from Latin American backgrounds and I can understand their conservative views about what you can or cannot be."
He said that teachers were his outlet after coming out and that it gave him hope in middle school.
He said that counselors and teachers must be able to talk on the topic. It also gives LGBTQ students "an affirming space to express themselves."
CORRECTION (15 March, 5:10 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this article mispelled the name of one student. She is Sofia Ramirez-Hernandez, not Sophia Ramirez.