LGBTQ teachers struggle to tackle Florida's so-called 'Don't say gay' law

eaffne Cruz, an assistant principal in Polk County, Florida, says her district last year gave her LGBTQ-inclusive “safe space” stickers to distribute throughout the school. This year when Cruz, who is queer, asked for more stickers to hand out, she claims her district told her they couldn’t provide them because of “new legislation.”

This fall is the first school year in which teachers and school administrators must follow Florida’s HB 1557 — dubbed by lawmakers the Parental Rights in Education Act and called Don’t Say Gay law by critics— which prohibits public school districts from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade or “in a manner that is not age or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

In a statement to TIME, Polk County Public Schools said that “neither the district nor HB 1557” prohibits the “practice” of distributing such stickers, but the district does not provide them out of concern that it creates “the appearance that a classroom is -safe space from another’ and ‘only certain groups supported/protected’. “All of our schools and classrooms are safe places,” the statement said.

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HB 1557 is at the epicenter of a raging debate about what should be taught to children in America’s public school systems. The debates are over teaching the national history of systemic racism have rocked school districts and Elections, and now a growing number of states are considering restricting classroom learning about LGBTQ issues as well. The many laws being introduced and passed across the country include bans like Florida’s on LGBTQ education at certain grade levels, but also some broader censorship of books that include LGBTQ themes or teach controversial topics. Advocates of these policies largely say they give parents more control over what their children learn and ensure they are engaging with appropriate materials. But critics say they’re reacting to a problem that doesn’t exist and could negatively impact the mental health of LGBTQ youth.

How the law is implemented in Florida could be a guide for other states as conservative lawmakers propose similar legislation elsewhere. Florida’s HB 1557, which passed in March and took effect in July, bans LGBTQ classroom instruction in kindergarten through third grade. Alabama passed its own version in April, banning classroom teaching or discussion of LGBTQ issues in grades K-5 in an “age- or developmentally-inappropriate manner” according to state standards. In Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in April that he would prioritize passing legislation similar to Florida’s in the 2023 state legislative session. according to the Texas Tribune. PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for free expression, tracked 22 other bills that specifically limit educational speech on LGBTQ issues that have been introduced in state legislatures this year.

Entering the new school year, LGBTQ educators in Florida describe widespread confusion about how much they should hide their own identities, limit discussion of LGBTQ people or history, or notify parents if a student comes out to them. The new law raises critical questions about what constitutes a healthy learning environment, how to make schools safe for LGBTQ students, and what rights parents have to dictate their child’s experience in the public school system. And LGBTQ advocates warn that LGBTQ students — who already often experience higher levels of stigma and isolation — could face worsening mental health problems. (The Florida Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

“All we want as educators is to create a safe space for our students and teach them to respect each other,” says Brian Kerekes, a gay high school math teacher in Osceola County, Florida. “And we want to be respected, too.”

“Work doesn’t feel safe”

LGBTQ teachers are particularly concerned about inconsistent enforcement in school districts and how far the law’s effects extend into other grades and classroom environments.

Under Florida law, public school districts are already prohibited from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3 or “in a manner that is not age or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” Critics say this language can create a chilling effect on discussion in the classroom and at higher levels because of the lack of clarity about what constitutes an “appropriate” approach. Parents can now also file lawsuits against school districts they believe have violated the law. State Rep. Joe Harding, a Republican who introduced the legislation in the state House, told TIME in February that the goal behind the law was to keep parents “in the know and engaged with what’s going on” with their children’s education.

But critics say it’s unnecessary. Corey Bernart, a gay kindergarten teacher in Parrish, Florida, says his curriculum has never included discussions of gender identity or sexual orientation. “That being said, should I be able to talk about what my family looks like if it’s okay for a colleague of mine who is in a heterosexual relationship to talk about what her or his family looks like? Absolutely,” he added. “There should be no sense of discrimination.”

Earlier this summer, some officials in Orange County, Fla., said they were told K-3 teachers could not display pride flags or pictures of same-sex partners. according to the Associated Press. But Clinton McCracken, president of the Orange County Teachers Union, tells TIME that the district has since clarified that pride flags, photos of LGBTQ families and “safe space” stickers can remain. (The Orange County School District declined to comment, citing pending litigation. They are among four school districts that Lambda Legal, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Southern Legal Counsel sued in July to block implementation of the new law.)

Bernart, who works in another school district, says he continues to have a photo of him and his partner on his classroom door and hasn’t been instructed by his school to remove it. (His district, Manatee County, declined to comment.)

“The fact that someone has to tell these teachers you can have a picture of your husband on your desk shows the environment they have to work in,” said McCracken, who is gay. “While the words may say it’s safe to have a rainbow photo or button, the environment you show up to work in doesn’t feel safe.”

Parents’ rights

One of the most fraught questions facing Florida teachers is whether they are required to notify a parent if a student comes to them.

The new law states that parents of K-12 students must be notified if “there is a change in the student’s services or supervision related to the student’s mental, emotional or physical health or well-being.” The law also allows parents access to any health or education records of their child used by the school district.

Teachers have expressed confusion about what that means, and some districts have issued guidance to educators to clarify the issue. In the Aug. 1 guidance, Orange County Public Schools said a “change in student services” includes newly scheduled mental health counseling and a “change in supervision” includes “follow-up by a teacher or other school personnel after a student discloses personal information to the teacher or other school personnel.”

Joy, a guidance counselor in another district who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears workplace retaliation, says she was told that if a student began scheduling sessions with her, his parents should be notified — a step that was never should not have undertaken before. Once the parent is notified, the parent has the right to either stop the services or be informed of what is being discussed. Previously, she only had to inform parents of the content of their conversations if the child was hurt, would hurt someone else, or would hurt themselves. Now, she says she will have to tell parents what they discuss in her sessions — even if that includes discussing a student’s LGBTQ identity. “The fact that now I can’t even say for sure to my kids, ‘don’t worry, what you say here stays here’ … it sucks,” says Joy.

Michael Woods, a gay high school special education teacher in Palm Beach County, says he interpreted the Palm Beach School District’s guidelines to mean that if a student tells him something about his gender or pronouns, he must notify the child’s parents. “Let me tell you, I was this weird kid,” Woods says. “I didn’t come out until I was 31 because I was scared.” He describes the prospect of having to give up a child to his parents as “devastating”. (The School District of Palm Beach County did not respond to a request for comment.)

Woods says he had hoped to restart the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), but now he’s not sure if he should. What if a child comes out to him and he doesn’t handle the situation properly? He says he worries about opening his school to potential litigation now that parents have the right to sue. “I can tell you there have been a few times where I’ve come home and just cried about it,” he says. “I feel like we’ve made so much progress.”

LGBTQ educators warn the policy could worsen Florida’s teacher shortage — which includes nearly 9,000 open positions. according to the Christian Science Monitor– as queer teachers consider leaving a profession in which they feel ostracized. Losing LGBTQ teachers can be especially devastating for LGBTQ students; Cruz in Polk County says LGBTQ students “usually flock” to her because of her openness about her identity.

“I started education to be the representation I didn’t have growing up,” Cruz says. “I want the students to know that even though all these things in the world are happening, there is a little pocket of safety here for you.”

After her district denied her “safe space” stickers, Cruz says she took matters into her own hands. She got her own stickers and handed them out herself.

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Write to Madeline Carlisle c [email protected].

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