On my laptop, I have a rainbow sticker that reads “Don’t Say Desantis” as well as another rainbow sticker that once clearly said, “In Miami We #SayGay” [Fig. 1]. As a genderqueer educator in South Florida, I find that both messages bring me small moments of satisfaction amid Florida’s fascist attacks on trans and queer existence. It feels like refusing to be silenced; it feels like resistance; it feels like solidarity. And perhaps it is. After all, LGBTQ+ activists in Florida were incredibly successful in rebranding 2022’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, sparking international outcry against a bill that resembles a variety of similar measures that have encountered far less opposition in other states.1 #DontSayGay is catchy, it trends readily, and it encapsulates the bill’s repressive censorship of LGBTQ+ topics in public schools. This year, when the law was revised to impose even more limits on education about sex, sexuality, and gender all the way through the 12th grade, mainstream news headlines consistently described it as an “expansion” of “Don’t Say Gay”.2 As a shorthand and a hashtag, #DontSayGay achieves a great deal rhetorically. It refuses to accept the façade that this law is about “parental rights”. It calls out the authoritarian tactics that are being employed in this backlash against greater acceptance of and visibility for LGBTQ+ people. And it points the way to a clear and compelling response: #SayGay.
Activists and allies took up this invitation immediately after the bill was passed in March 2022. In response to the “Don’t Say Gay” law, signs, posters, billboards, and stickers like mine have proliferated, urging the community to “say gay”, allowing individuals to self-identify as someone who will “say gay”, and of course mocking the legislators who support the bill by repeating the forbidden word again and again: “gay gay gay” [Fig. 2]. It feels powerful, it feels defiant, it feels political. And of course, to some extent it is exactly that. In the face of silencing and repression, discourse is a vital arena for contestation. When I asked Google’s BardAI to draw on the vastness of the world wide web for its answer to the question: “Where did the #saygay hashtag campaign come from and what does it mean?”, the chatbot responded with a history of the hashtag’s use and some recommendations for political action: “Use the hashtag on social media. Donate to organizations that are fighting against the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law. Contact your elected officials and tell them to oppose the law. Talk to your friends and family about the importance of LGBTQ+ inclusion” [Fig 3]. (Another draft added: “Volunteer your time to help LGBTQ+ youth”, which is a different kind of intervention from the first set of actions that are exclusively within the discursive realm.) Informed by far more information than I could ever review myself, BardAI condenses this movement into its vital components, available to LGBTQ and our allies: say gay (on social media); say gay (with money, which is speech); say gay (to your elected officials); say gay (to your family and friends). It just makes sense: if the government is saying “Don’t Say Gay”, then exercising our constitutionally protected right to “Say Gay” is a crucial political response.
But is the Florida law really telling teachers: “don’t say gay”? And what happens when our political response opposes a position that is more a construction of our own rhetoric than an accurate representation of what the other side wants, desires, pursues, and believes? This is a perpetual challenge in activism, since strategically framing the other side’s position is a vital tactic in undermining support for that position.3 At the same time, framing determines strategy—and framing gives up power when it directs our energy against forces that we’ve imagined rather than the actual threats we face.
In actual fact, the slogans, signs, and hashtags used by rightwing activists and politicians have a dramatically different emphasis and valence from “don’t say gay”, since they focus on concepts like “gender ideology” and “genital mutilation” as well as wildly unrealistic commitments to never use pronouns to refer to themselves or others [Fig. 4]. Sure, they describe LGBTQ+ teachers (and politicians) as pedophiles and groomers, and they claim that any mention of queerness in schools is sexual predation,4 but their goal is in fact far more capacious than simply silencing queer people and queer stories. To a significant extent, it is the very existence of trans people—specifically—that is under attack. This was true in 2022 and has become brutally clear in 2023, with new laws going into effect this year that ban or restrict healthcare for trans people (both youths and adults),5 ban trans people from public spaces (through so-called “bathroom bills”),6 and ban cross-dressing in public spaces.7 Some LGBTQ+ organizations tried to address this virulent anti-trans animus by calling the 2022 law “Don’t Say Gay and Trans”, but that never really caught on. It’s too unwieldy for a hashtag. It isn’t as satisfying to repeat “trans trans trans” the way it feels delicious to chant “gay gay gay”. And acknowledging the attack on trans people forces us to face directly the eliminationist policies of the other side. It reminds us that this isn’t simply about censoring certain topics in schools. From the perspective of the fascists, trans people aren’t real (which means we don’t exist at all) and queer teachers are actually predators (which means we don’t really exist as subjects, merely as threats). In this context, “say gay and trans” simply doesn’t address the scope of the violence we face.
To be clear, silencing a community is directly tied to eliminating that community. In these circumstances, resistance—including discursive resistance—is vital. But #SayGay opposes government silencing without addressing the horrific breadth of the fascists’ plan to exterminate trans and queer people. #SayGay reacts to the ban on discussing homosexuality in schools, but it doesn’t engage with (or refute) the purported reason for this ban. As a result, #SayGay trades long-term power for short-term virality.
As I noted above, those behind the “Don’t Say Gay” law claim that discussing queerness is equivalent to sexual predation. Perhaps it is better to not dignify this offensive claim with a response. I certainly don’t want to spend time arguing that I’m not a pedophile. When Turning Point USA was on campus trying to persuade people that Gender Studies is “pedophile training”, I comforted my students who had encountered the right-wing group and I avoided the public spaces on campus where this group was exercising its right to free speech. Ultimately, I worry that participating in that argument gives away my power by playing into their game. But I also know that having a completely separate argument—for example, asserting my right to academic freedom by focusing on my right to “say gay” in the classroom—is not necessarily a position of power. When one side is saying “you are a sexual predator” it is insufficient to merely assert that I have the right to discuss core concepts of my academic discipline with my students. “Saying gay” feels like power, but only if the debate is whether or not one should “say gay”. “Saying gay” presumes that we are rights-bearing subjects who exist, who speak, and who have the right to free speech. Since the debate is about our status as subjects and our right to exist, the fleeting feeling of power that comes from “saying gay” is just not enough.
Trans and queer people need power right now. We need to build power and wield it. In fact, we are powerful—that’s why we are under attack. And our power comes from generations of activists, organizers, and fighters who have rejected common sense rather than simply seeking to be included within it. Following Jacques Rancière, our power comes from dissensus not consensus, and that means the aesthetics and rhetoric of our work—including our hashtags—must challenge the status quo.8 We must imagine a new world, with a more capacious and liberatory conception of human rights, rather than simply assert our right to participate in this one. Within cis-sexist and cis-normative systems, trans people are “subalterned” and our speech rendered illegible, according to Trish Salah.9 Moreover, as Paul Passavant argues, the right to freedom of speech is only guaranteed to those who are recognized as rights-bearing subjects.10 Although #SayGay lays claim to First Amendment protections for our right to freedom of speech, that claim is inadequate in a context where what is at issue is our very status as rights-bearing subjects. In the end, #SayGay fails trans and queer people not just because it doesn’t actually respond to the ambitious eliminationist agenda of the right. It falls short of what we need in this moment because it doesn’t offer a vision of trans and queer liberation. Instead, it merely asks for inclusion and visibility; it asserts our right to be legible within an unchanged cis- and hetero-sexist world.
Of course, a vision of queer and trans liberation is a lot to ask for from a hashtag. But our movements have had slogans that are more ambitious, more capacious, and more confrontational in the past. I believe we can learn from that history to meet the needs of this moment as we build toward the future we desire and deserve. In the face of 21st-century fascism, I want the energy of “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”;11 I want the boldness of “we recruit”;12 I want the courage of “transsexual menace”;13 I want the claim to existence of “I was a lesbian child”.14 These statements are not just our history, of course. As William Leap might say, these statements are part of a much broader “lavender language”, a subcultural vernacular that not only enables communication between queer and trans subjects but functions as a performative speech act that claims a particular collective subjecthood for its speakers.15 What I want is not just the momentary satisfaction of “saying gay” but the long-term commitment to building a community that listens—and responds—and fights against the existential threats we face. I’m not sure how to put that on a sticker.