Demonstrators gather to speak on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol, Monday, March 7, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. Credit: Wilfredo Lee / AP

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Jaida Hodge-Adams is a senior at Bowdoin College. Claire Nguyen is a sophomore at Bowdoin College. This column reflects their views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the college. Their column appears as a collaboration with the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

On March 28, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis signed the controversial Act Relating to Parental Rights in Education into law, “prohibiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner.”

This act, referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” will stigmatize LGBTQ youth based on their sexual orientation, harming their mental health. The Maine GOP may soon propose similar laws, and Maine voters have a responsibility to block them when they do.

The “Don’t Say Gay Bill” is just one of many laws across the country aiming to restrict classroom discussions relating to gender and sexual orientation. As philosophy students, we believe these laws are unjust: they purposefully cut LGBTQ children off from the language they need to understand themselves and their experiences. In other words, these laws are hermeneutically unjust.

Philosopher Miranda Fricker first coined the term hermeneutical injustice in her book “Epistemic Injustice.” It refers to a branch of knowledge called hermeneutics, the study of interpretation of language and experiences.

Shared interpretations are crucial to how we collectively form identity. For example, the role of sexism is part of a hermeneutical framework regarding the status of women as a group. When a woman is discredited in the workplace, or objectified by strangers, she can use this framework to understand she’s experiencing sexism, rather than suffering from personal failings. By naming her suffering, she finds kinship with other women. Without the tools to understand her experiences as part of a greater whole, she’d feel alienated from her community and society at large.

The same can be said for LGBTQ kids. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill creates hermeneutical injustice by banning all mention of sexual orientation and gender identity before fourth grade, and limiting it throughout elementary school. This won’t just stigmatize homosexuality and gender diversity; it’ll also keep young children from understanding who they are.

Thanks to these new laws, many LGBTQ children will consider themselves anomalies, and their sexuality or gender as a flaw. They won’t ever learn how to handle homophobia and transphobia (or what those words even mean) or how to spot bigotry when it rears its ugly head. Above all, they won’t be able to see themselves in media, or connect with others in the LGBTQ community.  

Worryingly, “Don’t Say Gay” has already influenced the Maine GOP. Maine Republicans have adopted a motion advocating for the prohibition of school curriculums promoting gender transitions into their party platform. They’ve also launched advertisement campaigns attacking Gov. Janet Mills for supporting LGBTQ education for kindergarteners.

In the coming election cycle, many Mainers will be influenced by national trends toward similar anti-LGBTQ legislation, believing that these decisions about education should be left up to parents, not schools. We disagree. Parents will always have an instrumental role in their children’s education, but the stakes here are too high to leave it entirely up to them.

LGBTQ youth are at an increased risk of bullying, homelessness, and suicide. Affirming education is a life-or-death situation. Others still might argue that affirming education at a young age will “promote” an increase in students identifying as LGBTQ. But that argument is categorically false. Student’s sexualities aren’t learned. Straight students remain straight, regardless of their schooling.

As college students invested in both Maine politics and the rights of the LGBTQ community, we are disturbed by this recent wave of vitriol brought on by the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Mainers have a responsibility to speak out against these hermeneutically unjust laws now, and if the Maine GOP raises their own anti-gay legislation, to take to the polls.