Florida's LGBTQ advocates are rallying to support young people in light of 'Don't Say Gay'

Supporters gathered for a Safe Schools South Florida & Friends rally to push back against the "Don't Say Gay" bill earlier this month. The bill would ban school districts from encouraging classroom discussions related to sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

(CNN)This weekend, Javi Gomez is traveling nearly 500 miles from his native Miami to Florida's capital in Tallahassee to plead his case against a piece of legislation LGBTQ advocates are calling the "Don't Say Gay" bill.

He's nervous. He's ready.
In elementary school, classmates called him names for what they thought were feminine traits, like the pitch of his voice and his proclivity for hand gestures. His experiences are not unusual for a young LGBTQ person -- 52% of LGBTQ middle and high schoolers said they'd been bullied either in person or electronically in the past year, according to a 2021 report from the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for queer and trans youth.
      Gomez, now a high school senior, blames his former classmates' bullying on ignorance -- they "didn't know what they were talking about or what they were saying because it was all very learned from other people," he said.
        Some exposure to LGBTQ topics -- what it means to be gay, queer or transgender, and why it's wrong to discriminate against LGBTQ people -- might have helped alleviate the pain they inflicted, he said.
          "Now I look back on my past, and I've healed," he said. "I've tried to forgive. But that still doesn't mean there's not a lot of trauma to it."
          Javi Gomez, a Miami high school senior, leads his school's Gay-Straight Alliance and teaches his fellow students about queer and trans history.
          It's why he's traveling so far to speak with legislators about "Parental Rights in Education," identical bills introduced last month in Florida's House and Senate, that would, among other things, prohibit school districts from "encouraging" discussion of "sexual orientation or gender identity" in elementary school classrooms.
          The legislation is moving through Florida's legislature -- this week, it passed the Senate Education Committee. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has indicated his support for the bill, though there's no timeline for when it could reach his desk. (The legislative session is up in a few weeks.)
          Many opponents of the bill believe it will pass. And when it does, they say, the floodgates will open for lawmakers to introduce more extreme bills that curb the rights and freedoms of LGBTQ students. There is a lot of uncertainty about what the bill, if signed into law, would actually ban, given its broad language. But they ​say they fear for the children and teens attending schools where their identities put them under extra scrutiny and they face increased risk of abuse, especially when their homes may not be guaranteed to be supportive environments.
          "It'll probably reach the point where legislators are emboldened," said Scott Galvin, executive director of Safe Schools South Florida, an organization that advocates for the safety of LGBTQ students. "The mind reels at what potentially could happen."
          Scott Galvin's Safe Schools South Florida organized a rally earlier this month to protest the "Don't Say Gay" bill.
          Many advocates have called Florida home for decades: Galvin, a city council member in North Miami, remembers being the only gay kid in his Miami high school senior class. Brandon Wolf, press secretary at Equality Florida, moved to Orlando from Portland, Oregon, 14 years ago. They have watched the state's LGBTQ communities grow and thrive, and also mourned the victims of the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub, where Wolf says some of his best friends were killed. They want these communities to continue thriving for generations to come and are fighting for LGBTQ people of all ages to feel safe in the state.
          "We're talking about rolling back very fundamental elements that we've worked so hard to make, and it's not only disappointing and unfortunate, but it's also terrifying for LGBTQ people who were just starting to feel comfortable in their home state," Wolf told CNN.

          Why LGBTQ advocates are speaking out against 'Don't Say Gay'

          The Parental Rights in Education legislation introduces a few measures, including one that would require teachers to alert parents to issues relating to their children's "well-being" and ​prevent policies that block parents' access to "certain records," according to the bill, though the types of records are not specified.
          But the line that has caused the most distress among LGBTQ advocates reads as follows: "A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students."
          According to the House bill's co-author, Florida GOP Rep. Joe Harding, "primary grade levels" include kindergarten through third grade.
          But the second half of that sentence -- "or in a manner that is not age-appropriate" -- has advocates worried the bill could be interpreted broadly enough that schools would deter instructors in any grade from discussing those topics with students.
          "The 'or' could certainly be interpreted in a lot of ways," Galvin said. "The vagueness of that sort of continuation of the sentence is to me what's concerning, let alone shutting it down in the elementary age."
          Advocates fear the bill will keep students in any grade from learning about LGBTQ equality and the work it took to get there. They fear the legislation could erase important episodes in history like the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. And on top of that, discouraging discussion of LGBTQ topics could ostracize LGBTQ students who may not feel comfortable discussing their identity if the bill passes and discourage students who are questioning their identity from exploring the topic at school, they said.
          The mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando was one of the worst in US history -- and many of its victims were LGBTQ.
          "Can you imagine having to concentrate in science or math class while knowing that those who are supposed to protect you refuse to, or are unable to do so because the law prohibits them from doing so?" said Roberto Abreu, an assistant professor in the University of Florida's Department of Psychology whose research areas include LGBTQ communities.
          Schools are already often hostile environments for LGBTQ kids -- nearly 33% of LGBTQ students ages 13 to 21 said they missed a day of school over the course of a month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and more than 77% said they avoided school functions because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, according to the most recent National School Climate Survey published by the GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) in 2019.
          The ignorance that Gomez was confronted with in elementary school is almost ubiquitous in schools nationwide. According to the GLSEN report, 98.8% of LGBTQ students said they heard "gay" used in a negative way, and more than 95% of them heard homophobic slurs while at school.
          A group of LGBTQ students shared their stories of harassment with their school superintendent last month at Compass LGBTQ Community Center in Lake Worth. Speaking with Palm Beach County School Superintendent Michael Burke, the members of the youth group held each other's hands for support as they recounted their stress over not knowing which bathroom to use, the teasing they endured in locker rooms and their fear of attending classes if the bill were to pass, Compass Center executive director Julie Seaver told CNN.
          The superintendent was receptive, Seaver said, and left his contact information for the students gathered there. It was a positive meeting, she said, but she worries for students in areas where leaders aren't working in their favor.
          "Just think of the LGBTQ youth and students who are not in a more inclusive county like Palm Beach," she said. "Just think of those kids -- do they have anyone in their corner that's supporting them?"

          The bill is one of many in recent years

          Last year's nationwide roster of anti-LGBTQ legislation was the largest in recent history, according to the Human Rights Campaign, and many of the bills targeted transgender youth. This year's slate of bills may surpass the 2021 record, Wolf said.
          Brandon Wolf, pictured in 2019, works with Equality Florida to bolster existing LGBTQ organizations and challenge anti-LGBTQ bills.