DC teachers, students react to wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation amid Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’
‘I think of my prospective classroom as one that’s a safe space for all my students,’ education majors say
Opponents call it “Don’t Say Gay.” Supporters call it the “Parental Rights in Education” bill. Following nationwide outcry over Florida’s House Bill 1557, D.C. teachers and students are advocating for queer youth by opposing the legislation.
The bill, which says that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3,” has been criticized for its ambiguity and imposition on student identity.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill Monday. DeSantis said in a press conference that telling young kids that they can “be whatever they want to be” is “inappropriate,” according to NPR.
Other “copycat” bills are cropping up in additional states.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott asked the general public to report the parents of transgender minors seeking gender-affirming medical care to state authorities. His address followed an opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton concluding that transition care is child abuse under Texas law.
Florida’s bill also mandates parental notification for students who seek mental, emotional or physical health services, many of whom may be seeking that care for gender and sexuality issues as well as a host of mental health concerns.
Phoebe Kiekhofer, a teacher at Brightwood Elementary School in D.C., called the legislation “appalling.” According to Kiekhofer, her classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity is limited to talking about pride month and using proper pronouns in context.
“I would imagine that for LGBT adolescents in schools in D.C. who are hearing about this, I'm sure that there's like a lot of secondhand trauma happening for queer kids,” Kiekhofer said. “Even outside of Texas, Florida and Georgia, because they're seeing this state-sanctioned violence against their peers in other states who probably live similar lives to them.”
Kiekhofer said that as a mandated reporter she would feel uncomfortable having to disclose students’ struggles with sexuality and gender to parents who may not be supportive.
“If I were an educator in Florida, I could lose my job for not outing a student,” Kiekhofer said. “It completely puts teachers in a really f----- up place, and I can tell you that if I were in that position, I would rather risk losing my job than put one of my children in danger.”
For Ty Kitchen, a community engagement and youth leadership manager at advocacy organization SMYAL, this legislation means there is a greater need to maintain community connections for queer youth.
Kitchen runs the “Little SMYALs” program, which is a social interaction space for young LGBTQ+ people ages 6-12. Kitchen’s program mostly serves youth in D.C., but virtual programming during the pandemic has meant they reach students in states like Florida as well.
“Across the board whether you're in Florida or not, it really hits home as it's just another person, another government telling you that who you are is wrong or inappropriate,” Kitchen said. “And so, even if you're not physically in Florida, it's really impacting a lot of mental health, it's increasing anxiety and just making people feel like that there's just that many more people who think who we are and how we live our lives is wrong and bad and inappropriate.”
“Don’t Say Gay” conversation makes its way to higher education
Conversations centering LGBTQ+ student experiences amid “Don’t Say Gay” even occur at a collegiate level. American University School of Education professor Amaarah DeCuir teaches a course that focuses on the experiences of marginalized students in school. DeCuir dedicated an entire class period to recent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, teaching the term “queer erasure” and asking LGBTQ+ students to describe their experiences at school.
“More than just internalized invisibility, more than just a broader sociological context of homophobia, what [students are] experiencing now is erasure,” DeCuir said. “So when I named these experiences as queer erasure, I would say that there were students in the class who felt that their experiences were seen and validated.”
For future educators currently attending AU, the bill represents a threat to children across the country and to the safe spaces they envision their classrooms will be. Josiah Carolina, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and the College of Arts and Sciences, is the president of the AU chapter of Students for the Advancement of Antiracist and Antibias Education.
“I think of my prospective classroom as one that’s a safe space for all my students,” Carolina said. “No matter where they come from, what they look like, what they feel on the inside, what they want to show on the outside.”
Tim Manugian, a junior in SPA and an aspiring history teacher, said that the shift towards more complex, inclusive narratives in history only really began in the last decade. These bills are a pushback against that shift, Manugian said.
Both Carolina and Manugian said that representation is vital to education and students' well-being in schools.
“You’re not going to make students not gay by making them not talk about it,” Manugian said. “We’re just going to make them uncomfortable with being in school, and they’ll divest from their education. They won’t care about your school, and they won't care about their education because it’s not a safe space for them.”