Unleashing Hate in Our Schools

Published on June 7, 2022 on The Progressive‘s website. Click here for the original post.

Michael Woods, a special education teacher in Palm Beach County, Florida, remembers how it felt to be bullied as a child, trying to survive day-to-day in school. His career path sprang from a desire to be like the teachers who supported him during that time in his life and cultivated a welcoming environment in the classroom.

Woods wasn’t openly gay until he was thirty-one. At the school where he worked, he told only a few colleagues.

“Even then I thought, you know, what happens if this gets out? Can I get fired?” he says. “Some people are accepting of all people. And some people aren’t. And I didn’t want anything to impact what people thought of me as an awesome teacher.”

“When you create an environment for kids that is truly inclusive, either LGBTQ+ inclusive or gender inclusive, you’re creating an opportunity not just for them to feel safe, but for them to thrive as their authentic selves and knowing that their families are represented.”

In March,  Florida enacted a bill restricting the discussion of certain topics in the state’s public schools. The “Parental Rights in Education Act,” as it is officially named, is better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. And it is part of an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation cropping up around the country that, for Woods, reaffirms the importance of being unabashedly open about his sexual orientation.

“I have this term, it’s called an ‘upstander,’ ” Woods says. “I’m like, ‘You have to be an upstander. You have to start living your life and not be afraid. Because if you don’t, who’s going to do it for you?’ ”

Passed by Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, the law does not take effect until July 1. But already, Woods and others say, it is instilling fear in teachers at all grade levels. For  queer teachers especially, casual conversations that arise with students—such as disclosing innocent weekend activities that just so happen to be with a same-sex partner—are now a potentially fireable offense. Even discussing a child’s LGBTQ+ parents could be in violation of this law.

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Michael Woods, a high school special education teacher, facilitates one week of teaching ninth-grade students about teen dating violence and consent every year.Each grade has itsown curriculum.

The bill is vaguely written, giving legislators arbitrary power and leaving teachers in the dark on what the law prohibits. It bans classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, adding that it “is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” to discuss these matters, creating potential impacts for classrooms with older students.

“The law is clearly designed to have a chilling effect,” says Sean Cahill, a political scientist and the director of health policy research at the Fenway Institute, an organization committed to LGBTQ+ health. “It’s [meant] to make it so that teachers and school staff will not want to go near these issues with a ten-foot pole.”

Outside of teaching, Woods has previously served as a sponsor for his school’s Genders & Sexualities Alliance (formerly Gay-Straight Alliance). GSA clubs are student-run organizations that serve as a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth and their allies. As a sponsor, Woods has talked a lot about intent versus impact. He applies that framework to the Florida law.

“The intent, according to the governor and legislature, is to protect students by handing over more parental rights,” Woods says. “But the impact is far-reaching. Because it’s so vague, nobody really understands what it is.”

When DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law, a poster emboldened with the slogan “Protect Students, Support Parents” was plastered on the lectern. DeSantis decried “individual schools [who] decide it’s OK to sexualize the education of very young children,” after listing a series of teacher- student interactions that involved students discussing their identities. “So in Florida, we will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.”

But, of course, as Woods points out, teachers aren’t “indoctrinating” students: Trying to create a safe space for queer students, or students who are questioning their identities, does not equate to pedophilia or grooming, as conservatives allege. In fact, sharing intimate details of one’s personal life is not a regular topic of classroom discussion. “I’m trying to get my kids to understand how magnetism works and how electrical currents work,” Woods says. “It’s disingenuous when people say teachers are having these conversations.”

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Once the bill takes effect, parents will be able to sue school districts over alleged violations, with the school districts having to pick up the cost.

The bill also affects students’ access to mental health care. School staff will be required to notify parents if a student is receiving “services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being,” absent a substantial risk of parental “abuse, abandonment, or neglect.” Moreover, at the beginning of the school year, parents will have the option of denying any health care services on behalf of their child.

In a 2021 national survey, the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth, found that nearly half of LGBTQ+ youth surveyed said they wanted counseling from a mental health professional during the prior year but did not receive it. The bill hands over so much parental control that teachers are at a loss as to what to do when a situation arises where a child in crisis reaches out for help.

Nadine Smith, the executive director of Equality Florida—an advocacy organization that has played a large role in opposing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—talks about how it can negatively affect the role that teachers play. “The teacher has an obligation to ensure that that classroom is a welcoming place for all those kids,” Smith says. “This bill makes good teachers self-conscious about intervening in ways that are not only appropriate, but ethically the right thing to do.”

Cheryl Greene, the director of the Welcoming Schools program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, stresses the importance of creating safe and inclusive school environments. “When you create an environment for kids that is truly inclusive, either LGBTQ+ inclusive or gender inclusive, you’re creating an opportunity not just for them to feel safe, but for them to thrive as their authentic selves and knowing that their families are represented.”

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Cheryl Greene, director of the Welcoming Schools program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

Cheryl Greene, director of the Welcoming Schools program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

The bill focuses on the classroom because it’s easy terrain to cover. But what legislators can’t control are the spaces where children interact with one another.

“So kids hear the word ‘gay’ on the playground,” Cahill says. “And it’s often used as an insult. The passage of this law in Florida doesn’t mean that children will never hear these terms. It just means that they will never hear them used in a neutral or positive manner. They’re going to be [heard] in a negative way exclusively, as a result of this law.”

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, a statewide labor union for teachers, explains the uncertainty that teachers face.

“You could have a parent who does not have all the information of a situation who reports a teacher or decides to sue the school, or reports to the Department of Education, or whatever it might be. And because [the bill] is so vague, who knows where any of that is going to go, how that’s going to be handled.”

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The law could very well have a negative effect on Florida’s ability to recruit and retain teachers. Already, the state has more than 4,200 teacher and more than 5,000 support staff vacancies, with the Florida Department of Education projecting 9,000 teacher vacancies by the end of the year. And other states are trying to recruit people from Florida to teach at their schools, where the word “gay” doesn’t cause a riot.

Spar’s child, who’s in the seventh grade, hasn’t had a science teacher the entire school year. “What we should be talking about is what we are doing to make sure that every child is getting the education they deserve, which they cannot get if they do not have teachers and staff in our schools,” he says.

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Rochell Guerra poses with fifth-grade students at an elementary school in Charleston, South Carolina.

When anti-trans sentiments took over Texas, teacher Rochell Guerra was in the midst of starting a GSA support group at her middle school in the city of Round Rock. She became worried about how it would work. At her previous job at a conservative elementary school, Guerra says a fifth grader came out to her as trans and there was no protocol in place for this situation; everything was “hush-hush.” At her new school, things are vastly different.

The student, she says, “was so uncomfortable discussing it with their parents and with the other teachers. Even when they did ask to be called by a different name, they were still dead-named the whole time. Whereas here, if a kid wants to be called a different name, they make changes in the system.”

The very existence of laws to restrict the discussion of sexuality and gender identity in schools communicates to students that being queer or having queer parents or family members and talking about it is inappropriate. But identity is not sexually explicit material, and gender and sexual orientation are much more embedded and nuanced than Republican legislators will admit.

Stephanie Jones, a professor of education at the University of Georgia, began her career teaching first and second grade. Her research is done through a feminist lens, allowing her to understand that gender identity and sexuality have always been part of discourse in the classroom, even at young ages. Sexuality is projected onto students all the time, she notes, in questions like “Oh, is that your boyfriend?” and “Are you flirting with her?” But because they are heteronormative conversations, they are overlooked.

“Gender identity and sexuality are always a part of children’s lives inside schools,” Jones says. “And there is no way to get around that. This [bill] is more about silencing people who don’t fit into the cisgender heteronormativity expected by some people.”

Jones notes that cisgender, heterosexual teachers have always been open about their personal lives without issue, while queerness has always been stigmatized. “How impossible must it feel when the children ask about who you live with, or how you spend your time at home, and then you are afraid to say the truth?”

Mason Cardwell—a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Georgia’s master’s of education program and long-term elementary school substitute teacher who is queer, nonbinary, and uses they/them pronouns—strongly believes in being themself in the classroom and choosing to be open with their own kids.

“It’s really important, especially with younger students, to be open with who you are as an educator,” Cardwell says. “So they can see that there are queer people in their lives and in positions of trust, and that it doesn’t affect how you teach them, it doesn’t affect how they learn. It just can make them more comfortable because students begin to know who they are very early, and it does them a disservice to hide those aspects of yourself.”

Greene’s Welcoming Schools program was originally exclusive to elementary schools but recently extended into secondary education. Greene, before becoming the director of Welcoming Schools, was a middle-school teacher for twenty-five years. It wasn’t until the last half of her career that she was open about her queer sexuality. Greene, who taught physical education and health, knew the perception of a queer woman being in the locker room with students, and that made it difficult.

“[Showing them] that there are educators that are LGBTQ+—we have families, we are teachers, we are lawyers—is so important,” Greene says. “It was important to have a picture of my wife and me on my desk, having pictures of my kids, to be role models for students.”

Conservatives have overtly demonized social justice standards in the classroom. However, this is the kind of stuff that is the lifeblood of progress toward a fair and just school system.

Melanie Willingham-Jaggers is the executive director of GLSEN, formerly the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network, which conducts a national school climate survey every two years and organizes an annual “Day of Silence” to protest the social stigma that LGBTQ+ students face—as relevant as ever in a time when talking about queer identity in schools is not just taboo, but can be illegal. She believes that what’s forbidden in the classroom is just as important as what is taught.

“When students are denied the opportunity to learn about LGBTQ+ history and identities,” Willingham-Jaggers says, “it deprives not only LGBTQ+ kids, but all students, of a comprehensive education that prepares them to engage in the diverse world around us.”

Guerra often tells her students that she understands her job is to teach specific academic content and also to teach them how to be good people, which involves teaching kindness and awareness. “The biggest thing that we see with homophobia is ignorance,” she says. “Just a lack of knowledge about sexuality as a whole.”

In the foreword to Queering Elementary Education, a provocative anthology of essays that proposes a revision of heteronormative pedagogy in elementary classrooms, Kevin Jennings observes a devastating failure.

“We do little to teach the values of equality and justice. We simply fail to set any kind of expectation at all that these young people must respect each other, even (especially?) when the differences among them are vast and profound,” he writes. “Nowhere is this failure more evident than when it comes to anti-gay prejudice, and nowhere is that particular failure more manifest than it is in our elementary schools.”

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