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Florida’s anti-gay laws will do nothing to protect children — if they’re gay | Opinion

I was in kindergarten the first time someone called me a f—-t. When my classmate spit out the epithet pato in my direction I didn’t know the meaning of the word, but I knew the intention. Even little kids have a way of understanding when someone is trying to hurt them by making them feel like they don’t belong. The memory of that moment came back to me as I read about the series of bills recently made law by Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis. The laws, hiding behind the façade of protecting children, are designed to silence any talk of sexuality and gender in schools. All children in Florida will suffer because of these new rules, but none more so than LGBTQ kids. I grew up in Puerto Rico in a culture where the codes of masculinity were pretty clear and always hostile to boys like me. At home, I was protected by my parents and sibling. School was different. I learned early on that being true to myself wasn’t acceptable to the people around me.

I remember being in the schoolyard during recess watching my classmates sing and dance to “Cheki Morena,” a popular Puerto Rican folk song. Boys and girls were expected to make a circle singing the song, while one student in the center would dance. When the student finished dancing, they would choose the next child to enter the circle. I wanted so badly to be picked to dance, but I was keenly aware I couldn’t shake my hips and move my arms the way I wanted to because that would make me an object of ridicule. The one time I was called into the center of the circle, I moved my shoulders gracelessly like the other boys; my arms stiff, my hips locked. I learned the importance of self-censorship. I was always careful about being discovered. The public humiliation was one reason I kept quiet. The other was that I feared for my safety. I focused on excelling academically because I knew that doing well in the classroom would earn me my teachers’ protection. When one of my classmates, driven by hatred, hit me so hard that he nearly broke my nose, we were taken to the principal’s office. I didn’t have to say a word in my defense. My teachers didn’t have to say a word to acknowledge why I was targeted. We all knew that I was gay, but the words were too dangerous to utter.

The best teachers tried to protect me. But not all teachers were the same. When I was in middle school, I mustered the courage to confide in a teacher that I had feelings for boys. I was taking a risk. But I needed an adult I could trust with my secret. The teacher looked at me softly and said, “You have a demon inside of you. Go home, kneel in your room and ask Jesus to take this demon out of you.” I was startled and humiliated. Worst of all, I believed her. I never said another word. It was clear that my feelings, indeed my very existence, was not a topic of acceptable discussion in school. Silence was the rule. As an adolescent the fear of being outed made me a target for adults who knew that the silence imposed on me by institutionalized homophobia was their most powerful ally. One teacher made a pass at me in the kitchen of my family home. Another one sexually assaulted me in a classroom. After every incident I kept quiet. Better to endure abuse at the hands of adults, than be exposed to the world. For me and other young people back then, silence was the only option. Over the past several decades, the cultural norms that forced me to live in shame and silence have started to come undone. Important victories at the ballot box and in court have expanded and solidified protections of LGBTQ rights. Young people are more honest and transparent about their sexuality than my peers and I could have ever imagined. Pride has replaced shame. Silence is no longer imposed. And school is slowly becoming a place where all children, no matter their sexual orientation, can live their lives with honesty and integrity.

That transformation in our culture unnerves people like DeSantis. He and his supporters aren’t interested in protecting children — the research shows that gag laws like the one in Florida actually make schools less safe — they’re interested in re-imposing a culture of silence. At the very moment when young gay people were feeling that they could be true to themselves in public, the governor has effectively turned the classroom into one of the most dangerous places in Florida for gay youth. Of course, that’s the goal. By barring any discussion of sexuality and gender in school, DeSantis and his allies are attempting to recreate the world of shame and silence that I knew so well growing up. Forcing children to hide who they are will lead to abuse. There will be bullying, and violence, and exploitation. And there will be kids who, like me so many years ago, will be at the mercy of unscrupulous adults. After years of progress, schools in Florida will now become places where LGBTQ youth will live in fear. They’ll have no place to turn for guidance and support. They’ll be forced to keep quiet. The culture of silence and fear is back. And that’s just the way DeSantis wants it.

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