When Zion, a student in California, was in fourth grade, a classmate referred to him as a boy. Assigned female at birth, Zion had never been referred to as male, but he liked it. This was the moment Zion began to question his identity.
Now 16, Zion, whose last name is being withheld to protect his privacy, had turned to the internet to understand what he had felt at that moment. He searched, “What happens when you feel like a boy, but you’re not?” The first result was Google’s definition of transgender, “denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.” The definition clarified everything. “I had heard the word trans before at school or something, but I didn’t know what it meant,” Zion said.
Dhanelle, Zion’s mother, was unsure what life would be like for Zion going into high school. “Is my child going to be safe there? Is he going to be respected?” Dahnelle said in an interview. “Normalizing [sexuality and identity] in conversation with young people is a huge part of making it a way of life.”
Across the nation, as sexual orientation has drifted back into the national political conversation, LGBTQ+ children and parents are facing new school protocols. In March, the “Parental Rights in Education” bill was signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Opposers of the law have nicknamed it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill has three main components. It prohibits teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. It also requires that parents be notified when their child receives mental health services. Lastly, the law allows parents to sue the school district over curriculum or discussions they disagree with.
The bill has has a rippled effect nationwide. Texas, Alabama, Ohio, and Louisiana are also proposing similar bills.
Florida’s bill stands in stark contrast with California. The Golden State’s Healthy Youth Act was enacted in 2016 and allows educators to teach students about sexual health, gender, and sexual orientation. It also allows teachers to teach these subjects to kindergarten through sixth grade, with permission from parental guardians.
The California Education Code 51500 of 2013 prevents curriculum that discriminates or favors a race, ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, or sexual orientation. This means that if gender and sexuality are taught, the curriculum must include all genders, races, and family dynamics.
“We’re providing a space for teachers to be prepared for questions these kids have. For example, kids who perhaps come with clothing that is not typical of their sex.” said Caroline Menjivar, a California State Senate candidate and board member for the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) of Los Angeles.
Menjivar, a lesbian woman of color, said she did not know who to turn to when navigating her sexuality. Menjivar says she connects with LGBTQ+ youth through GLSEN to ensure they are represented and have access to resources she did not have. “The moment a young queer kid, who has suicidal ideations, goes into a classroom and they see an ally pin on their teacher. Or a teacher who puts up a rainbow flag, they are that more inclined to say hello,” Menjivar said.
California teachers have the option to address gender and sexuality questions that arise in the classroom. LGBTQ+ students and those questioning their sexuality can bring up these topics without fear of judgment. For non-LGBTQ+ students, this environment can increase tolerance levels and LGBTQ+ allies, according to a research study done by GLSEN, which is why inclusive education is enforced.
“We have inclusive education,” said Judy Chiasson, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s coordinator for human relations, diversity, and equity. “We always want students to be proud of who they are and combat any kind of shame, bias and bullying.”
An inclusive curriculum is made up of lessons that avoid bias and offer a diverse representation of LGBTQ+ people and their history. GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey found that students who learned with inclusive curriculums were less likely to feel unsafe than students without.
Nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ+ students nationwide report having experienced discriminatory policies at school, according to GLSEN. Discriminatory policies include preventing students from discussing or writing about LGBTQ+ topics, using pronouns, using bathrooms that match their gender identity, and more.
In response to the nationwide restrictive education laws, California introduced a “Trans Refuge” bill that would make the state a haven for LGBTQ+ youth. California Senator Scott Wiener suggested the bill and would allow out-of-state parents and their LGBTQ+ children to seek refuge in California. Therefore, out-of-state LGBTQ+ children under arrest for seeking gender affirming health care based will be protected under California law.