Florida leaders’ demonization of the LGBTQ+ community is especially harmful to youth

Language is not only how we communicate with others, but also how we create our own narrative and internalized experiences. Undoubtedly, our vernacular shapes our cognitive connections, solidifies meaning and influences those around us. Young people are especially vulnerable to the words woven into our society as their brains undergo critical developmental changes.

Miami-Dade County students recently returned to the classroom, where they are confronting new laws that have been imposed that silence and erase gender, sexual, and racial minorities.

Just in the past year in Florida, political figures have lashed out at racial, ethnic, and sexual and gender minorities — especially children and teenagers — with deadly rhetoric and false claims. They have warned some parents to protect children from “wokeness ideology,” and yet, according to Merriam Webster, “wokeness” is defined as “being aware of and actively paying attention to important events and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice.”

Thus, being awake is related to social and emotional competence, such as perspective taking, emotional and social awareness, and empathy. Not surprisingly, extensive research shows that social-emotional skills are associated with greater youth well-being and better school performance, while a lack of such skills can lead to academic and social difficulties.

Months ago, then-governor DeSantis’ press secretary demonized the LGBTQ+ community with accusations of pedophilia and grooming — outrageous statements that hurt already marginalized people. In recent weeks, a Pensacola-area school board candidate said doctors who treat transgender youth “should be hung from the nearest tree,” arguing that such providers are “mutilating” children.

Not only do these statements lack scientific evidence or basis, they are dangerous and discriminatory, perpetuating trauma and potential physical harm among LGBTQ+ people, especially young people. Newly released data from The Trevor Project found that LGBTQ+ youth who reported high levels of trauma symptoms were more than three times more likely to have attempted suicide in the past year.

Likewise, it is well documented that transgender and non-binary youth experience suicidal ideation, depression, and anxiety at significantly higher rates than their gender-specific peers. Gender-affirming care, based on evidence-based medical and psychological guidelines, helps people explore and define their gender identity without judgment or shame. The majority of juveniles receive reversible interventions such as social transition and suppression of puberty. Social interventions—using a chosen name, for example—have been associated with reduced depressive symptoms, fewer suicidal thoughts, and a reduction in suicidal behavior among transgender teens.

Florida lawmakers not only perpetuate false information about gender and sexual minorities and gender-affirming care, but their claims send a horrible message to young people that identifying as LGBTQ+ is shameful and wrong. Diversity between gender identity and sexual orientation is normal and healthy. It needs recognition and discussion.

The 2019 National School Climate Survey suggests that supportive and inclusive school staff, policies and resources positively impact the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth. Available resources include:

The Trevor Project, 866-488-7386, text “Start” to 978678

LGBT National Youth Talk Line, 800-246-7743

Pridelines, 305 571-9601, pridelines.org

Equality Florida, 813-870-3735, eqfl.org

Safe Schools South Florida, 305 582-0710, safeschoolssouthflorida.org,

Sunserve, 954 764-5150, sunserve.org

It Gets Better, itgetsbetter.org

The silencing of members of the LGBTQ+ community, the spewing of hate speech, and the spreading of misinformation about medical and psychological guidelines by the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association will continue to traumatize our youth and potentially fuel violence in schools and our communities.

Natasha L. Poulopoulou, Ph.D., is a child psychologist in Miami. He is a member of the Society for Pediatric Psychology and has authored numerous peer-reviewed publications and presentations.

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