Published July 2nd, 2022
Meet Prism Club students from Aviation High School in New York City and hear their stories about how they processed, and protested, Florida's House Bill 1557, known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill. You will also meet Brandon Wolf and Pat Padilla from Equality Florida, who joined the students via Zoom to help them understand the implications of the Florida bill (now a law).
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council Committee on Education. It was developed by History UnErased in partnership with Houses on the Moon Theater Company.
Speaker 1: Uh, my name is Brian Kul and I'm a junior at Aviation High School, which is in Queens, New York. And I'm a part of the Prism Club, which provides a safe space for people, a part of the LGBTQ community plus allies and those questioning to express themselves. Our prism community suddenly heard on the news about this law that was being made in Florida. After learning more about the so-called don't say gay bill, our club took a trip to the LGBTQ Network at City Field to protest against the law.
Speaker 2 (00:36): “Please say gay" they're chanting. We say “gay” in direct opposition to new legislation coming out of Florida. That's being dubbed the, Don't Say Gay bill, the bill forbids instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, something these high school students can't fathom.
Speaker 3 (00:55): When I heard about this law that was being like passed or like the decision that was being made about it. I wanted to know whether or not it was given the backlash it deserved because I feel like being a part of this club and the friends and the community that I surround myself with. We were all very angry, very curious as like other people have said, but we weren't sure about, um, like the support it got or like if it was really going to like be an effective rate, like scary.
Speaker 4 (01:25): When I found out about the law, I was like really confused. I was like, wait, did this really happen? I was actually surprised. And after that, I was a little bit angry because I, I didn't find a fair right
Speaker 1 (01:41): After the conference, we were left with a multitude of questions. And so we invited Brandon Wolf, the press secretary for Equality Florida, the largest LGBTQ civil rights group in Florida and Pat Padilla. Who's currently serving on equality Florida's council of leaders to join prism for an interview and discussion on Zoom. I first asked Brandon to explain house bill 1557, Florida's so called, Don't Say Gay bill.
Brandon Wolf (02:07): So to make it really simple, um, the, the law, as it stands today, says that, uh, classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity is banned from grades K through three, and is restricted from grades four through 12. Um, there are some issues with the bill and or the law now, um, that have led it to be called the don't say gay law. Um, primarily it's that we know that this will be enforced disproportionately on LGBTQ people. So what do I mean by that? Well, first and foremost, there are parts of the law that are not defined. So we don't actually know what classroom instruction means because there is no legal definition for classroom instruction in the state of Florida. So the question is what counts as classroom instruction? Let's say a second grader has completed their family tree project, which is required learning in Florida.
They come to school with their beautiful family tree where they've drawn their little stick figure, family members, and they're presenting to the class and they say on this branch, I have my two moms, another student pipes up from the back of the room and says, well, that's weird. You can't have two moms. Where's your dad. If the teacher steps in and says, families with two moms are just as valued as anyone else's. The question is, have they instructed on sexual orientation to a K through 3 class? And the answer is, we're not sure quite possibly they have. And we won't be able to find out until a, an angry parent learns that this conversation has happened and they Sue the school. So the impact on LGBTQ people are pretty broad and sweeping. Um, the impacts are on LGBTQ parents. As I mentioned, who, you know, may be erased from their kids' classroom environment, that teachers may no longer be able to affirm and celebrate those families in the way that they can today.
Brandon Wolf (04:01): The impacts are on queer educators who may fear that having a picture of their partner on their desk could invoke a lawsuit from a parent. And so they begin to hide those pictures, tuck them away in a, in a desk drawer. And we know that the impacts of this law will be, felt most acutely by queer kids because queer kids already have it tough in school. I remember it wasn't that long ago. It was a bit ago, but it wasn't that long ago that I was in a classroom. And I knew what it felt like to be alone in that space. I knew what it felt like, uh, to have, you know, kids throw things at me or push me into lockers in the hallway. And sometimes the safest place I had was a, a classroom, an educator, a counselor, an administrator, and this law looks to censor those spaces to freeze that free speech, to peel rainbow safe stickers off of windows, to tell teachers and administrators that they're no longer able to even affirm and celebrate those young people and their families in the classroom.
And we know that that leads us to worse health outcomes for queer kids. We know that LGBTQ kids based on the data already face depression at higher rates than their peers. They already face anxiety. They already face discrimination and bullying and violence.
And unfortunately, queer kids are four times as likely as their peers to attempt suicide before they graduate high school. And the way to make that better is to create spaces like you have at prism, uh, that tell kids that they're perfect exactly as they are, that their families are perfect exactly as they are the way we do not make that better is by censoring conversations about them ripping books, about them off of shelves, telling them that there's something fundamentally wrong with them or their families that only makes life worse and harder for them. So, um, our concern is that this law is going to harm people. It's going to make life harder for people, which is the reason we've fought it. So fiercely through the legislature, it's the reason we've called our business partners to the carpet, like Disney telling them they need to stand up and do more to take care of LGBTQ people in Florida. Um, and it's the reason that a couple of weeks ago we joined our national partners in filing suit against the state of Florida to try to overturn this law of the courts.
Speaker 6 (06:21): Yeah. That's extremely heartbreaking for those there. And Pat, I hear that there are also, um, anti-trans laws being passed, uh, that are hurting trans kids. So, uh, could you care to elaborate on that
Pat Padilla (06:32): For the city of Orlando and Orange County? I actually was the one who pushed behind the scenes to have protection for trans. They did have gay and lesbian there, but they did not have transgender. And so I was the one that helped get that done. So I'm very involved with the transgender community.
Brandon Wolf(06:49): In terms of the policies you're talking about. Uh, I think we first have to say that the don't say gay law while it it's been nicknamed, don't say gay is really targeted at trans people trans and non-binary adults and young people. Um, and it comes one year after Florida passed its first openly anti LGBT policy in 25 years, which was the ban on trans kids participating in sports. And we heard some of the same rhetoric being used, uh, misgendering of transgender people, uh, the demonizing of trans young people. And so we've already seen calls for, uh, bans on trans medical care, gender affirming care for trans kids in the same vein as what happened in Texas, calling it child abuse, trying to take children away from their parents, put parents and, and doctors in prison for providing gender affirming care. Um, we've heard threats that, that, that could be, um, proposed as early as next March. Um, so all of these things continue, there are, uh, policies that are aimed directly at trans people, but I would say that all of them, whether they're, you know, called that don't say trans law or not are specifically demonizing transgender people as a way of chipping away at progress for everyone.
Pat Padilla (08:07): Okay. We're gonna open up the floor for, um, some questions from our groups.
Speaker 8 (08:10): So add a question, um, regarding the bill. So the bill talks about, um, gender education. So if a teacher were to teach about straight, um, relationship, would that be restricted as well? Or is it just, um, LGBT relationships?
Brandon Wolf (08:29): That's a good question. Um, and to the letter of the law, it covers all sexual orientations and gender identities. That's why it's a good question because, um, that happens a lot in school, right? Imagine for a moment that a teacher walks in and writes their name on the whiteboard and says, you can call me Mrs. Smith. Well, by the letter of the law, that teacher has now instructed the class on their gender identity by identifying as a woman before the class, right. There are books about ES and princesses, Kings and Queens, moms, and dads that happen all the time in K two, three, and certainly in four through 12. Um, and so by the letter of the law, those, those conversations at instruction, uh, would be banned as well. But what is the actual application? I can almost guarantee you, and we all know this to be true, that these laws will target LGBTQ people.
How do I know? Well, those things are already happening in the state of Florida. There was a school in Palm beach county school, district, Palm beach' down like where near Donald Trump lives. If that helps you visually on a map, um, uh, Palm beach county, there was a school that had a book called call me max on the shelf. Call me max is a book about a transgender boy who talks about his journey to identifying as, uh, trans trans boy. Um, there was reading time, I think in a third grade classroom and a child selected call me max for the teacher to read to the classroom. The teacher read this book about a trans boy. It's a picture book has cute little like animations. Um, and another child went home and told their parent about having been read this book, that parent then called the superintendent and the school district.
The school district already has a process to review books. If there are complaints about them, they went around that process, rip the book off the shelf and a number of other books about LGBTQ people. And they said they were doing that going around their own process because they were afraid of the, don't say, gay law, that they may be sued down the road. If these books were still on the shelves, when that law takes effect. So we know that while heterosexual people, cisgender people are covered too. We also live in a CYS, normative heteronormative society where people see a guy and a girl holding hands, and it seems normal to them. And as soon as it's two men or two women, they have an issue, um, that same deep seated bigotry, anti LGBTQ animus is what will be used to weaponize this piece of policy against LGBTQ people specifically.
Speaker 8 (11:08): Um, so has, um, anyone tried to use the bill against heterosexual teachings in schools so far?
Brandon Wolf(11:18): So far? No. So, um, the process, the timeline is that, uh, the law does not take effect until July 1st. Um, so it's difficult to know how it'll be applied until it is actually applied. Um, the lawsuit that's been filed by equality of Florida and our partners, um, I think does incorporate one heterosexual couple, um, I'm not totally familiar with the ins and outs of legalese, so I don't wanna pretend to be a lawyer. Um, but I know that there are an array of families that are represented in that lawsuit. Uh, and they are suing on the basis of UN that it's a violation of their first and 14th amendment rights.
Speaker 4 (11:57): So like, let's say that, um, a, a kid or a girl or a guy, uh, comes as, uh, as gay in, uh, just their school community. Um, what is the most probable, uh, effect or reaction by many of their peers and teachers and how does this affect them?
Brandon Wolf (12:17): Yeah, it's a great question because it happens all the time. Uh, and by the way, that's one of the things that the guy who filed the bill in the Senate said motivated him to file. It was that he feels too many people are coming out as LGBTQ when their kids, and he wanted to find a way to put a stop to that. Um, now it's not gonna stop young people from identifying how they identify and we live in a world by the way, it's 20, 22, the internet exists. So it's really difficult to put that genie back in the bottle. Uh, and so kids are going to be who they are in a school setting. Um, I think you will continue to see support from supportive peers. I think you'll continue to see support from supportive teachers and administrators. Um, their primary function is to make kids feel safe in school and affirmed.
They're gonna continue to do that. I think where we will see challenges are on, you know, how inclusive classroom environments feel, how, how inclusive they look and feel for queer kids. I think we'll see impacts on books about queer kids on the shelf. I think we'll see impacts on conversations about LGBTQ history in schools. Um, those are the spaces that I think we'll see an impact, but I have a lot of faith in teachers. I have a lot of faith in administrators. I have a lot of faith in, in society. I know that might sound strange too, but I have faith that we're gonna find a way to support one another. And we're gonna find a way to support young people, um, whether the governor wants us to do that or not, the question will be how inclusive can our classroom environments really be. And my hope is that we'll be able to stop this bill from, for this law, from harming anyone, um, so that we can continue to create inclusive classroom environments.
Speaker 4 (14:03): Yeah. Okay. Uh, I have another question
Brandon Wolf(14:05): Go for it.
Speaker 4 (14:06): Um, yeah, so, um, uh, sometimes, uh, uh, LGBTQ youth come out to their, uh, highly religious families and this causes a lot of distress into them. Uh, how do kids usually deal with that? Or like how, like, how are they supported, like in the community and stuff?
Brandon Wolf (14:26): Yeah, it's a, a really good question, an important one. Um, and one that's really personal to me because I grew up in a very religious family. Um, so I know what it feels like to be in that position where, you know, sometimes school doesn't feel very safe sometimes. Uh, certainly church doesn't feel very safe home. Doesn't feel very safe. Um, I would say first and foremost, we have to recognize that a lot of times, uh, classrooms and teachers and administrators and counselors are the space. And, and just to underscore, I mean, you're at a, a prism meeting right now. Um, that's the space, right? To create room for students who may not have that at home. Um, and I'll give you a statistic that helps underscore that. Uh, we know, as I mentioned, that LGBTQ young people are at extremely high risk for negative health outcomes, including, uh, suicide attempts.
Well, the presence of a GSA, the presence of a prism in a school, um, actually cuts that suicide attempt rate in half, which means that the spaces that you're in today that are seemingly just, you know, hanging out and, and creating space for one another are life saving. And you never know when there's that one young person who, whether they've shared it or not, doesn't feel safe anywhere else. And simply by creating that safe space for one another, um, you are saving people's lives. So, uh, thank you again for the work that you do, um, because you're making a huge difference just by, by being with one another.
Speaker 9 (15:58): Hi, I, I also have a question, um, with schools being a safe space for some LGBTQ youth, how do you think the, don't say gay bill will affect their mental health, taking a note that LGBTQ youth have a higher depression and anxiety rates?
Brandon Wolf (16:13): Yeah, well, I, you know, I don't wanna guess, I just want to know what young people are telling us. And we know because the Trevor project did a poll, uh, I think it was three or four weeks ago, um, to ask students, how are you feeling about these policy conversations? And it was quite shocking that 66%, so two thirds of LGBTQ students, um, and even higher than that, it was 85% of trans. And non-binary students said that their mental health was negatively impacted by policy conversations. Like don't say gay. So we already know that the existence of these policy debates are having a negative impact on the mental health of LGBTQ students. Um, we know that as they sort of metastasize, um, or grow and, and like, you know, expand into other things that that's only gonna get worse. Um, and we've, we've been reminded of that because remember it was last year 2021, that the debate was just about the soccer field.
And these same lawmakers were saying, well, we'll, you know, we'll respect. Sarah expect Sarah as she, her from 7:00 AM to 2:00 PM. But as soon as she leaves that that classroom and goes out to change for soccer practice, she needs to play with the boys. And that was the conversation that was being had last year. It's only one year later that now we're talking about erasing Sarah from books, from classroom conversations. Uh, and so you can imagine where that takes us down the road, whether it's criminalizing healthcare for Sarah or otherwise. Um, and so I think the health outcomes will only get worse as the rhetoric and conversation about it continues to grow. And I think it's made even worse by the kind of language that's used by people in positions of power. And I think that if we continue to see that very hostile, very heightened rhetoric, we continue to see these bills that are aimed at LGBTQ people. The people who are gonna feel it most are queer kids, the people who are gonna feel it most are the ones who just need somewhere to belong. Just need a classroom where a teacher tells them. You're great. You're perfect. You can do anything you want in the world exactly. As you are. Um, and that's why we've again, fought so fiercely against this policy, because we're really concerned about the health of LGBTQ kids.
Speaker 6 (18:37): Okay. Yeah. Uh, thank you for joining us, uh, Pat, Brandon. And, uh, is there anything you wanna know about us, uh, before we close the session?
Brandon Wolf (18:46): I would just love to, um, to understand or hear what sort of value you find in the space that you've created. Like, what do you love most about being a part of this group? Um, how do you find it helpful and, and what does it provide to you?
Speaker 6 (19:03): Well, for me, I don't know about everyone else, but for me, uh, the community aspect of it is the most important. Uh, I love coming here on Wednesday afternoon and just talking to people like me and having fun, talking about things that we understand that not everyone else understands
Speaker 10 (19:22): For me personally, when I first entered this school in freshman year, I didn't really know that many queer people. So having something like this now really means a lot and developing personal connections with some of the people here and getting to know others from younger grades that are also queer since the current freshman and sophomores. It's more diverse. LGBT wise.
Speaker 4 (19:48): What I really love about this, uh, about the community, part of it is that you get to be yourself. You don't have to like pretend to be someone you're not. And, uh, as, um, as a, as a, um, gay individual living in a Christian household, um, it's, it's, it's hard. And, uh, I didn't know about my identity until like sophomore year. So, um, and I always knew there was something different. And, uh, when I was younger, I was very hostile and hostile to, um, um, uh, queer individuals. And because of, uh, what my parents taught me and everything, I think what really helped me was, uh, learning about my identity and, you know, um, just finally discovering who I was and finally understanding, understanding, uh, who was in the wrong place. Like, uh, I, if I could reverse back time, uh, I'll take it back every, all the bad things I said about them and all the bad things I did. Uh, and yeah, pretty much, uh, I guess.
Speaker 4 (20:58): This community really has helped me like, be more expressive about myself. The sad part is that, uh, usually the people who are here more like a, a sophomore, uh, sophomore, juniors and seniors, but sometimes they come, but the freshmen really don't know about any of this yet. So it's kind of harder for them in a way, because they know about their identity, but they have no idea there's a community where they can go and be themselves.
Brandon Wolf (21:22): I, I think that is, um, a beautiful challenge to each of you, right. Which is, uh, our work. I, I certainly think about myself. I'm not gonna tell you how old I am, but, uh, I think about the years that I've been on earth and all the moments that I've had an opportunity to bring people along with me, and it, I think it's my obligation to do that. Right. It's my obligation to, to sit with you and have conversations and encourage you, um, to live out loud and proud. And, and it's your obligation then to turn around and do the same thing. That's how we build long lasting community. Um, so if you're seeing that and you're saying, gosh, we don't get a lot of freshmen. And I think it's because they don't know we exist, then it may be time to bring a friend, uh, and invite someone into this space. And maybe they'll find safety in it too. And who knows when they're a junior or a senior, they'll turn around and invite someone to the space as well,
Speaker 6 (22:11): Pat and Brandon, um, what can we, as a community in New York do to help LGBTQ people in Florida and, uh, across the United States who may be struggling to come out or dealing with their own laws that might may be trying to be passed.
Brandon Wolf (22:24): First of all, I'm gonna plug Equality Florida. We would love to have folks, um, you know, tuned in sharing our stuff on social media. We're at equality FL everywhere. Um, so please check it out. Um, we also have links that people can, can click on to, you know, get involved volunteering. We're gonna have phone banking, text banking opportunities that people can do from afar. But I think one of the most important things we can do is tell our stories. Um, part of the, the strategy here by opponents to equality is that we get so caught up in fighting scratching, clawing to be treated as human, to be treated as the same as everyone else in society, as people first, um, that we are not able to breathe and tell the full richness of our stories, right. Uh, that we are so stuck trying to just be able to use the bathroom for Pete's sake or, uh, to, you know, be able to like send our kids to school without fearing that they're gonna be targeted by other members of the community that we're not able to really talk about.
Brandon Wolf (23:32): What does it mean to be LGBTQ? What does it mean to be a transgender person in this country? What does it mean to be a young person navigating these things in a school where maybe I don't feel welcome being myself all the time? Um, so I think one of the things that, that I wanna encourage people to do is to live out loud. Um, there was a moment in this process where I thought I was gonna lose hope. It was about three weeks before the bill passed the legislature. And, uh, I am the only person just to give you some context. I'm the only person on our team who handles press and media. So as you can imagine, it was kind of a lot for a long time. Uh, every news outlet in the country is calling asking about what's this don't say gay thing you're talking about.
Um, and I felt like we'd thrown the kitchen sink at it. We, we created cable TV ads for the first time we like were on TikTok for the first time. You know, all these new avenues to try to engage people. And the bill is still marching forward. It doesn't matter. They're still using homophobic and transphobic rhetoric on the floor of the legislature. They're still, you know, saying horrible things about my peers, my colleagues, about young people in the community. And I just felt like what's the point? What is the point? If we don't have the numbers and these things are gonna get over the finish line anyway, why do I fight so hard? And I kid you not. It was that day that I was logging onto my computer coffee, number four by 9:00 AM trying to get in the, trying to get in the mode.
And I get a text from our team that says, students are walking out and I'm like, what do you mean students are walking? Give me some context, how many students are walking out? And they said, thousands of them all over the state are walking out of class to protest this bill. And I start looking on, you know, what's trending on Twitter. There are thousands of students across the state of Florida walking out at the same time, including hundreds who showed up to the Capitol to sing songs, to shut things down, waving signs, chanting, cheering each other on. And it was that moment that I found hope again, there were these young people, unafraid, unapologetic, living out loud. That reminded me why we fight because your lives, your experiences are worth fighting for. So for me, that's the most important thing you can do is continue to live out loud. Don't let them bully you into silence or submission, tell your beautiful, rich, diverse stories. Um, and that's the way we really change things for the future. They may win a policy battle in the short term, but we win, uh, the war for, for change over the long haul by you living your stories unapologetically,
Speaker 1 (26:14): We offer sincere thanks to pat Padilla and Brandon Wolf for taking time to join us, to talk about this issue. Many things to our wonderful counselor and advisor, Kerry Donahue, and finally a message to all aviation high school students.
Speaker 11 (26:28): Join PR. You can find us on Instagram at a V H S P R I S
Speaker 4 (26:37): You can also find Prism's advisor slash counselor, Ms. Donahue in room 135.
Speaker 12 (26:43): This podcast series is funded by the New York city council and developed by History UnErased and Houses on the Moon Theater Company in partnership with the New York City Department of Education.