What the Science Says About ‘Don’t Say Gay’ and Young People

New York Times | Apr. 20, 2023

Florida Republicans on Wednesday expanded a state law that prohibits classroom instruction on L.G.B.T.Q. subjects through third grade. Now the “Don’t Say Gay” law will also apply to students in grades four to 12.

Though the legislation might appear to be just about allowing parents a say in their children’s education — up to high school graduation — its breadth and vagueness creates a chilling effect on what students and teachers think they can say about sexual orientation and gender identity. Just as dangerously, scientific research has linked the gag order’s implicit message of exclusion, shame and unworthiness to tangible health harms for L.G.B.T.Q. youth.

The original law, in effect since July 2022, was championed as a way to ensure that very young children wouldn’t be exposed to supposedly age-inappropriate topics. But the law’s expansion to all grades casts doubt on whether that was ever the goal.
I spent decades studying another notorious anti-L.G.B.T.Q. gag rule: the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that banned military members from saying they were gay. Its lessons are instructive. As with “Don’t Say Gay” laws, proponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” promised to protect the rights, privacy and dignity of people on all sides of the fraught debate around sexuality. The policy was sold as a way to prevent the culture wars from infecting a key institution of American society. Yet in reality, it did the opposite, heightening division, undermining trust, hampering morale and driving capable people away.

Our country now risks replicating the damage of this failed policy, but this time for children. Since 2021, versions of the “Don’t Say Gay” law have been introduced in 24 state legislatures. The political calculus here is evident. Large majorities of Republican voters, along with a plurality of independents, back the Florida measure. But if additional politically convenient gag orders were to pass, they would harm L.G.B.T.Q. students across the country.

A 2008 report by a panel of senior retired military officers provides a damning summary of the individual and institutional costs of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” They found that the policy hamstrung leaders by forcing them to choose between following the law and fully tending to their subordinates, made it harder for gay service members to obtain psychological care and undermined institutional trust by forcing troops to lie to one another.

Even speech restrictions that don’t directly ban coming out are sure to reproduce this corrosive dynamic by impeding the sort of free and authentic exchanges between students and teachers that are vital to cultivating trusting relationships and cohesive learning communities.

Indeed, one of the reasons “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was so harmful was that penalizing expression — through direct or indirect pressure to self-police how one appears to others — harms both personal health and social cohesion. For L.G.B.T.Q. people especially, disclosing their true selves and being accepted by their community is critical to their well-being. When sexual orientation and gender identity are marginalized, young people can feel shamed and suppress their identities in ways that harm their mental and physical health.

Studies bear this out. In 2016, my research team at the What We Know Project conducted a literature review of scholarship on how L.G.B.T.Q. youth are affected by family and community support. We found that being able to come out is a crucial part of healthy development for L.G.B.T.Q. young people and “can reduce the stress associated with worrying about future rejection.” Yet “Don’t Say Gay” laws threaten the future of the clubs and support groups that often serve as the only safe spaces for students to come out.

Evidence also shows that hostile or negative social environments, especially in schools, cause or compound problems for L.G.B.T.Q. youth. One study involving more than 9,000 students found that L.G.B. students who experienced hostility and anti-gay victimization “reported higher levels of substance use, suicidality and sexual risk behaviors.” Another study surveyed the social environment for more than 1,400 L.G.B. high school students in 34 Oregon counties and found that suicide attempts were “20 percent greater in unsupportive environments compared to supportive environments,” stark evidence of the difference made by gay-friendly climates.

As gender identity and expression have become ground zero of the culture wars, transgender and gender-nonconforming youth have experienced particularly hostile climates, evidenced by outright bans on transition-related health care. A climate like this is dangerous. In 2017, The Trevor Project reported that calls by transgender youth to its suicide prevention lines more than doubled after President Donald Trump announced that he would bar transgender Americans from military service and after Texas lawmakers introduced an anti-trans bathroom bill.

Our research reviews have found that even just the fear of being stigmatized or mistreated has a measurable negative impact. Laws like the Florida bill will cause harm whether or not direct censorship actually takes place.

As much as discriminatory laws harm L.G.B.T.Q. people, policies of equal treatment can help — even just by virtue of the affirming messages they send. A 2017 study found that suicide attempts by young people dropped by 7 percent in states that legalized same-sex marriage. Another from 2012 found that “policies that confer protections to same-sex couples may be effective in reducing health care use and costs among sexual minority men.”

Research has long shown when students feel connected to their family and their school, they are more likely to avoid health risks like depression, suicidality and substance abuse, dangers that adults — of all political hues — hope to protect them from. For L.G.B.T.Q. youth, these dynamics are magnified. Young people who are not yet certain of their identity can benefit enormously from precisely the kinds of discussion and conversation now being prohibited.

Research conveys this on a wide scale. A study of nearly 14,000 Midwestern high schoolers included categories for students “questioning” their sexual orientation and found that a positive school climate, along with parental support, helped prevent such health risks for these students.

The science is overwhelmingly clear. Affirming young people’s L.G.B.T.Q. identity and providing them with supportive communities will help them thrive. Silencing or stigmatizing them will not.

We know so much about what hurts and helps L.G.B.T.Q. youth. It is heartbreaking to watch lawmakers pass bills that are known to cause harm and whose only upside is scoring political points. Laws like these don’t actually give parents any more rights than they currently have, while the damage they cause is already palpable, with students sharing more and more stories of censorship, isolation and fear. When combined with book bans and limits on transition-related care, along with a restrictive federal bill passedby the Republican-controlled House, the landscape for L.G.B.T.Q. youth looks grim.

We know how to makes these young lives better. We also know how to make them worse. The question is whether the adults actually care.

Nathaniel Frank (@nfrankresearch) is the director of Cornell University’s What We Know Project and the author of “Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America.”