Politics / StudentNation / December 20, 2023

The New “Lavender Scare” in America’s Schools

Modern anti-gay legislation mirrors the mass hysteria of the Lavender Scare, when thousands of gay people were fired or forced to resign from their jobs.

Ariana Lee
Don't Say Gay Bill Protest

Protesters outside the Indiana House of Representatives during the education committee’s hearing on HB 1608, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, in Indianapolis.

(Jeremy Hogan / Getty)

For this series, five young journalists responded to our calls for articles detailing critical issues that impacted young people this year. The group of high school and young college writers pitched and reported on urgent topics like lack of access to mental health support for homeschooled students, student voices being silenced in schools, book bans, attacks on LGBTQ+ students, and school shootings. Of course, these are just a fraction of the issues that shape the lives, conditions, and experiences of young people—not to mention how these issues intersect with each other. We received more important pitches than we could publish this round. As we close out the year, this package centers the work of young journalists reporting on what affected their schools, communities, and peers in 2023.
—Rainesford Stauffer

It has been 70 years since the Lavender Scare, when thousands of gay people in the US government were fired or forced to resign from their jobs. Now, this same discrimination is driving modern-day legislation. “We’re talking about the systematic, intentional targeting of queer people,” says Jay Jones, the first openly transgender vice president of the Howard University Student Association.

In May of 2023, the Human Rights Campaign tallied over 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills that have been introduced in state legislatures, along with 70 laws ranging from bans on gender affirming care for transgender youth to the censorship of school curriculum.

A staggering two-thirds of LGBTQ+ youth report that potential state or local laws banning the discussion of queer topics in education has made their mental health “a lot” worse. Acts passed by governments in red states, such as Florida’s controversial HB 1557, commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill, contest queer inclusion, mirroring the mass hysteria of the Lavender Scare and contributing to the stigmatization of queer youth and educators nationally.

“I think it’s scary. I’m not even gonna lie,” says Jones of legislation methodically targeting LGBTQ+ youth. She explains that she sees Florida’s legislation as a “test,” gauging how far anti-LGBTQ+ legislation can expand as other states adopt similar laws. In June, Jones’s home state of Texas signed into law Senate Bill 17, making it the second state to ban diversity, equity, and inclusion offices at public universities. According to the Human Rights Watch, Texas is also responsible for more than 20 percent of anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced nationally.

“It’s a scary thing, not only for LGBTQ youth, but also for folks who aren’t knowledgeable and can easily fall into this indoctrination,” says Eshe Ukweli, a transgender digital creator and journalist.

Although southern states have gained the most scrutiny for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, “it’s occurring everywhere,” according to Matthew Juarez, a queer student activist and executive director of StudentsActNow.

Introduced in early 2023, Pennsylvania’s HB 216 calls for gendered sports teams to be expressly designated by biological sex, ostracizing transgender athletes and students. On March 8, the bill was referred to the Committee on Education, leaving transgender youth fearful for their future in their respective sports.

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In Indiana, a state with a Republican stronghold, House Bill 1447 banned “harmful materials” from school libraries, which were considered damaging and unsuitable for minors. Some reports say educators or librarians who share materials deemed “obscene” could face criminal prosecution. Indiana teachers and LGBTQ advocates have mobilized in opposition to the bill, arguing that it sets a dangerous precedent for the future of education and public opinion surrounding LGBTQ literature. Similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill, the legislation is ambiguous in nature, opening the grounds for personal interpretation. The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana stated that the amendment’s “vagueness” as “almost certainly meant to ban books about LGBTQ topics and sex education.”

“I think that the best way that we can improve protections is by actually discussing LGBTQ topics in school,” says Juarez. He notes that limiting discussions surrounding LGBTQ+ issues and history in schools furthers conservative efforts to “limit what’s been in schools, from CRT [to] the founding of the United States, erasing all these indigenous cultures and all of that history.” In Juarez’s view, everything revolves around education.

Political attacks on queer youth are a major contributing factor for deteriorating mental health. According to a nationwide survey conducted by the Trevor Project, nearly 1 in 3 LGBTQ young people described their mental health as “poor” most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ legislation.

Ukweli describes nationwide anti-LGBTQ+ legislation as “scary,” adding that she wishes she’d learned about queer figures such as Marsha P. Johnson in school”. Yet acknowledgment is futile without establishing meaningful changes. “LGBTQ folks just want to live. LGBTQ youth just want to live. And they not only want to live, they want to thrive.”

The ACLU details the anti-LBGTQ bills that have been enacted across the United States, ranging from limitations on healthcare to laws “restrict[ing] how and when LGBTQ people can be themselves.”

“These policies [are] not eliminating the number of people who are LGBT; [they are] just eliminating the people who are willing to be who they are,” said Juarez.

As the 2024 elections draw near and Republican lawmakers across the country move to enact more anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, young people are pushing back. “The time is now, and the time is not to be silent, nor is it to be quiet,” says Jay Jones. “It’s to be loud.”

Ariana Lee

Ariana Lee is a 16-year-old journalist and high schooler from Newport News, Va.

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