Arizona students walk out over anti-LGBTQ bills, demand action from lawmakers and schools
For the second year in a row, Arizona Republicans have sought to restrict the behavior of LGBTQ students, and for the second year in a row, students across the state walked out of class to protest that hostility.
On Friday, students at eight Arizona schools gathered to express their support for LGBTQ youth on the national Day of Silence, held to acknowledge the erasure of LGBTQ people. At Chandler High School, dozens marched to nearby Dr. A.J Chandler Park, where they discussed their fears and called on schools to implement better safety measures and more inclusive policies.
Tamaiah Briggs denounced Republicans lawmakers and others who make students feel unwelcome in school.
“Every student has the right to feel safe in the space where they go to learn,” the 15-year-old said. “Arizona legislators, teachers and administrators: you have a duty to make your students feel safe.”
That concern has been a key focus of Support Equality Arizona Schools, the student group that organized the walkout and has led other demonstrations to call out discriminatory laws. The group was launched last year as a response to anti-LGBTQ laws approved by Doug Ducey’s administration, including one that now prohibits trans girls from joining school sports teams that best match their gender identity and another that initially sought to ban LGBTQ books.
Dawn Shim, who founded the organization, noted that its advocacy work is far from over, in light of the legislature’s continued attacks. The GOP legislative majority has advanced several measures intended to criminalize drag performances, outlaw books that include any mention of pronouns, ban transgender students from accessing bathrooms consistent with their gender identity and force teachers to out students who request pronouns opposite of their biological sex. All of those measures are fated to meet Gov. Katie Hobbs’ veto stamp, but Republican lawmakers have continued to back them.
“As students, (anti-LGBTQ bills) compromise our safety and our mental health, both of which are burgeoning crises across the nation amongst teens,” Shim wrote in an emailed statement.
In an attempt to fight back, Support Equality Arizona Schools issued a list of demands for Arizona public schools, including better systems for trans students to submit their preferred names and pronouns, more inclusive bathroom policies and equitability training for teachers.
The pronoun ban bill being considered and unanimously approved by GOP lawmakers is particularly concerning for 14-year-old Rhig Yates, who is transgender and uses “he” and “they” pronouns.
“We should all be ourselves and we should not be forced to come out to people when we don’t want to,” he told a crowd of students on Friday.
Yates experienced the anxiety of being forced to come out when he shared his preferred pronouns with a middle school teacher, who then told his parents. While his family wasn’t hostile, he warned that not all students can count on not being kicked out or hurt by transphobic parents.
“Sometimes secrecy is required,” he said. “And the bill that has been made won’t help, it’ll only make situations worse.”
Even with assurances that the measure is doomed to fail, Yates worries anti-trans rhetoric at the Capitol will bleed into classrooms and hurt trans and questioning students. Research from the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ suicide prevention organization, found that anti-LGBTQ legislation and speech from politicians increased the rates at which trans and nonbinary youth considered suicide last year.
“It’s awful that people continue making these comments and rules that continue to oppress us,” Yates said. “They are literally killing people with what they say.”
Corinne Collins, an organizer with Support Equality Arizona Schools, lamented that lawmakers haven’t shown any inclination to stop advancing discriminatory legislation, despite ample testimony from the community. Members of the student-led group have been regular fixtures at the state Capitol this session, calling on lawmakers to halt anti-LGBTQ measures with little success.
“I have a fear that legislators aren’t absorbing what we’re telling them,” she said.
But she firmly dismissed the idea of giving up, saying it’s important to continue advocating for the LGBTQ community, especially trans people who have been at the center of GOP attacks.
“Trans people are just people,” she said. “They are just trying to live their lives, they aren’t predators, they aren’t dangerous people. They are people.”