Why Is This Happening?
As a professor of sociology, I talk about gender a lot. It’s a huge topic in every class I teach. As I tell my students all the time, gender has far-reaching tentacles; it influences everything it touches, even if we don’t realize it. I have to first teach them the difference between sex and gender; we sociologists leave sex to the biologists. We are far more concerned by the far-reaching social and cultural implications of gender and gender identity. These lessons are often accompanied by lessons on sexuality, but I stress that gender and sexuality are very different things.
Because my radar is very tuned into discussions of gender, a few stories this week have caught my eye. First is the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that advanced in Florida this week; the bill puts a limit on classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity. It also goes so far as to encourage parents to sue schools or teachers that do discuss these topics in the classroom. Meanwhile in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott (R) sent out an order that requireds state agencies to investigate reports of transgender children receiving gender-affirming treatment as child abuse. Sadly, these are not the only states that seem to be on a crusade against LGBTQ kids; they are just the ones getting the most attention.
It’s hard not to ask why. Why are these states doing this? One of the most jarring statistics I share with my Sociology of Gender students is that 52% of all transgender and nonbinary young people in the U.S. seriously contemplated killing themselves in 2020. That’s a tremendously large number. When asked, these young people say it’s better to be dead than face the scrutiny and bullying from not only their peers but politicians and parents that are pushing so much legislation targeted at them. In addition, this poll found that 94% of LGBTQ youth reported that recent politics negatively impacted their mental health. That is a staggering number.
However, those numbers have a bright side. When young people feel affirmed by the people in their lives, they report lower rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts. Their lives were improved just by having access to spaces that affirmed their feelings. They felt courageous when other kids shared their coming out stories. They found joy in community.
With all of this research, it’s hard to parse why this has become such a political hot topic. With everything that is going on, why pick on LGBTQ kids? Is it because it polls well? No. Even among conservative voters, LGBTQ issues are low-priority. For example, according to the HRC, “when respondents were asked about how they prioritized the importance of banning transgender people from participating in sports as compared to other policy issues, the issue came in dead last, with between 1% and 3% prioritizing the issue”. So, what is the point of legislation like this?
In many ways, it’s another issue related to Critical Race Theory and book banning: it’s about control more than anything else. After all, many of the banned library books are LGBTQ books. There is an overlap related to topics that make people uncomfortable. It begs the question, however, who gets to be comfortable? Certainly not LGBTQ youth who don’t see themselves represented. Certainly not kids of color that are not allowed to question U.S. history. There are many groups that have felt uncomfortable in school for a long time. But the focus is never on those groups.
It could also be argued that legislation and orders like the ones in Texas and Florida are designed to make issues related to LGBTQ youth go away. If we just force kids to conform, we won’t have these problems. But what we find over and over again is that pretending these issues don’t exist doesn’t do anything but make people miserable because they are not allowed to be themselves.
Much like the abortion bill before it, Texas’ new order is especially insidious because it calls on the very people trusted by LGBTQ youth to report them. Doctors, nurses, and teachers are on the front lines of helping kids, and now they are being asked to identify parents that are simply supporting their children.
It also should not be overlooked that Florida and Texas have sky high poverty rates for children. Many kids in these states are subjected to harms like food insecurity and lack of stable housing. These bills and orders don’t help that situation at all. In fact, if anything, they attempt to distract from disastrous policies that have hurt kids.
As more and more of these bills are introduced, it is critical to examine the real cost. The pain and anguish inflicted on LGBTQ youth is astonishing. The statistics tells us a painful story: these kids are at high risk for self harm, and they feel hated by society. Instead of helping them, we are telling them to not talk about it or treating it as child abuse to affirm their identities. They need adults in their lives to say that they are valuable. They belong in this world. There is a place and a space for them. Instead, they are getting a message of hate and shame. And those messages will have long-reaching implications, none of which are good.
We have real problems right now. We have problems related to political divisions that seemingly can’t be healed. We have a pandemic that rages on, even as we try to ignore it. We have geopolitical hotspots that are causing distress and anxiety as they look more and more like war. And this is what we are focused on?
We know from our history that culture wars often create wins for a particular side; they can be a big boon in an election year. They rile up a rabid base and send them to the polls. But wars have costs, and they have casualties. This one will be no different. And, once again, it will be the most vulnerable who will suffer.