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For some of Wyoming’s young people, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is a matter of life and death

A black bison on a transgender flag
Jeff Victor
Wyoming Public Media

A bill working its way through the Wyoming Legislature would forbid teachers from covering certain topics in kindergarten to third grade classes. The bill is touted by its supporters as a necessary check to keep classroom conversations age-appropriate, but opponents fear it will stigmatize queer youth.

The bill forbids teachers from giving instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity and it requires schools, broadly, to report any changes in a child’s “mental, emotional or physical health.” It’s a near carbon copy of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill that passed last year. State legislatures across the country are being flooded with legislation of this sort that seeks to limit classroom discussion about queer people, ban trans youth from high school sports or even outlaw trans youth healthcare against the advice of every major medical association.

In a recent Wyoming Senate Education committee meeting, lawmakers and testifiers debated Wyoming’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill for an hour and a half.

Opponents said it leaves teachers confused about what they can and cannot say in the classroom and that it discriminates against queer youth. But Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) took issue with that description of the bill.

“Where in this bill, specifically, does it say we're going to discriminate against anybody in the state of Wyoming?” he asked testifiers.

The Wyoming Education Association’s Tate Mullen answered Biteman directly, saying the bill turns a child’s identity into a talking point. Mullen pointed to research showing that this leads to worse mental health outcomes for the children at the heart of the debate.

“We know in the state of Wyoming that we have an incredibly high suicide rate in our youth,” he said. “We know that our LGBTQ+ students are disproportionately at risk for depression and suicide attempts because of the stigmatization that is out there. This bill addresses their identity and does exactly those things.”

But committee chair Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper), like Biteman, said he didn’t see the discrimination Mullen was talking about.

“You've lost me on the curve there,” Scott told Mullen.

Supporters of the bill reiterated that it was just about making classroom discussions “age-appropriate.”

While these adults largely talked past each other, some testimony stood out louder than the rest — specifically testimony from one of the people who would’ve been directly impacted by the legislation.

Ash Silcott, a teenager from Laramie County, argued against the bill. Silcott told the committee they personally had a supportive home life.

“But sometimes kids in our school district don't get that,” they said. “They don't get support at home that I was so lucky to receive. I've almost lost so many friends to suicide because they come to school and say, ‘My parents don't love me.’ ‘My parents won’t love me if I come out to them. I can't say anything.’”

In a later interview, Silcott said when children in homes like that discover they’re gay, trans or nonbinary, a school teacher can be the trusted adult they’re lacking at home. But the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill could take away that safe place — and force that teacher to out the child before they’re ready.

Because the bill is ambiguously worded, coming out as gay or trans could be considered a change in a child’s mental health and require the school to notify their parents.

Silcott said that would rob queer children of a crucial lifeline.

“We're trying to find our place in our world,” they said. “And if we're figuring that out, and we're told that where we found ourselves is wrong, and we don't deserve it, and that we don't deserve the things our peers get — we're going to be dejected, we're going to feel hurt. We're going to feel like our lives don't matter.”

And that feeling feeds the astronomical depression and suicide rates experienced by trans youth. Research shows that suicide rates are higher in areas where trans youth are not accepted, where people don’t call them by their preferred name or where laws limit what they can talk about in school or what healthcare they can access.

The “Don’t Say Gay” bill is just one of many pieces of legislation this session that impacts queer youth. Another bill would criminalize most trans youth healthcare and punish anyone providing it with up to 10 years in prison.

Here, Silcott is concerned for their friends. They’ve gotten to see their best friend benefit from hormone blockers and hormone therapy — two things that legislators are trying to outlaw.

“The woman I see now is just so much different and so much happier,” Silcott said. “It's so hard to see your friend going through that kind of stuff. But when they get the care that they need and the care that makes them them, and makes them so happy, it's just an amazing thing to see.”

Gay and trans teenagers are watching the legislature closely this year. But they’re not the only young people watching. At the University of Wyoming (UW), the queer community is on edge.

“There was always a background radiation of homophobia,” said Tanner Ewalt, who serves on ASUW, the student senate. “Like, we're at the school where Matthew Shepard was murdered. That image is always bouncing around in people's minds, then everything happened and the climate got significantly more scary for a week.”

The week in question was in December, when a string of anti-queer harassments and disruptions became the talk of campus. It was just weeks after a gunman shot up a gay club in Colorado Springs, and it made UW students apprehensive about the upcoming session.

Ewalt, just like Silcott, just like most young queer people in the west, has lost friends to homophobia and transphobia. Ewalt fears what all this new legislation means for the next generation.

“I have friends that aren't here today because of the climate that existed in their household regarding homophobia and queer issues,” he said. “And they voluntarily came out to their parents. Forcing students to come out to parents is going to kill them. And for the ones that doesn't kill, it's going to make them want to get out of this state immediately.”

For their part, Ash Silcott thinks most lawmakers want to do what’s best for Wyoming — they’re just ignorant about the real issues.

“This is affecting real kids,” Silcott said. “We just want to be the people we want to be, and we want to feel love and acceptance. And we want to feel like we belong in this community, which is what every kid deserves: to feel like they belong.”

The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill has passed in the Senate and is now awaiting introduction in the House.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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