With "right to discriminate" bills making news across the country, Tennessee's "don't say gay" battle continues to have a lasting – and inspiring – impact.
In 2011, Tennessee made national headlines for its effort to pass a "don't say gay" bill that would have prohibited educators from discussing any sexual orientation other than heterosexuality with students in kindergarten through eighth grade. This not only applied to lessons in classrooms, but to all discussions between educators and students. Any acknowledgement that LGBT people exist was officially prohibited, a cruel effort to isolate and declare as abnormal any children who were LGBT or who had LGBT family members (including parents).
It's come back in various forms since then, but it has yet to become law – thanks in part to courageous young people like Marcel Neergaard, who has consistently spoken out against the legislation and its chief sponsor, John Ragan, and who has also advocated for policies to protect LGBT students in the Volunteer State.
This week, Marcel wrote for the Huffington Post:
I know I am not alone in my struggles. I know I have to be happy with the progress LGBTQ people have made. I also know that it's not okay to be called out for being different. I know I can be helped by Tennessee's Dignity for All Students Act (HB927). It is important to say students cannot be harassed, intimidated or bullied because they are gay or perceived to be gay. The Dignity for All Students Act specifies many other groups, like kids who are bullied because of their religion, race, gender, gender identity or gender expression. It even helps the kids who are brave enough to be friends with students who are "different."
I'm not the only gay youth in Tennessee. I'm not the only gay kid in Oak Ridge. I'm not even the only gay student in my school [–] I'm just someone who is standing up. I know I have written about bullying many times, but this is still happening to kids like me everywhere and I refuse to let it continue. I will go on educating my school system, and the people around me who believe the gay stereotypes, but we [cannot] do this alone . . . We need . . . to convince legislators that students everywhere deserve safe places to learn. We also need people to encourage our representatives, who are supposed to represent us, to pass bills like the Dignity for All Students Act and federal legislation such as the Safe Schools Improvement Act. I want to make sure other kids do not have to go through what I have. This week I will be in Nashville for Advancing Equality on the Hill Day talking to my senator and (hopefully) representative about making schools safer for kids like me. What will you do?
Marcel's words ring especially true in the month leading up to the Day of Silence, an annual event organized by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that is meant to draw attention to the "silencing effects" of anti-gay harassment and name-calling in schools and to be a way for students to show their solidarity with students who have been bullied.
As we approach April 11, this year's Day of Silence, PFAW will be doing its part to spread Marcel's message – the idea that all students deserve far better than what they're getting when it comes to bullying and harassment in schools.
In the meantime, check out Big Bullies: How the Religious Right is Trying to Make Schools Safe for Bullies and Dangerous for Gay Kids and its 2012 update.