What Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' laws mean for the next generation of workers

With 417 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced this year, many of which target queer youth, mental health professionals are worried about how new discriminatory laws will affect childhood development, as well as community and workplace safety. 

The state of Florida is determined to find out. 

Florida's Parental Rights in Education law, better known as the "Don't Say Gay" law, has been expanded since its passing in March 2022. Originally, the legislation banned public schools from teaching about gender or sexual orientation from kindergarten through third grade. The new provision extends this ban through the 12th grade, effectively eliminating any discussion of identities that deviate from heteronormativity.

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, as well as the law's supporters, argue that the expanded rules are supposed to ensure parents can decide when and how they introduce LGBTQ-related topics to their children. But for queer children or any child being raised, for example, by same-sex parents, their basic identities have been rendered invisible and reprehensible, says Dr. Sophia Murphy, director of wellness at TBD Health, a sexual healthcare platform and provider.

"When we're talking about the legality of parents' right to introduce these concepts to children, we're speaking as if one's gender or sexual orientation is optional," says Dr. Murphy. "When you can't acknowledge the student next to you or their family members, we are treating them as an optional person or community rather than our neighbors, friends and families." 

Governor DeSantis plans to take this ban even further with House Bill 1069, which teaches that gender or "reproductive roles" are "binary, stable and unchanging" — essentially calling trans and non-binary identities non-existent.

This legislation not only erases queer youth in schools but puts their lives at risk. A 2021 survey from market research company Morning Consult found that 85% of transgender and nonbinary youth have felt their mental health suffer due to talks of anti-trans bills; over two times as many bills of this nature have been introduced this year compared to 2021.

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On average, transgender and nonbinary youth have the highest rates of suicide ideation among queer youth, with 48% of trans girls, 53% of nonbinary respondents and 59% of trans boys considering suicide in a given year, according to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit dedicated to LGBTQ-youth suicide prevention.

"We know from research that when we deny someone's existence, you create a very disruptive relationship with yourself," says Dr. Murphy. "You have incredibly low self-esteem and a lot of difficulty accepting yourself."

Dr. Murphy finds it especially concerning that the ban has no regard for how crucial 4th grade and onwards is for identity development. She notes that around this age, children begin pulling away from their families and trying to find where they fit among their peers.

"This is an incredibly difficult experience even in the safest environment," says Dr. Murphy. "Now you can't outwardly say you're gay or lesbian or trans or even just curious? How do you build a sense of safety around who you are? It's one thing to tell someone they are wrong — it's a whole other layer to ignore the fact that who you are exists."

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Dr. Murphy fears this will lead to many kids feeling isolated for either being queer or just having queer family members. That isolation is a sure-fire way to bring depression into the picture, she says. 

"We joke that children and adolescents are very selfish and focused on themselves, but that is a developmental stage," says Dr. Murphy. "When children look outward and can't find validation, they tend to think they're the problem."

The impact of these laws won't disappear after adolescence. They will cause cumulative harm to queer adults whose identities went forcibly denied by their peers and teachers, Dr. Murphy says. For cis-gendered and heterosexual children, she adds, many will likely carry and reinforce prejudices they never had a chance to unlearn.

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"If you're so disconnected from your identity, would you feel safe enough to explore yourself and a career you might be interested in?" asks Dr. Murphy. "How do you know what you want when your existence has been denied since you were a small child."

For tomorrow's workforce, that may create a generation of professionals who are afraid to acknowledge who they are in the workplace. 

That doesn't account for the overall decline in education Floridians may experience statewide, regardless of their identity: Florida has already banned 565 books last year; unsurprisingly, many of those books included LGBTQ-related topics or simply characters. Additionally, Florida's Department of Education banned a new Advanced Placement African American Studies textbook, a consequence of Florida's "Stop W.O.K.E" Act, which bans teachers from educating students on any topics that would make them feel "guilty" for actions, including slavery, committed by white Americans. Florida, a state that already has one of lowest literacy rates in the country at 76.3%, will likely only fare worse if it continues on this path, notes Dr. Murphy.

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And while employers may think this bill is ultimately a problem for public schools, their current workers may be queer or have queer children themselves. Down the road, employers may find that Florida's labor market is less skilled if not also traumatized.

"We know when any marginalized group is under that much stress over time, it affects them mentally and physically," says Dr. Murphy. "On a self-serving level, employers should know focus and productivity only goes down."

Dr. Murphy advises employers to work with an attorney to create a culture that protects LGBTQ workers under increasingly radical state laws. If employers are determined to recognize LGBTQ identities and create safe environments, then the denial of queerness cannot be all-encompassing, says Dr. Murphy.

"This will have a ripple effect on our communities," says Dr. Murphy. "What are you willing to risk to stand up for what you believe in as a company and take care of the people who work for you every day?"

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