LGBTQ teachers open up as their schools -- and identities -- become next front in the culture war
Supporters of new bans hope to "redraw" boundaries between school and home.
The last year should have been a great one for former English and French teacher Willie Carver Jr. After about a decade in the classroom, he was named the best educator in Kentucky in September 2021 -- but at the same time, he said, a small but vocal minority in his rural town in Montgomery County went after him.
Carver, who is gay, told ABC News that he was singled out for actually protecting LGBTQ kids in his school and their families, which made him a target.
He said that earlier this year, a community member who was posting about him on social media also repeatedly went to county school board meetings to report predation and so-called child "grooming" -- a term that has become popular in conservative circles for allegations of adults sexually manipulating kids.
Carver said this person, who had not named him at the board meetings but repeatedly referenced him by name online, also "doxxed" him and some of his students on Facebook by sharing their private information.
When, according to Carver, he and some students' parents asked Montgomery County Superintendent Dr. Matt Thompson to step in, Thompson instead said that directly addressing every social media post in question was "not feasible."
"I've never felt more pushback … I've never seen conservatism so hell-bent on harming the rights of LGBTQ people and students," said Carver, who left his job at Montgomery County High for a non-teaching position at the University of Kentucky.
Thompson did not respond directly to Carver's account when asked for comment by ABC News and sent a summary of his recollection. But the superintendent said in a statement: "Mr. Carver is a wonderful English and French teacher. We wish him well in his new endeavor."
According to PEN America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to free expression, more than 190 "educational gag orders" -- or bills designed to limit academic and educational speech or discussions -- have been introduced in at least 41 states since 2021.
PEN says that more than 300 other bills targeting what they call LGBTQ-affirming practices in schools have also been introduced during that time.
"From the perspective of overall threat to public education, anti-LGBTQ+ bills are most common, followed by bills on race and then transparency bills," Jeremy Young, PEN America's senior manager of free expression and education, told ABC.
The policy changes have been fueled both by remote learning during COVID-19, giving families greater insight into what goes on in classes; and, separately, by conservative groups' focus on what they say are inappropriate topics being spread by teachers -- on LGBTQ identity, on racism and more – which, they say, requires a response.
Nearly 30 of the "gag orders" that PEN tracked deal with LGBTQ topics. Some orders could ban public K-12 schools from including certain ideas related to race or sex in their curricula. The most noteworthy is Florida's Parental Rights in Education law, barring discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade or in older grades where it would not be "age-appropriate" or "developmentally appropriate."
Many critics labeled it the "Don't Say Gay" bill. It was one of more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills proposed in 2022, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
That "pushback" Willie Carver felt in Kentucky, as he called it, has had a chilling effect on teachers like him in other parts of the country.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill -- which doesn't specifically use the word "gay," though it broadly restricts talk of sexuality and gender -- into law earlier this year in response to "woke gender ideology." In his "Education Agenda Tour" in advance of the Aug. 23 primary, DeSantis, a Republican, contended the classroom was on the frontlines in a larger culture war and said it was "wrong to inject things like sexuality and transgenderism into the classroom."
"We need to be teaching them to read or write, to add, to subtract," he said -- adding that "the purpose of our schools is to educate kids not to indoctrinate them."
But for Carver and others critical of such changes, the new laws cannot help but feel more like a personal attack.
"There's this systematic targeting of the topic of LGBTQ people, just like they're having a systematic targeting of the topic of experiences of different racial and ethnic groups," American Civil Liberties Union attorney Josh Block told ABC.
"Focusing the attack on public schools is trying to keep people from being exposed to ideas or experiences that whoever's in power doesn't approve of," Block said.
'The message that this is … shameful'
Florida educators like Jonathan Kryk say they are frustrated that the LGBTQ discussion bill was signed into law over what he describes as more pressing concerns for most U.S. teachers.
"This is the exact opposite of what we need," Kryk, a gay fifth-grade teacher outside of Tampa, told ABC News. "What teachers have been asking for has been an increase in pay, better safety protocols in our schools to avoid mass shootings, better insurance benefits, lower class sizes," he added. "You know -- things that actually help."
Before its signage, the Parental Rights in Education bill's original sponsor Joe Harding, a Republican state representative, told ABC affiliate WPLG that he felt the legislation was necessary because there were stories that instruction mentioning sexual orientation and gender identity was already in existence.
"You don't have to go very far -- just start listening to local school board meetings in counties like Palm Beach ... where they had an issue with this," Harding told WPLG.
As the law is now being implemented, it has left some districts in the lurch.
Earlier this month, the deputy superintendent of Palm Beach County, Edward Tierney, said they would be in "full compliance" with the new legislation but insisted that all students would be "educated in a warm, caring and supportive environment."
The pattern of these education proposals is influencing LGBTQ teachers beyond Florida. Queer Utah educator Angelica Jones told ABC that she was torn about returning to her American Sign Language classroom because she said that the legislation was setting a bad precedent.
Jones' room was decorated with a cacophony of rainbows and a progress pride flag -- but now she fears that the trend of restrictions could make classrooms feel unsafe for students.
She said it is an "every day, every minute" battle whether she wants to return to education in this climate, amid a nationwide teacher shortage.
She ultimately left Corner Canyon High School last January due to a difference in values with her school district, which she says pulled some LGBTQ-themed books from its libraries. (The school district did not respond to a request for comment from ABC.)
"It really is sending the message that this is something that is shameful, this is something that needs to be hidden -- this is not something that is for regular society to be shown and to be talked about," Jones said.
The term "discussion" in the Florida law about sexuality and gender in classrooms is also troubling teachers because they believe the word is too vague and could mean muting a variety of conversations. Before the bill was passed, some Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to make it more specific -- restricting instruction on sexual activity rather than orientation, for example.
Even though many who spoke with ABC News said they are disappointed in the law's lack of clarity, some gay teachers don't see an issue with it.
Washington, D.C.'s Boswain Shaw said he supports how, in his view, the policies draw a clear line for children.
"The bill might be beneficial -- similar to the separation of church and state," he told ABC News. "There's a time and place for everything. This is not the time and the place for it."
Florida's law, Shaw said, has the potential to streamline what kids are learning at school. But according to Block, the civil rights attorney, constricting students' scope of knowledge on any topic is contrary to the goals of education.
Block feels recognizing LGBTQ experiences is vital in making them feel comfortable in society.
"That is the driver of equality and progress," he said. "I think the biggest driver of change for LGBTQ people has been people coming out of the closet, people being more visible and straight or cis people realizing that LGBTQ people are their friends, neighbors, families and coworkers."
LGBTQ books another source of conflict
Removing books is also a part of the movement to control content in grade schools. Ban advocates say parents have the right to oversee their kids' instruction and that raising gender and sexuality are tantamount to proselytizing to students over their families' wishes.
Tiffany Justice is a former Indian River County, Florida, School Board member and the co-founder of Moms for Liberty, which has almost 100,000 members across the country. The group believes that parents are the best experts on their children and advocates for parents to be involved with every decision being made for their kids in schools.
"We're talking about public education, libraries, public school libraries, we're not talking about ... Barnes & Noble or Amazon or anywhere else," Justice told ABC News. "If parents would like their children to be exposed to all different types of books, there are lots of ways to get access to them."
PEN America tracked more than 1,100 unique book titles by more than 800 authors that were banned in schools over a nine-month period (from July 2021 to March 2022). In a report, PEN found roughly a third of the books explicitly address LGBTQ themes or include LGBTQ protagonists.
Maulik Pancholy is one such LGBTQ author fighting to keep his books in classrooms and on library shelves. Pancholy's Stonewall Honor-winning novel "The Best at It" follows 12-year-old Rahul Kapoor, who is not only figuring out his cultural identity as an Indian-American but is also just beginning to realize that he might be gay. But "The Best at It" was pulled in some districts across Florida and Texas, according to EveryLibrary, a political action committee for libraries that opposes such restrictions.
"This kind of censorship sends a message to kids that -- if they identify with this book -- then there is something wrong with them," Pancholy said in a statement to ABC News. "I know firsthand how damaging that is. It's an attempt to literally erase a human being's existence from the world."
However, Justice hopes to "redraw" the boundaries between school and home. She says one of her priorities is children's illiteracy, which she calls the biggest threat to national security, and she says she supports efforts to improve reading scores and combat pandemic learning loss.
But she believes exposure to various social concepts goes beyond good education.
"If we did nothing else by the end of third grade, can we teach the kids to read?" she told ABC, adding: "What's happening now is that children aren't really taught to be literate -- they're taught to be politically literate, or racially literate, or divided in some way based on another person's worldview. But they're not being given the tools and skills they need to be successful independently in life."
Metro Detroit humanities teacher Patrick Harris II believes censoring stories and experiences is based on fear and is harmful for the next generation.
"To take away those stories for them -- folks who really need them, folks who want to and deserve to see themselves -- is a crime to me," he said.
Harris II released a memoir, "The First Five: A Love Letter to Teachers," earlier this year. He is an award-winning teacher and author who finds himself caught in the middle of the heated book debates. Harris II dedicates an entire chapter in his book to his own "queer identity."
"I have developed a queer studies elective for middle schoolers [and] I talk about my experiences as a queer kid growing up and how that impacts the way that I show up in the classroom," Harris II said. "My book could be a part of this roundup of, you know, book banning, once folks continue to read it and spread it and find out about what's in it. Does that make me scared? Absolutely not. I'll continue to be myself and I'll continue to speak the truth and write what I think is necessary."
But he worries about the impact that censorship may have in other areas moving forward.
"Books are just the beginning," he said. "It may be books now and we're seeing right now, you know, banning trans kids from sports is on the docket, that has happened in several states. And so what's next: gay marriage? It never stops at just one thing. We're seeing a real dissonance between America's values and in their actions."
ABC News' Kiara Alfonseca contributed to this report.
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