I knew I was gay when I was 6 years old and others suspected it, too.
Whether I was being called fa**** by classmates or the Spanish equivalent by adults, the words began to sting, especially once I learned the relentless hatred behind them.
Although decades have passed, I see the same treatment of children playing out nationwide today. But now, it’s co-signed by politicians who are spreading their vitriol through an unprecedented number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills and policies across the country that do nothing more than permit others to espouse bigotry online and in person.
Over the last few weeks, we have seen fights at a Glendale, Calif., school board meeting where a declaration in support of Pride month was being discussed, a rash of adults tearing down Pride clothing displays in Target stores nationwide, celebrities shooting Budweiser cans following the company’s partnership with a transgender spokeswoman, and much more.
I don’t know what goes through someone’s mind as they’re attacking a community and publicly lashing out, but I do know that kids — including those who may be queer — are listening and watching, and are undoubtedly impacted by the actions and words perpetuated by anti-LGBTQ+ adults, just as I was.
I realized I was gay during the height of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and amid a mass misinformation campaign that made almost everyone afraid to be in close proximity to anyone who they thought was queer, out of fear that they would somehow catch the virus.
One night — not too long after I realized I was gay, but still young enough to sleep next to my favorite toys — I remember listening to a music show that included a news segment about the “gay cancer,” the growing number of deaths and the radio hosts further stigmatizing the community by telling listeners that they didn’t want to be around anyone queer.
I was way too young to understand how people contracted the disease, but old enough to lay in my twin-sized bed crying about what I had just heard: people I didn’t know, and would never meet, sharing their animosity toward people like me, and no matter how much I prayed it away, each day I heard similar verbal assaults from adults — and experienced physical attacks from classmates — made me wish I wouldn’t wake up.
I was a child. In some eyes, a baby. While I was unable to grasp the complexities of discriminatory social constructs, I understood that the words I heard were intended for people like me and they played a role in a childhood depression that worsened each time the queer community was politicized by anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers, who stirred fear within their base for their political gain.
There’s nothing unique about my story. In fact, almost every queer person I know has similar experiences that, not coincidentally, can directly be connected to what was happening politically, playing out in the daily news cycle, pervading public discourse and discussed in homes nationwide.
And that’s the frightening part, especially now as anti-LGBTQ+ activists are emboldened more than they have been in recent years with the rise of the nationwide legislative attacks, which include more than 500 bills this legislative session, including a failed bill in Colorado, targeting everything from transgender health, drag performances and even saying “gay” in schools.
The negative impact anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is having on society is everywhere — the increasing number of assaults on queer people, the murders of gender non-conforming individuals and transgender women of color, protests at drag show brunches, and in online diatribes typed by hate-filled trolls on queer affirming social media posts.
This type of contempt by adults often trickles down to children, which plays out in schools and online forums, where studies show queer young people and those perceived to be queer are more likely than others to be bullied.
Adults should know better, and should truly think about the well-being of all young people, especially those who may be LGBTQ+ because no amount of animosity or public breakdowns will ever change them, but it will definitely have an emotional toll and will hurt them.
No child should ever go to bed in tears and afraid of laws proposed by anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers, the spiteful words said by grownups or the bruises caused by classmates.
All children should be able to be proud of who they are and given every chance to grow up and thrive. Period.
Erik Olvera is a longtime LGBTQ rights advocate who lives in Denver.