Philly kindergarten teacher: Florida’s ‘don’t say gay’ legislation has me terrified | Opinion
What happens in Florida or Texas has major impacts on what happens in my classroom in Philadelphia.
I am married to a man who grew up Black and gay in Florida. He has told me horror stories about what it was like. I know that in this experience, he is not alone. As a teacher, I’ve seen countless kids who have to endure a constant debate over who they are as people.
On Tuesday, the Florida Senate voted to pass the controversial Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents. The measure states that any kindergarten to third-grade teacher in Florida will be criminally liable for mentioning sexuality or gender that is not cisgender or heterosexual. The bill is supported by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. It’s likely he will sign the bill into law and the terms will go into effect in July.
Proponents of this bill say it is meant to give parents consent over what their young children are exposed to in schools. They believe that children ages 5 to 9 are incapable of understanding the concept of being LGBTQ+ and that such discussions are “inappropriate” for kids in that age range.
As an early child educator and as a gay man, I know this is ludicrous.
I knew I was gay at 4 years old, even if I did not yet fully understand or have a name for what I was feeling at the time. Additionally, there are now, and there always have been, kids raised in LGBTQ+ households. Are those kids not allowed to see themselves in their education? Are those kids not allowed to feel safe and free to ask questions and discuss internal feelings with a trusted teacher?
With legislation like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the answer appears to be a resounding “no.” This frightens and angers me.
I am also exhausted. I teach kindergarten in Philly. Last week, I read my students a book called Summer Sun’ Risin’. In it, a little boy is shown with his parents: his mother and his father, a man and a woman. I have not had to solicit a single word of permission from anybody, not even my students’ parents, to read that book aloud. Anything regarding sexuality, gender, love, and marriage — even childhood crushes — is just fine as long as it is heteronormative. But if I worked in Florida under this new legislation and that book had any mention of two dads or two moms, I would have to send out permission slips and maybe get approval from my principal to read it to my students. This kind of homo-antagonistic policy is just plain wrong.
What is scariest to me is that this could happen anywhere in the nation. What happens in Florida or Texas has major impacts on what happens in my classroom in Philadelphia. Just look at what we’ve seen over the last year as the debate over so-called critical race theory has become a flash point at school board meetings and in state legislatures. In the last year, Pennsylvania has seen an uptick in book banning and the removal of Pride flags.
These measures are attacks on the most vulnerable of our students. Kids, especially Black and LGBTQ+ kids, will be unrepresented and ignored, suffering because of adults who have nothing to prove other than how loud their bigotry is.
Students deserve any adult who is willing and able to help them experience the world on their own. My husband teaches high school music and constantly tells me how being one of two gay teachers at his school — and the only Black and gay male teacher — has given some students a model of what it looks like to be LGBTQ+ as they explore their own identities. This should be the norm across all grade levels. A student shouldn’t have to wait until high school to find role models. They deserve to see their life experiences reflected in their education from the very beginning.
“Kids, especially Black and LGBTQ+ kids, will be unrepresented and ignored because of adults who have nothing to prove other than how loud their bigotry is.”
As exhausting as this fight for equality is, I am comforted by those who continue to speak out against the loud and irrational voices of hate. The Florida students who have staged walkouts across the state give me a glimmer of hope for a future better than this — one where egalitarian, white, hetero-, and cis-normative leaders like DeSantis and Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas will be relics of the past. I believe there will be a time when laws like “Don’t Say Gay” do not even enter public discourse.
The work continues until the day when LGBTQ+ identities are seen as worthy of discussion in our schools and everywhere else, so that people like my husband and I don’t grow up with horror stories about school.
Eric T. Turner Jr. is a Temple University alum, a writer, and an urban elementary educator living in South Philadelphia.