I Know What It’s Like to Be a Florida Teen Who Can’t Say Gay. I Was One
My parents never allowed me to keep a daily journal as a kid. I didn’t keep a diary under my twin bed, nor did I have a spiral-bound library of notebooks filled with personal secrets. I loved to read and was an avid reader. I defied my religious parents to devour books secretly, but I never allowed any of my private feelings to be revealed on the pages. It was a dangerous way of accidentally revealing too much. The few times that I did manage to pen any of my feelings, I immediately shredded everything, crumpled papers stuffed at the bottom of the garbage can, hidden beneath scraps of the previous night’s dinner.
At the time I felt that those scribblings had become too chaotic and was unwilling to allow any of them outside my privacy. My hopes and fears would sometimes explode from my brain’s watchful eye, boiling to expose truths that I wanted to keep hidden. A swirl of images spit and hissed steam beneath the lid: friends changing out of wet bathing suits after a pool party, the heart-shaped sweat mark on a girl’s back during gym class on an especially sweltering Central Florida afternoon, the sun tracing shiny golden tinsel into a woman’s plaited hair. These memories were a warning sign of danger, flashing neon red near the edges. They were not acceptable. It was something scary.
I know now why I couldn’t write them down. They were just too homosexual.
Adulthood has shown me that the suppression of my queerness led to prolonged, difficult years of despair and misery. Many of my despair was preventable if I had the courage to say the things that were not said. I had to have the words, even when I was unable or unwilling to cry myself sick. To feel anything other than self-loathing and shame, the frustratingly difficult language was necessary. It would be great if I could write a sentence. A word. If I could tell someone, anyone, without fear of repercussion, then I’d have found relief. I’m gay, I would have said. And the immediate follow-up: I’m gay and I’m scared.
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Fear was what kept me quiet. It was because I understood that I could not accept the feelings I had. They were unacceptable to me, my family and friends. There were places I could find support online, little hubs that I could hide from my family. But there was none of that relief in high school in the late ’90s. The few teens I knew who had the label “gay” attached to them suffered through continuous shame and abuse. After graduating from high school, most of these teens fled to Central Florida in search of a community that was LGBTQ+. Young people, already faced with the stress and anxiety of coming out, knew that the additional obstacles placed in front of them by the edicts of our conservative state meant they wouldn’t be able to thrive. For me, it took years of suffering in pain to get out. To find the right words took years. Those words led me to queer community, allowing me to understand that I wasn’t alone. The fear began to fade only then.
It’s been more than 20 yearsAlthough I have graduated from high school, the state of Florida’s repression of LGBTQ+ teens has not changed. With the passage of the Parental Rights in Education bill—more commonly (and accurately) called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—which bans public schools from teaching kindergartners through third-graders about sexual orientation or gender identity or “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” and allows parents to sue the school districts for violations—the state is trapped in the same cycle of wordlessness, with queer and trans people unable to speak the truth of our lives. It’s a blanket that is meant not to comfort but to oppress and to overtake. It seeks to silence our voices and eliminate us. This puts young people in the exact same situation as me when I was a teenager. The language they need to survive and grow is not available to them.
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Although Central Florida has many LGBTQ+ people, only a few LGBTQ+-designated institutions are available. While Orlando’s nonprofit Come Out with Pride held its largest festival yet last year, the community is struggling to find the space and funds it needs. We’re offered Gay Days, Pride-themed Mickey Mouse ears, a parade float. We’re told that the little we get has to be enough to last, because we won’t be given more. According to the new legislation, educators are told not to speak. gay,It is not right to ignore the lives of trans kids and their queer or trans parents. But those working to silence them will send us thoughts and prayers following a massacre at our sole gay nightclub.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek initially refused to condemn the bill, claiming “our diverse stories are our corporate statements,” and yet the corporation has spoken in other ways about its priorities—donating to some of the bill’s backers, an action that would harm its own extensive pool of LGBTQ+ employees. Staff reacted immediately and went online to express their dismay at the decision. Chapek reached out to Governor Ron DeSantis to express “disappointment and concern” over the bill only after a significant amount of pressure was applied from the community. Later, he apologized for not speaking out and stated that Disney would suspend all political donations to Florida. Pixar’s employees have accused Disney of suppressing the expression of same-sex affection through its movies.
It’s a loss of moralityIt is a place in which the most vulnerable people are ignored and denied their voices. We have been provided conflicting stories—you are accepted and loved, but you cannot speak about it, ever—and are expected to believe that these narratives can exist simultaneously.
We are certain they won’t.
Trusting corporations to give rainbow-hued Tshirts and take our money is not a way of securing our future. One thing is to spread the word on Twitter. GayThere is a certain amount of solidarity, but it’s quite another to support queer communities. It’s those small spaces, the underfunded nonprofits in Orlando, that are doing the real, lasting labor. Zebra Coalition has been tirelessly working for LGBTQ+ youth in Central Florida over the years. They have worked to end teen homelessness, and provided vital access to education and mental-health services. They do this all on a shoestring budget, while Disney, with its billions, has made it abundantly clear that we’re supposed to take the facsimile of a possibly queer cartoon character and feel supported.
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What I do know: if there is no support for our queer and trans teens, then there is no hope for Florida’s future. This will be a disaster for our community. Our youth will suffer if there’s no safety.
Writing is a passion of mine. What we do with our thoughts, words and actions. My fingers are pressed into the text, and I massage the flesh, poking the fat and gristle to try and tenderize the material. Tenderness, to me, is being vulnerable. Wild vulnerability is found in telling the truth regardless of fear. It’s a blessing that we can openly speak the difficult thing to existence. When I look back at the closedted lesbian teenage I was, I remember being scared and crying, all by myself. I long for tenderness. This is what I desire for each trans young person and every queer or trans youth. Florida is Florida. It’s my hometown. A place you don’t love is difficult to love. However, this place is my. This makes it queer. What could possibly go wrong? This is what I’ve done to help it become a reality. It has been shaped by the LGBTQ+ community.
When I speak the words out loud, it is harder work. It is the tender and vulnerable work. Loving work. I’m gay, I say, but now I follow it with something that’s not fear. It’s outrage. It’s a call to action, one that means throwing out the disingenuous narratives that have made Florida complicit in denying our voices. We’re gay and we’re still here, Florida. Even if we don’t want to be heard.
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