IN MISSOURI, THE STATE WHERE I GREW UP, lawmakers are debating a bill that would prevent any “nurse, counselor, teacher, principal, contracted personnel, or other administrative official at a public or charter school” from discussing “gender identity or sexual orientation” with a student unless they’re a licensed mental-health provider and they have the permission of the student’s parent or guardian. Missouri is one of 32 states to have introduced this kind of legislation, because I guess that’s how you fight inflation. I’m just going to say it, cancel me if you must: I am in full support of my home state’s Don’t Say Gay bill and the dozens of others like it.
Don’t Say Gay? I say, “Yay.”
Because I must assume these bills will increase penalties for kids who say “faggot” and “dyke” in hallways, on playgrounds, and on sports fields—and it’s about time. Kids are not mature enough to hear that language, or to handle the emotions it evokes. I remember hearing the word fag for the first time in second grade. Some kid directed it at a handful of us because we weren’t playing War with everyone else. War is a game where you form a gun with your thumb and forefinger, make a “pew pew” sound, and try to kill each other. Real tough-guy stuff, and we were perfectly happy on the swings. I can still feel the sting of that word. I remember the effect it had on the other boys on the swings, and on the people around us. I remember the outlaw thrill it gave the kid who said it. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it was bad—the kind of bad a person didn’t want to be. I knew it wouldn’t do me any good to tell my parents that I’d been called it. I knew telling Miss Shields might get that kid in trouble that morning, but it would definitely get me in trouble with all the kids in the long term. It would only attach that word to me forever.
I did not think in those terms at the time, because I was seven. I only had a strong, sick, sad feeling that translated into: “Well, job number one from today forward is to never be called that again.” That was a feeling I held close for … let’s call it three decades. That was a process I went through all alone, alongside a couple other boys who were also going through it all alone, because the tension the word evoked in us, and the judgment it evoked in everyone around us, made it clear that we should keep our distance from one another.
That’s too much for a second grader, and as we all know, the most important thing is to let kids be kids. So I’m grateful to these Don’t Say Gay bills and the mandatory minimum punishments they require for students who engage in homophobic bullying. Automatic expulsion is what I’m hearing. Anything less would be logically incoherent.
Now back to reality.
The Missouri bill, like the rest of them, protects nobody. It stigmatizes queer families, restigmatizes queer kids, and conflates “trans people exist” with “you must go be trans.” And I’m not even getting into the anti-drag bills sweeping the nation, which seek to shield children from the horrors of acrylic nails and Charli XCX deep cuts, or the barbaric anti-trans bills, which put up barriers between adolescents (and in some cases adults) and the gender-affirming health care that is already, like all health care in this country, hard as fuck to access.
I had a SICK, SAD FEELING that translated into: “JOB NUMBER ONE from today forward is to NEVER BE CALLED THAT AGAIN.”
If you think a young boy gets whisked into surgery because he’s played with dolls for two days in a row, come with me the next time I need an insulin refill.
HERE’S SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED TO me in an all-boys Catholic high school in 1988 that might be illegal there soon. I was 17, an 11th-grade version of that second grader on the swings. I wasn’t getting bullied exactly, but that f-word sure got thrown my way a decent amount, and I sure was still reluctant to say anything to anyone about it, because by now my body was telling me how well the word fit.
One spring afternoon, one of the monks called me into his office. He closed the door, sat me down in a chair that faced his, and said: “David, I get the sense that you’re slightly different from most of the boys here, and different in a way that’s causing you some distress. I just want to say that I see you, and I am here for you, and you are going to be all right.”
It wasn’t menacing. It wasn’t shaming. I wasn’t in trouble, and—I know what you’re thinking, relax—I wasn’t being hit on. It was a message of pure mercy and compassion.
I wasn’t ready to hear it, so I sputtered some version of “No, I’m fine—it’s great” and excused myself as quickly as I could. I had already felt seen; the recurring f-word made that clear enough. But from that point forward, I felt seen and just a tiny bit safer. Supported. Valued, even.
If the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act had been law in 1988, the monk would’ve had to clear that sentiment with my parents first. It would’ve been a mess, and I had good parents.
Kids need to know that queer adults exist. If we’re allies, we need to be able to say it. If we’re queer ourselves, we need to be able to say it. If these bills pass, the kids won’t hear nothing; they’ll just hear the hate and the fear and the shame.
They already do. The kids who are being raised by same-sex couples are hearing that their families are indecent. The kids who are beginning to notice that they’re different, in ways they can’t quite articulate, are hearing that they’re dirty.
The kids are hearing it, because the kids are listening.
The only thing these bills keep them from seeing and hearing is their own value. ■