Hundreds of people gathered at Washington Square Park in New Orleans on March 31, 2023, for a march to mark Transgender Day of Visibility. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
St. Tammany Parish, a conservative stronghold in south Louisiana, is also the home of LGBTQ+ resistance to anti-gay and anti-trans sentiments.
What started with community pushback to efforts to remove books with LGBTQ+ themes from St. Tammany public library shelves led first to the formation of a growing LGBTQ+ advocacy group, Queer Northshore, then to a student-led protest at Mandeville High School Thursday
Wyn Arenth, a trans teenager who attends the school, organized the event to protest a bill in the Louisiana Legislature that would require teachers to be use a student’s deadname, or the name by which they no longer identify, unless they have parental permission to use a name that differs from their birth certificate and their pronouns of choice.
Mandeville High students joining Arenth in the protest also oppose two bills that seek to restrict library content.
“I know so many people who use their chosen name as a shield,” Arenth said. “For me personally, it’s a shield and my name is like my armor.”
“I wouldn’t feel as comfortable and safe if I have to constantly be called by my birth given name,” he added.
Arenth said he was inspired to organize the protest after seeing hundreds of students at Ben Franklin High School in New Orleans walkout March 31 for International Transgender Day of Visibility. They held a rally outside the school to condemn anti-LGBTQ+ legislation the legislature will consider during its regular session that begins Monday.
The protest at Mandeville High School, nestled in one of the most conservative communities in the state, was met with backlash and threats of violence.
A post about the event in a parents facebook group was taken down after commenters expressed outrage at the school for allowing students to protest.
Arenth said students at his school threatened to throw tomatoes – and knives – at protesters if they went through with it.
After reporting the threats to police and to school administrators, the students pushed forward with the event. Approximately 30 students joined the protest. Arenth said other students tried to drown out protest speakers by blasting music from their vehicles. The counter-protesters were swiftly asked to leave by police, Arenth said.
Arenth said he hopes to get involved in the legislative process to fight back against anti-LGBTQ legislation, which he likened to violence against him and his friends.
“This is a direct attack on the trans community and there’s no other way about it,” Arenth said.
Mel Manuel, a St. Tammany Parish public school teacher and a co-founder of Queer Northshore and the St. Tammany Library Alliance, an anti-censorship group, applauded the student protest. Manuel expressed concern about how the queer youth in St. Tammany would be affected if anti-LGBTQ+ legislation were approved in Louisiana.
Manuel pointed to House Bill 466, a proposal from Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, that would ban discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in Louisiana public schools, including their extracurricular activities. It would effectively abolish Gay-Straight Alliance clubs on campus.
“GSA has literally saved some children’s lives,” Manuel said. “I’m trying not to be hyperbolic, but yeah, some children will die from that.”
It is important for the LGBTQ community in conservative areas to keep advocating despite constant harassment, Manuel added.
“The queer community is uniting in a way that we’d never have been before in St. Tammany Parish,” they said.
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