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HB 616, Ohio’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and How Black Young People Are Fighting Back

June 1, 2022

In April, Republican legislators introduced the latest bill viewed by many as an attack on education. And young Black people were up in arms, literally. The Ohio Student Association organizers – the voters closest in age to the students who will ultimately be affected by this bill – will kick off their campaign to prevent House Bill 616 from becoming Ohio state law.

Dubbed “Ohio’s Don’t Say Gay bill,” HB 616 borrows heavily from the language used in the Florida legislation of the same name. According to ABC News, the bill proposes “‘curriculum or instructional materials on sexual orientation or gender identity would be banned in classrooms starting from kindergarten through third grade.” In higher grades, the bill would ban lessons that are “not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

“In my opinion, it means a step backward,” says Akii Butler of the Ohio Student Association. “It’s a slap in the face to a lot of folks. I think one of my biggest issues with the bill is that it is marketed as ‘Ohio’s Don’t Say Gay bill,’ but when you read the bill, there’s so much in it.”

In addition to sexuality and gender, HB616 also targets education around what it calls “divisive or inherently racist concepts,” including, but not limited, to critical race theory, The 1619 Project, and “inherited racial guilt.” It should be pointed out that two previous bills – HB 322 and HB 327 – were introduced last year in an effort to restrict how race is presented in grade school curriculums. Neither of these bills has yet to be brought to a vote.

Ironically, by combining these two issues, the authors of HB 616 have galvanized a base of young POC and LGBTQ organizers who understand better than anyone how this law stands to impact students.

“A lot of the people writing these bills are cis, straight white men,” says Ohio State University student Anagha Belamakianni, a member of OSA who remembers struggling with both her racial and sexual identity while attending a predominantly white, all-girls Catholic high school. “There’s a disconnect between [the authors and] POC, LGBTQ youth and people. People forget that there are humans that are affected on the other side of this. People who have been beaten down for so long because we’re seen as ‘not normal.’ We’re not monsters. We’re human beings who experience human emotions.”

OSA has partnered with Honesty For Ohio Education and other local groups to lead an active campaign against HB 616 that will kick off with a rally this month. Butler says the goal is to not only have the proposed bill rejected, but to also teach young Ohioans how to use their collective power to effect change in their community and around the issues that impact them most.

“Students and young folks have power,” he adds. “It has been proven time and time again with organizations like CORE and SNCC. The best thing that you can do is educate yourself and then go out and build on that power.”