As a teenager, civil rights trailblazer Mary Beth Tinker knew she was gay. Today she supports Iowa students currently fighting against censorship and anti-LGBTQ laws.

Young people will find a way to speak up about the issues that concern them, even controversial ones. Some adults will try to stop them, while others believe that youth need freedom of speech and thought. My parents were that kind, but it wasn’t easy.

Back in 1965, I was a 13-year-old student upset about the Vietnam War. In December, a small group of us were suspended for wearing black armbands to school to mourn the dead and support a Christmas truce. The ACLU of Iowa and its lawyer, Dan Johnston, challenged the suspensions of me, my brother John, and Chris Eckhardt. In a landmark victory for students’ rights, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v Des Moines (1969) that schools are not “enclaves of totalitarianism” and that neither “students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.”  

We had no idea that the case would still be taught today in schools and universities and featured in museums celebrating youth, the First Amendment, and the Constitution.

Now, Iowa history is repeating itself. The ACLU of Iowa and Lambda Legal have filed a lawsuit against SF 496, the Iowa law forbidding instruction, promotion, or materials through sixth grade with LGBTQ content or characters. It bans books, except religious texts, that depict sex acts for all grades. The Des Moines Register has documented hundreds of books already removed from schools.

I see myself in students like Puck Carlson, Percy Batista-Pedro, and Berry Stevens, some of the students represented in the lawsuit. Some are being accused of being unpatriotic, like we were, for exercising their Constitutional rights.  

And I see myself for another reason. As a teenager, I knew I was gay. The lawsuit against SF 496 is especially poignant because I don’t want students today to go through the censorship that I did. They need the freedom to express and accept themselves.

My father was a Methodist minister, but our family also became involved with the Quakers. My parents felt that speaking up about controversial issues like racial justice and peace was just part of their spiritual ministry. LGBTQ issues were not yet on the radar.

In the mid '60s, as the Vietnam War escalated, my parents’ spirituality guided us. Sunday evenings in December found us gathered around yuletide candles as Dad read the Christmas story to us from the Bible, with its message of hope for love and peace.  

When we took that message to heart by wearing black armbands to school, at first Dad didn’t think that we should. However, with the persuasiveness of youth, we successfully argued that our parents had been our role models.

Dad died at a young age after becoming a target of death threats and vitriol. I never had the chance to talk with him about being gay, but I want something better for today’s youth.

Thankfully, the ACLU is still here. I care about my home state, and its students. As Justice Abe Fortas stated in Tinker, students must not be “confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved.” Let’s support students by challenging censorship and SF 496.

Mary Beth Tinker is a retired nurse who lives in Washington D.C. with her wife and is a frequent speaker to student groups about free speech and expression.