‘There are people’s lives on the line’: Students gather outside Capitol to protest anti-LGBTQ bills

This article was originally published by Arizona Republic

Ellie Willard Yana Kunichoff

As the 56th Arizona Legislature started its work Monday, student protesters across the street from the Arizona Capitol took a stand against laws targeting LGBTQ people.

The youth-led group Support Equality Arizona Schools laid 180 trash bags meant to represent body bags on the lawn across from the Capitol. The student activists said 1.8 million LGBTQ people ages 13-24 contemplate suicide each year, citing figures from The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit created to support LGBTQ youth.

“Each body bag represents 10,000 LGBTQ youth who have seriously considered suicide in the past year,” said Dawn Shim, 17, who founded the student group. “We want our legislators to know that with every measure that they vote for, there are people’s lives on the line.”

The students said they wanted their display to encourage legislators to vote against anti-LGBTQ bills, especially proposals related to schools.

While political dynamics in Arizona have shifted since the November election — Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs replaced Republican Doug Ducey — the Legislature remains controlled by Republicans and the new schools chief, Tom Horne, has spoken critically of some LGBTQ support resources shared by his predecessor.

Last year, several legislative proposals targeting LGBTQ students became law. One prohibits sexually explicit material from being used in schools; critics say it could be used to restrict material about LGBTQ people. Another requires all public schools in Arizona to designate their athletic teams “based on the biological sex” of participating students. 

Organizers point to personal experiences

Already introduced for consideration this session is Senate Bill 1001, which would make it unlawful for teachers and school employees to refer to a student by a pronoun that differs from the student’s “biological sex” unless there is written permission from a parent.

If the bill becomes law, a school employee would be allowed to ignore a student’s stated pronouns if respecting the student’s identity is contrary to the employee’s “religious or moral convictions.”

That bill feels particularly personal to Kanix Gallo. Gallo said experiences in school where he was misgendered, or people using a name with which he no longer identified, pushed him to have suicidal thoughts.

“It hurts being deadnamed constantly,” said Gallo. “Deadnaming” is the use of the former name of a transgender or nonbinary person.

Shauna Risinger, Gallo’s parent, said this bill would be harmful to youth who may find “solace” at school.

A 2022 survey about LGBTQ youth mental health from the Trevor Project reported that 45% of Arizona youth identified school as a safe space, while only 35% identified home as a safe space.

Risinger said that Gallo suffered from many mental health issues and was on the verge of inpatient commitment due to lack of acceptance and discrimination at school. To combat this, Gallo started a diversity club at school, and his family became more involved in the local LGBTQ community.

“Within a year or so … there was an absolute change of behavior, change of mood,” Risinger said. “Being able to discover themself in this safe space, gave me my child back.”

Spurred to action by legislation

Corinne Collins spray paints messages on trash bags, meant to look like body bags, at the Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, across the street from the Arizona state Capitol, as part of a protest demonstration against anti-LGBTQ laws on Jan. 9, 2023, in Phoenix.

Support Equality Arizona Schools was organized, the student protesters said, as a response to last year’s legislative session and a nationwide movement targeting LGBTQ youth.

The students said measures that passed through the Legislature last year exemplify the challenging environment for the support of LGBTQ students.

House Bill 2495 prohibits Arizona schools from referring students to or using sexually explicit material unless parental consent is received and the material possesses “serious educational value for minors” or “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” Critics of the law have said the new legislation could be used to restrict library material about LGBTQ people.

SB 1165 requires all public schools in Arizona to designate their athletic teams “based on the biological sex” of participating students. Teams must be designated “mixed,” “boys” or “girls.” Private schools that play public schools must follow the same designations.

ort Equality Arizona Schools have participated in a day of silence to support LGBTQ youth, organized a student walkout and fundraised to help support protest actions like the body bag display held near the Capitol.

Their group has also grown, bringing in students from beyond Chandler, where the coalition began. They now have members who attend Tucson and Flagstaff-area schools. With that growth has come more attention — including negative comments on social media and, on Monday, from some passersby.

Hayden Nguyen, a high school senior, said he tries to respond calmly to people who disagree with them, even when they accuse the group of being brainwashed.

“We don’t want to escalate. We don’t want to yell,” said Nguyen, who helps organize the group’s Discord channel, which they use to plan meetings and events. “We need to show that we are the people who are willing to act with civility — and willingness to show our professionalism and morality in situations.”

In the current environment surrounding LGBTQ rights, Shim said, “safety is your first priority.”

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