City officials, LGBTQ leaders, and Philly teachers condemn legislation targeting queer youth

Kati “Jazz” Gray-Sadler, president of Fifty Shades of Purple Against Bullying (FSPAB), speaking at the June 30 press conference. (Screenshot via Facebook.)

Condemnation of three anti-LGBTQ bills recently passed by the Pa. Senate was swift, with numerous city and LGBTQ leaders as well as Philadelphia teachers speaking out against the legislation.

Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) joined District Attorney Larry Krasner and LGBTQ+ leaders for a June 30 press conference at High School for Creative and Performing Arts to condemn the bills that target queer and trans youth. SB 1191 would ban transgender women and girls from paticipating in school sports that correspond to their gender; SB 1277 would give parents the option of restricting their child’s access to books and classroom materials with LGBTQ content; and SB 1278, which is more expansive than Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, would extensively curtail classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender, ban it outright in kindergarten to 5th grade, essentially out LGBTQ students who seek supportive services related to their gender or sexual orientation, and includes a slew of other provisions.  

“TLGBQ+ people belong and we have the right to live free from targeted attacks that discriminate or push people to harm us,” Naiymah Sanchez, trans rights coordinator for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said at the press conference. “We must nurture our communities and build a safe and affirming society for all people including those marginalized and left feeling vulnerable. We must organize ourselves not just in a time of rapid response, but ongoing to reiterate that there is no room for hate in Pennsylvania.”

Kelly Burkhardt, LGBTQ+ liaison and victim services coordinator for District Attorney’s Office (DAO), introduced the speakers and shared some remarks, as did DAO LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee members Sappho Reynan Fulton, licensed psychologist and CEO of Sappho and LaRoyce Foundation and Women Beyond Borders, and Asa Khalif, community activist and organizer.  

Khalif contextualized the harm that these bills do by speaking about a friend from his younger years who was murdered, and another young man who is in a coma as a result of a hate-fueled violence.  

“To think that you’re going to erase LGBT people and you think that you’re going to erase children that are part of this community — the Republicans and the right wing are bullying our young people,” Khalif said at the press conference. “I promise you, we’ve got a coalition of people who are standing with our children.” 

Gemayel Keyes, PFT member and teacher at Spruance Elementary School, said at the press conference that “Growing up in Philadelphia public schools we got teased, we got called names.” Keyes continued, saying that “working in the Philadelphia public school system now, I see such a turnaround in the level of acceptance among children and their peers. Gay, straight, bi, nonbinary, they really don’t pay any mind to that, it doesn’t matter to them. So I don’t understand why it matters so much to adults.”  

Keyes also addressed the need for LGBTQ students to talk about their sexual orientation or gender with their teachers rather than their parents, out of fear that their family would not accept them. 

Pastor Clarence Hayes Jr., pastor at Truth & Life Empowerment Community Ministries and private school educator, brought up the same issue in the context of youth in spiritual and faith spaces who may be struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

“Most students who seek help when dealing with their sexuality identity and spirituality are not going to go to their parents first,” Hayes said at the press conference. “This is because the youth rely in many cases that their parents’ spiritual upbringing is not going to be supportive of who they are. Therefore they look for help in other places. I know this because I worked in the education system and I have lived it for myself. We need more kids with the proper support resources such as support groups in our schools to have a successful education in a safe zone.”

Kati “Jazz” Gray-Sadler, president of Fifty Shades of Purple Against Bullying (FSPAB), spoke at the press conference on behalf of a student with same-gender parents, a mother whose son hung himself because he felt like he couldn’t talk about his identity, and as a mother of a child who was beat up because of his LGBTQ identity. The incident was the impetus for the founding of FSPAB, Gray-Sadler said at the conference. 

“[My son] was pushed down in a playground,” Gray-Sadler said to the crowd. “He was stomped, he was kicked, he was body-slammed, his clavicle was broken, his jaw was broken, his nose was broken. I am part of the LGBTQA+ identified community, and I’m standing here to say: you mess with these kids, they say something, we’re going to do something.”  

A 2021 report by The Trevor Project shows that 52% of LGBTQ youth in middle or high school said they were bullied either in person or through electronic means. Sixty-one percent of trans and nonbinary students said they were bullied, compared to 45% of cisgender LGBQ students who said the same. LGBTQ students who said they were bullied in the previous year had three times of a higher chance of attempting suicide in the same time period. LGBTQ students who said that their school was affirming of LGBTQ identities had 30% less of a chance of being bullied in the past year. 

Kate Sundeen, PFT member and teacher at the Academy at Palumbo, reminded the crowd that the Pa. General Assembly had a budget deadline of June 30, 2022, which would have included much needed-funding for Pennsylvania schools. Instead the Senate Republicans pushed legislation targeting LGBTQ students. 

“To every politician who voted in favor of this legislation, every politician who continues to support this legislation, and every politician who votes in favor of any other legislation that puts our students in harm’s way, your moral character has been measured and it has been found wanting,” Sundeen said at the press conference. “We will not let you erase our students.”

Benjamin Hover, PFT member and teacher at Central High School, criticized the bills and pointed out the harm they do in restricting teachers from teaching the multidimensionality of writers like William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman and Sonia Sanchez, who was a Philadelphia poet and Temple University professor.     

“These are all great writers who maintained a certain amount of consciousness about the world, about themselves,” Hover said at the press conference. “And what it meant to be a woman, what it meant to be a man, what it meant to Black, what it meant to be a lesbian, what it meant to be gay, what it meant to walk upright on this earth and what it meant to change the world and what it meant to say ‘I am.’”

Celena Morrison, Executive Director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, told PGN in an email that “It is shameful that the GOP-led legislature in PA has chosen to focus its energy on such openly discriminatory bills, especially when there are very real issues concerning Pennsylvania students and their families that need to be addressed – including ensuring that our schools are both safe and adequately resourced. 

“As we’re seeing the rollout of Florida’s similar legislation in real time, we know that these laws amount to nothing more than state-sanctioned cruelty aimed at attacking our already vulnerable LGBTQ+ students and teachers. Thankfully, Governor Wolf’s pen will protect such a bill from becoming law this term, but there is no guarantee that this protection will continue in the future.

“We must all do our part to ensure that this hateful legislation does not become law in our Commonwealth and work to protect and support our LGBTQ+ students and teachers,” Morrison said.

In addition to the response in Philadelphia, a letter declaring opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” bills was signed by more than 300 organizations and individuals statewide, including Education Law Center PA, which worked on the letter; Community Legal Services; Juvenile Law Center; League of Women Voters; Mazzoni Center; Pennsylvania Association of School Nurses and Practitioners; Pennsylvania School Librarians Association; and Pennsylvania Youth Congress.

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Michele Zipkin is a staff writer for Philadelphia Gay News, where she reports on issues including LGBTQ youth issues, housing insecurity, healthcare, city government and advocacy organizations, and events. Her work has been recognized by the Keystone Media Awards, Society of Professional Journalists, National Newspaper Association, and more. She received her BA from Goucher College and her MA in journalism from Temple University. She has been on staff with PGN since January 2020 and previously worked as a freelancer.