As a sixth-grade public school teacher in Florida, I’ve come to expect the worst from Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Department of Education. The governor’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill put a target on the back of LGBTQ students and teachers: It outlaws “classroom instruction” on sexual orientation or gender identity (whatever that is) in grades K-3 and severely limits it in grades 4-12. That was bad enough. But this fall, the situation got worse. Previously, if a parent accused us of violating the Don’t Say Gay law, they could sue the school district. Now the Department of Education has declared that teachers who violate the law will lose our educator’s certificate. That means losing our jobs.
And that’s not all. Another new rule forces schools to notify parents about any bathrooms that aren’t separated by sex assigned at birth. This policy will out kids by informing parents if there is a trans student using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. A third rule requires classroom libraries to be cataloged in a searchable database so parents will know every book that is available. While this may sound innocuous, it is not in a state with one of the highest rates of public school library books banned in the country.
How in the world are teachers supposed to navigate this? The answer is, in constant fear of getting fired for failing to discriminate as much as the Florida government wants. For the first time in my nine-year career as a public school teacher, I’m seriously thinking about quitting. And I am not alone: hundreds of thousands of Florida students started school last year without a permanent teacher while the state has struggled to fill thousands of openings.
The original Don’t Say Gay law made teaching in this state hard enough. The new rules make it nearly impossible. Students want a way to identify and connect with each other, and they need a way to connect with their education. It took far too long for educators to start teaching books in which the main character is Black, Hispanic, or from literally any other historically marginalized group. So now we can’t teach books that have gay characters? (Multiple Florida counties reportedly cleared their shelves of books with LGBTQ themes in apparent response to the new law.) Why? Do Republicans honestly think that if a first grader learns what being gay is that will “make them gay”? It doesn’t work that way. Do they think we want to indoctrinate kids? Ridiculous. Even if we wanted to, we wouldn’t have the time! We are too busy trying to get them to read, write, and simply do their actual work.
For some kids, school is their safe space, and I’m that safe adult. Teaching LGBTQ students is just like teaching any other student. They’re kids. They want to be heard and understood, and each student is going to be different in that regard. I was our school’s Gay Straight Alliance advisor for a year before COVID took us out of school. Am I gay? No. But there was a need, so I filled it. At the first meeting there were about 20 kids in my classroom. I explained to them that while I’m not gay, I am an ally, and I’m here as a safe adult if you need one.
After our first meeting, I quickly realized I needed help, so I reached out to the Zebra Coalition and they were able to come and speak to my kids. One thing I had to understand when working with LGBTQ youth is that there may be things going on in their lives that I couldn’t relate to, ever. I’ve never had to come out to my parents. I’ve never had to think about how I identify. These are struggles that our students face. They shouldn’t have to face them alone or with pushback, especially from their public school. (My school still has an active GSA with strong membership—our students are not ones to back down from a fight.)
Under the new rules, our LGBTQ students have a reason to feel less safe and less heard in a place where they spend the majority of their time. They are here to learn the standards set forth by the state, not have it dictated to them what bathroom they have to use, what pronouns they must use, and what name they have to go by. I’ve had students as I take attendance tell me they go by something else and they use specific pronouns. I write it on my roster and it doesn’t take long for that to be the only name I know them by. I’ve gotten in the habit of just using “they/them” for everyone when I address a student, so that hasn’t been much of an issue.
Yet we still have teachers who gripe and moan anytime a student tells them their preferred pronouns or preferred name. Why? Why get upset? Teaching is so much easier when you can connect and form relationships with students. Calling them a different name does not affect me one bit, but it affects them all the time. If I can help them feel comfortable, that’s what I’m going to do.
When DeSantis started pushing the Don’t Say Gay bill, the first thing I thought was: Where was this when I was in school and literally everyone was calling everything “gay”? Nobody seemed to be too concerned with that word when it was being used as a homophobic slur. But now that the social climate has changed and people, including our youth, feel comfortable with themselves to say “yes, I’m gay,” it’s suddenly a problem?
Teachers have already been leaving the profession in record numbers and these new rules are just adding fuel to the fire. Critically, these laws target our LGBTQ youth and our LGBTQ teachers. If a teacher has a same-sex partner and a student asks them if they are married, if that teacher answers truthfully, is that breaking the law now? Can they not only be fired but have their license be taken away? And where do we draw the line?
If trying to push teachers back into the closet was the intended effect of the law, it’s not working so far. Thanks to the support of our union, teachers at my school are still able to display photos of their same-sex partners. The bulletin board outside my classroom has a pride flag that states “you are welcome,” which is then surrounded by quotes from LGBTQ activists throughout history.
This doesn’t mean that the law isn’t resulting in real harm, based in the levels of confusion about what is now allowed and what is verboten. Florida already has more than 6,000 teacher vacancies statewide. Who on Earth are you going to get to fill those positions, let alone the positions of the teachers you fire who violate this ridiculous rule?
I knew I wanted to be a teacher for most of my life. I love kids, plain and simple. Despite all the negative rhetoric that surrounds our education system, I still love teaching. I never thought I’d consider leaving this profession, but I have considered it seriously in recent months due to the actions of the Florida Republican Party. In the grand scheme of things, while it’s harder for me to navigate conditions in Florida as an educator, it must be even harder to live through them as a LGBTQ student. My love for my kids is what DeSantis is banking on. He expects teachers like me to stick around with a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, enacting his terrible policies, not caring who pays the price. But the goal of public education is to create successful functioning members of society. DeSantis wants to make LGBTQ kids to feel unwelcome in our society. And I refuse to help him.