This story contains stories that may be triggering for some readers. If you, or someone you know, are in crisis please contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988 or calling the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860. The Trevor Project can be reached at 1-866-488-7386 or by clicking here.
Senate Bill 150 is an anti-transgender and anti-queer bill that is designed to impact students, and was signed into law by the Kentucky legislature on March 29th, 2023. Under SB 150, trans students will not be permitted to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity and teachers will be allowed to misgender students. In addition, SB 150 stands in the way of education about gender identity and sexual orientation. (SB 150 was vetoed by Governor Andy Beshear, but the Republican supermajority overrode the veto.) SB 150 also included a ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth–but on June 28th, according to reporting from The Courier Journal, a federal judge temporarily blocked part of the ban.
While students in states across the nation have had to confront similar legislation amidst the current wave of anti-LGBTQ+ bills, Kentucky students have certainly been at the forefront of experiencing the weight of some of the most invasive anti-trans legislation in the country. As the impact of Senate Bill 150–both its introduction and its aftermath–hits–it is worth highlighting the response of those whose schools and lives stand to be directly impacted: students in Kentucky.
As a student myself, the realization of how impactful this bill could be on me and my loved ones hit me with full force. I began reaching out to organizers of protests and LGBTQ+ Kentucky students in an attempt to document the student protests of SB 150, as well as the bill’s impact.
As a wave of anti-trans legislation coalesced into SB150–but before SB150 itself was passed–students across Kentucky led walkouts to protest the legislation. In February 2023, students in Lexington walked out of two of the three biggest high schools in the city, Lafayette High School and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, in protest of the bill, as did students in Danville, Louisville, and more. In some cases, students disrupted class completely, holding flags and signs, all in hopes that maybe this time legislators would listen to their pleas: to stop the bill.
Signs spelled out dozens of impactful messages in bold colors, including “I Am Still Here,” “Say Gay Anyway,” and “Let Kids Play.” Many students also held flags, ranging from the rainbow LGBTQ+ pride flag, to the transgender flag, to flags representing their own identities. One of the coordinators of the protest at Lafayette, freshman Noah, spoke to The New Edu about his overall message to legislators: "The government…has zero right to decide what is best for someone who is exploring themselves and trying to be authentically them. What happened to 'Be yourself'?"
In the days of the initial proposition of the bill, anxiety ran high among student bodies. Many trans students described being afraid for both their friends and themselves. "The bills harm me and my peers,” continued Noah during our conversation. “If these bills were to pass, it eliminates a safe space at school…I have a few friends whose parents would disown them if they found out [their child is queer] and it’s scary."
Another student at Lafayette, Toni, also spoke to The New Edu about fear caused by the bill: "I have been extremely stressed about bills like this passing…” he said. “I’m worried for my friends; I love them more than anything."
As a Lexington student myself, I witnessed student after student trying to show the legislature their worries before it was too late. Yet, their concerns were not heard. Legislators refused to listen.
In the month after the initial wave of student protests, legislators debated the bill and its exact content. Despite Governor Beshear vetoing the bill, student protestors were aware a Republican supermajority would likely override it. Student eyes were on Kentucky and its lawmakers.
On March 22nd, protestors gathered at the State Capitol in Frankfort. As reported by The New Edu, Kentuckians gathered to assert that trans rights are human rights. Adults were advised to stand in a human barrier around students, forming protection in the event of harm. Reporters crowded the stairs. Speakers, including student organizers from across the state, stood up front, waiting for their turn to address the massive crowd. Even some legislators came to show their support. Participants held up all sorts of signs, with one reading "It was never about a bathroom, just as it was never about a water fountain," and others reading "Protect Trans Kids," and "Say Gay!"
I was lucky enough to stand among these protestors. The experience of protesting was both exhilarating and heartbreaking. Students went up to speak one by one, touching on their experiences, their fears. Some talked about their mental health. Others worried for their friends.
Despite being struck by how powerful it was, one thing made my heart sink: the sheer number of students who would be hurt by this bill. For the first time, I realized that despite not personally wanting to medically transition, this bill impacted me, too. I was scared. In a huge gathering of queer youth from across the state, the thing that united us should have been just our experiences or identities, but it was also our fear.
When one student spoke at the rally, they mentioned in their speech that they are a part of the high percentage of transgender youth who have attempted suicide. (According to The Trevor Project, 41% of LGBTQ+ young people have seriously considered suicide in the past year, and a majority reported being verbally harassed at school. A director of state advocacy for The Trevor Project stated that almost 1 in 4 trans or nonbinary youth in Kentucky made a suicide attempt. The mental health of LGBTQ youth has been impacted by anti-LGBTQ policies and debates, reports show.)
As they spoke, I felt a deep, intense sinking feeling, swallowing me whole. It is difficult to describe how I felt when I found out that, after everything we students had been through, the bill had still passed. It was an overwhelming, panicked feeling. How many more lives would be lost due to this bill?
At the time of writing this, as a federal judge has blocked part of the ban on gender-affirming care following multiple trans young people and their families suing the state, I’m still worried.
I would be lying if I said that the people I love haven’t already been heavily impacted by the weight of this bill’s implications. I have seen friends of mine push through so much already when it comes to their gender identities--from being misgendered constantly and teased for how they express themselves, to feeling uncomfortable in their own bodies and unable to speak about it. It would be wrong of me to place all the blame for these mental health crises on legislators. But I cannot emphasize how afraid I am for myself and the people I care about. The bill, though not entirely at fault, has failed to keep kids safe.
I, like thousands of other students in Kentucky, thought that school was to be a safe space. This is an illusion that is shattered in different ways for many different students, but for me, it was when SB150 was passed. For lots of LGBTQ+ students, including trans students, the bare minimum we had to rely upon was the ability to speak about our struggles, our experiences, and ourselves in class. Some of us were lucky, and were able to access healthcare to prepare for gender transitions and affirmations. Now, we are left with these opportunities in serious jeopardy. Students have been failed by a system that is meant to protect us.
As advocates including students continue to fight for justice, I am urging adults to do what students fought for throughout this legislative process: listen to us.
In response to immense student energy for continued reporting on the evolution of SB 150, The New Edu is launching WATCHING 150, a series dedicated to student coverage of the bill’s status, enforcement, and impact. This piece constitutes the launch of the series, and upcoming articles can be found listed under the tag “Watching 150” and denoted with a magnifying glass icon branded on the story header.