On Dec. 13, the Ohio State Board of Education voted 10-7 in favor of a non-binding resolution opposing proposed changes to the federal government’s Title IX protecting LGBTQ+ students.

It was just one more blow for LGBTQ+ young people, who for much of 2022 have unwittingly found themselves at the center of one controversy after another as they’ve been targeted by ultra-conservative radicals in their perpetual culture wars.  

Right-wing activists like to center school and other childhood-related issues since it’s easy to rile up parents with superstitious and unfounded fears about sexuality and gender identity. They also count on LGBTQ+ youth to remain silent, since they presume that speaking out publicly against this discrimination might endanger their safety. Young people are a demographic that’s relatively easy to discriminate against. 

Thus, we have a recent wave of political action that’s been in the same vein as the Ohio State Board of Education: Arizona, for example, last spring banned gender-affirming medical care for transgender young people (movements against transgender youth have seemed to be fueled with an especially high level of cruelty and vitriol). Florida pushed through its preposterous “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, which came to fruition mainly to prop up the conservative bona fides of Gov. Ron DeSantis. Throughout the country, we heard of efforts to ban LGBTQ+ books from school libraries, efforts to remove transgender girls from girls’ locker rooms, and armed militias showing up for drag-queen storytime. 

To liberally paraphrase from The Who: The adults are not all right. 

All this insanity comes as, in many realms, LGBTQ+ students are feeling emboldened to come out at earlier ages. The climate “on the ground” is radically changing for teenagers in many schools. When I have interviewed subjects now in their twenties and thirties who discuss coming out at 16, 15, 14, and even 13, I can’t help but be shocked and impressed. 

But there are probably many students like I was all through adolescence. In the ‘80s, there was a pronounced strain of anxiety about gay people in socio-political and popular culture (thanks to uncertainty around the AIDS crisis as well as overall Reagan-era intolerance for marginalized communities, among other reasons) that trickled down to the halls of my high school. Toxic masculinity, always the bedfellow of homophobia, was the order of the day.

It was hard to be a gay kid. Even with kind and loving parents at home, I was always tightly wound, perpetually worried that I would have to take harassment or even physical abuse (which was rare, fortunately) from my classmates throughout junior high and high school. 

I knew that, at some point, I had done something signifying that I was gay, but at the time I couldn’t figure out what that was. Perhaps I had done that horrible thing, but I think the truth was I just made for an easy target. I was quiet and dorky and had no interest in sports or ‘80s hair-bands. I did have a very kind and funny girlfriend whom I hung around with, but I think we knew that that was a high-school romance that would fizzle out once high school ended. 

“I knew that, at some point, I had done something signifying that I was gay, but at the time I couldn’t figure out what that was.”

Matt Simonette

The school itself was not of much use vis a vis sexual education or even tolerance of diversity, back then. My eighth-grade biology teacher once stated that homosexuality was unnatural because the human body was not built for homosexual sex. I know a lot of people who have disproved that theory. 

A few years later, a local doctor was slated to do a presentation on HIV/AIDS for the juniors and seniors, provoking a community uproar. To the school’s credit, the presentation went on as planned, but in the form of a moderated discussion. Two students read pre-approved questions in the empty auditorium, and the whole thing was filmed for the students to watch on closed-circuit TV. Why watching all this on TV would somehow mitigate the potential harm caused by learning about HIV/AIDS forever remains a mystery. 

I realize I had it better than many of my peers who were bullied for other reasons. My bullying petered out as I progressed through school, and my antagonists gradually matured and began to occupy themselves with other things. But I will forever remember that feeling of being in a literal closet, keeping my true self boxed in for fear that harm will somehow come and my dreadful secret would be revealed to all.

U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri was the butt of the late-night comedy circuit last week thanks to her crocodile tears when she denounced the Respect for Marriage Act. Hartzler wasn’t talking about schools that day, but her pathetic show on the House floor exemplified so much that is wrong with the far-right: a blustery, performative appeal to emotion that was meant to forestall any appeal to logic.

So it was like a breath of fresh air that Hartzler’s nephew Andrew came into the public sphere a few days later. Now in his early twenties, Andrew is openly gay and grew up in a fundamentalist household. He spent much of his teens in and out of conversion therapy. But Andrew came out as gay when he was 14. He has achieved acceptance from his parents. He seems to be doing fine. His aunt, it seems, is the one with the problem.   

Right-wing radical politicians like Hartzler need to be isolated from the public sphere, so that, in part, LGBTQ+ youth can enjoy their formative years. The fact that so many kids have been able to break free of that existential box I remember is miraculous. The fact that so many craven individuals want to put them back inside is criminal. 

Matt Simonette is the executive editor of Windy City Times.