I spent my closeted childhood filled with shame. Florida’s LGBTQ youth deserve better.

Elementary student sitting away from her classmates and teacher and feeling sad during physical education class.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is expected to sign the “Don’t Say Gay” bill after it successfully passed through the state senate on Tuesday. The Orwellian law will bar educational discussions around sexuality and gender identity in schools.

The Florida legislature passed the bill not long after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued an anti-transgender directive in his state calling transgender-related medical care a form of child abuse

Hearing the news reminded me of a question I was asked years ago: “Are you not attracted to me, or are you not attracted to girls in general?”

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It was the first time a girlfriend asked me about my sexuality in earnest. I was 19. Growing up in Texas where bills like “Don’t Say Gay” had no impetus for liberal threat at the time, I was convinced that the same-sex attraction I began to feel in third grade was unnatural.

To the conservative demographic, anything outside of heteronormativity was abominable. In fact, most of my middle and high school years were focused on staying hyper-aware of my loose mannerisms and mirroring the masculine archetypes of male athletes who gained popularity from football coaches and cheerleaders.

“I guess…I’m not attracted to girls in general,” I muffled through my hands, awning my face in shame and disgust.

I became sexually active at a young age as a survival tactic. I was teased for being effeminate in elementary and middle school, so by the age of fourteen, having sex with girls helped me pass-ish in the eyes of conventional suspicion. Having a “girlfriend” I was sexually active with was my greatest defense against my peers, who only welcomed the word “gay” in the form of a pejorative.

A long silence, and then she exhaled at my confession.

“If you would have told me this a long time ago, you could have saved me so much heartache and so much pain.” She whispered with her head low on the opposite end of the bed. I knew she loved me.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered with every fiber of my contemptible existence.

“Okay then. I’m getting an abortion.” Those were her last words that day as she stood up and quietly shut the door to my bedroom. It was a choice for her body she made, and one she wouldn’t be able to make today against the backdrop of the anti-abortion law passed in Texas six months ago.

Psychologists dating back as early as Freud have dissected the stark differences between guilt and shame. The general consensus of this research distinguishes “guilt” as representing what one feels after having done something wrong, and “shame” as representing the wrong one feels toward their existence as a whole.

Guilt motivates an apology, and shame motivates acts of self-destruction. The anti-LGBTQ agendas in Texas and Florida are laws that will facilitate acts of self-destruction by the LGBTQ youth growing up under these despotic forms of government.

My ex-girlfriend was a victim of my shame brought on by the oppression and stigma around the LGBTQ community in our small Texas town. She is one of my best friends today. We’ve shaped similar political stances around the issue and understand why we arrived in that delicate place 23 years ago.

We acknowledge that our experience with each other when we were teenagers was a direct result of repressed expression, as well as imposed rhetoric from parents and educators as early as elementary school. The same proscription of expression exists with the anti-trans and “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in Florida and Texas.

These Draconian bills are weapons to protect the retrogressive fears of those conservative generations committed to a faux reality that has never existed. The “normal” they are imposing on young minds is a fallacy fueled by the interpretations of dated religious scripture, patriarchal hierarchy, and blatant inequality.

This rule of government will undoubtedly result in catastrophic consequences for the budding LGBTQ generations upon us, much like they have for the LGBTQ generations that have preceded them.

Censorship of identity, regardless of age, is a form of oppression and shame. If one can self-identify, even in kindergarten, then it must be acknowledged with acceptance. Sanctioning that expression through omission is damaging and will induce a foundation of shame for LGBTQ individuals in those formative years of development.

The distinguished use of pronouns for one’s identity has been an epoch of the millennial and Z generations. The political integrity of pronouns to honor one’s identity is not only heard in the current vernacular, but has been highlighted in popular TV shows like HBO’s Euphoria, where LGBTQ characters are not a storyline, but a modern depiction of what “normal” adolescent sexuality and identity simply is.

The human need for racial equality, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights has been an ongoing political fight for centuries. But in the last decade, progress toward equality has clearly gained enough momentum that its induced panic in conservative leaders, so much so that they are now attempting to intercept that momentum by passing legislation that infringes on the freedom of LGBTQ and women’s rights.

I fear this is just the beginning.

Celebrating equality must not only be a victory won out of the archaic depths of discrimination and stigma from an oppressed history. It must also exist as a condition of normalcy in our present-day and future.

The discriminatory legislation in Texas and Florida is robbing the developmental self-worth of LGBTQ youth, and further perpetuating the chronic epidemic of shame, self-destruction, addiction, and suicide that we continue to see amongst members of our community.

The Supreme Court is outnumbered with right-wing, conservative justices, so Republican states will undoubtedly use that disproportion as a vehicle for breaching our democracy and obstructing the right to freedom and equality. This is currently an issue that can be stopped at a federal level if the higher courts intervene with their constitutional obligation and human conscience.

The recent ruling of the Supreme Court on the anti-abortion law in Texas foreshadows a grim prognosis, but hope is a virtue Americans must invest in, and activism is a movement all Americans must commit to. The future, quality of life, and freedom of our LGBTQ youth depend on it.

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