Under Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Florida has become a closely-watched epicenter for anti-LGBTQ+ laws – and advocates say queer youth are feeling the impact.
With the passage of sweeping anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, such as the Don’t Say Gay law, gender-affirming care bans, and bathroom restrictions, Florida has become a battleground for queer rights. DeSantis’s anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric has continued to exacerbate the issue, leading to concerns among LGBTQ+ advocates that the state is becoming increasingly unwelcoming to queer youth.
“We’re terrified,” Christina Guiriba, a transgender youth advocate, told LGBTQ Nation. “As advocates for the community, we’re very torn. We want to continue this fight.”
Guiriba is the founder of Transcending Adolescence, a Jacksonville-based nonprofit aimed at empowering trans youth.
A trans woman and Florida native who has experienced bullying and physical violence during her childhood, she leads a summer camp called Resilience Retreat for around a dozen trans youth to build their courage and resilience. She wants every participant to leave camp having defined success on their own terms, whether that be finally finding a safe space for the first time or going through with top surgery.
“Seeing a staff full of gender-diverse people that are successful and still alive gave them hope,” she said. Through the power of the outdoors and physical recreation, she hopes to continue to be a voice for “those who are afraid.”
But Guiriba said that many advocates are afraid to continue their work as they find themselves the target of right-wing hate. Transcending Adolescence, in fact, was recently the victim of a doxing attack.
As a result, the organization was forced to adopt stricter security measures such as planning escape routes and installing surveillance cameras and panic buttons. They even hired a private security officer, unable to turn to the Jacksonville police due to their transphobic reputation, such as using deadnames in official police investigations, among other reasons.
But Guiriba isn’t stopping. Her work is becoming increasingly relevant as new research shows how ongoing anti-LGBTQ+ attacks are starting to impact queer youth.
“The consequences are really more dire than even most people would imagine,” Caitlin Viccora, programs manager for healthy & supportive schools at Advocates for Youth, told LGBTQ Nation.
A recent CDC report on youth behavior over the past decade shows record-high levels of depression and suicide risk among teenagers in recent years. The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey reveals that more than half of LGBTQ+ students have recently experienced declining mental health and more than one in five had a suicide attempt within the past year. Queer female adolescents fared worse compared to males.
In Florida especially, Viccora said the priority for advocates is to set the record straight and clear the air of false information. Parents have a right to know what’s really happening in their child’s classroom without having to rely on the right-wing’s “targeted disinformation campaigns,” Viccora said.
“It’s not just Republicans who are failing to protect LGBTQ+ students,” she added, “A lot of folks are staying silent.”
She urged community members to speak publicly at local school board meetings and fight proposed regulations that impact queer youth. Submitting public comments, organizing to call local officials such as superintendents, or just showing up to the polls to vote are effective ways to protect queer youth.
Queer youth are learning to “shut up and keep their head low”
“Ron DeSantis is a terrifying man,” Iris, a high school senior in Clay County, Florida, who requested to use a different name out of fear of retaliation, told LGBTQ Nation. “[DeSantis] claims to be a Christian but at the basis of Christianity is acceptance and love. Yet he chooses violence and overall bigotry.”
Iris does not identify as queer, but her queer friends would not speak with LGBTQ Nation, citing safety concerns even if they remained anonymous. Instead, they spoke through Iris.
In her previous attempts to speak out, Iris said her school officials claimed to “lose” her documents, opening the possibility of preventing her from graduating high school. She said speaking out would even “jeopardize my college [applications].”
Iris said Gov. DeSantis has created a “hostile environment” for Florida students that enables hatred and punishes those who try speaking out. She recounts an instance where a close male friend dressed as a PowerPuff Girl for Halloween and was viciously bullied during school hours. The bully received no penalty while Iris’ friend was reprimanded for several infractions, one of them being a dress code violation.
In a second instance, she reports that her school principal outed numerous queer kids to their parents. She said the principal was even spotted laughing and mocking the list of students she outed with one of those students’ parents.
This practice is becoming increasingly common across Florida schools, with school administrators developing formal policies to punish or out queer kids to their families.
“Teachers are able to say and do things without consequence,” said Iris, noting that these types of policies serve to primarily protect conservative and right-wing educators.
She added that queer kids are learning that they need to “shut up and keep their head low” in order to survive.
Both Guiriba and Viccora emphasize the importance of remaining positive, continuing their fight to ensure a brighter future for queer youth across the country.
“It’s important for queer people to know they’re not alone,” said Guiriba, also stressing that advocates take the appropriate time to rest. “It’s not easy to find strength.”
“Living as a queer person in America is really scary when you’re looking at headlines,” Viccora said, especially when queer Americans face discrimination and violence at every corner. Despite this, Viccora urges queer youth to remember the “beauty and resiliency” in the simple fact of our existence.