I’ve spent three-fourths of my life in Tampa, but Florida has let me know that it’s not safe to stay. My childhood included pirates, field trips to cigar factories and swimming on Christmas. I was a Tampa kid through and through. I left Florida twice — for college and graduate school — but always came back.
My first date with my now-wife was at Rock the Park in 2014, before same-sex marriage was legal here. An Equality Florida volunteer approached us: “Do you support marriage equality?” We gladly signed the petition, laughing at the irony of the interruption.
I rejoiced doubly in 2015: when same-sex marriage was legalized in Florida in January and throughout the U.S in June. I rejoiced for my 2015 self, shocked that the country had validated LGBTQ+ rights. I rejoiced, too, for my younger self, who didn’t dare come out, even to herself. For all the sunshine in the Sunshine State, I knew Florida was not a safe place to come out. Like queer kids everywhere, I relied on defense mechanisms — repression, overachieving — throughout adolescence. As a social worker, I now know that the very tools that kept me safe were detrimental to my mental health.
Over the past year, I have watched in horror as Florida has become increasingly hostile for people with historically marginalized identities. Between the “don’t say gay” bill and the “Stop WOKE” act, our lawmakers continue sending the message that communities on the receiving end of racism, homophobia and transphobia are not welcome here.
Couched in parental rights, HB 1557 states that “classroom instruction … on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” Importantly, the language of Florida’s sexuality education law has remained the same since 1997. The statute states that for all instruction connected to human sexuality, schools shall “teach abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage … while teaching the benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage.” It also states that curricula must be developmentally appropriate.
In other words, classroom discussion surrounding sexuality was already severely restricted. HB 1557 has simply expanded the scope, including vague, LGBTQ+-targeted language that has already had a chilling effect on schools.
My wife and I believe in advocating for folks from historically marginalized communities. We signed the petition on our first date, and we’ll continue speaking out. We want to have kids, though, and they should not be forced into advocacy when they start kindergarten. Our children should not be in a position where they are ashamed to talk about their family, wondering how their classmates or teachers will react.
Ultimately, our family does not feel safe here. When “safe space” stickers are being banned, the message is clear: Florida classrooms are not safe spaces for queer families. We’ll talk to our kids about Ybor City and Gasparilla, about thunderstorms and endless summer. But to protect the sunshine of our rainbow family, we won’t raise our kids in the beautiful state where I grew up, where we fell in love and got married. Instead, we’ll find a community where we can loudly, proudly, and safely say gay, whenever we like.
Meredith Mechanik is a Tampa native who is pursuing her master’s in social work at USF. She hopes to become a therapist who supports the LGBTQ+ community.