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LGBTQ Teachers Struggle to Navigate Florida’s So-Called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law

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Daffne Cruz, an assistant principal in Polk County, Florida, says last year her district gave her LGBTQ-inclusive “safe space” stickers to distribute throughout the school. This year, when Cruz, who is queer, asked for more stickers to pass 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—called the “Parental Rights in Education” statute by lawmakers and dubbed the Don’t Say Gay law by critics—that banned public school districts from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade, or “in a manner that is not age-appropriate 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 one classroom is a safer space than another” and “only certain groups are supported/protected.” “All of our schools and classrooms are safe spaces,” the statement reads.

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HB 1557 is at the epicenter of a raging debate over what should be taught to children in America’s public school systems. Debates over teaching the nation’s history of systemic racism have roiled school districts and elections, and a now growing number of states are considering limiting classroom instruction about LGBTQ issues as well. The raft of laws being introduced and passed around the country include bans like Florida’s on LGBTQ instruction in certain grade levels, but also some broader censorship of books that include LGBTQ themes or the teaching of controversial topics. Defenders of these policies largely say they give parents more power over what their kids learn and ensure they’re engaging with appropriate materials. But critics argue they’re responding to a problem that doesn’t exist and could negatively impact the mental health of LGBTQ youth.

How the law’s implementation plays out in Florida could be a bellwether for other states, as conservative lawmakers propose similar legislation elsewhere. Florida’s HB 1557, which was passed in March and went into effect in July, bans LGBTQ classroom instruction in kindergarten through third grade. Alabama passed its own version in April, banning classroom instruction or discussion on LGBTQ issues in grades K-5 in “a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate” according to state standards. In Texas, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said in April that he would prioritize passing legislation similar to Florida’s in the state’s 2023 legislative session, according to the Texas Tribune. PEN America, a non-profit organization that advocates for free expression, tracked 22 other bills that would explicitly restrict educational speech on LGBTQ issues that were introduced into state legislatures this year.

Going into the new school year, LGBTQ educators in Florida describe widespread confusion over how much they need to 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 over 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 rates of stigmatization and isolation—could face worsening mental health concerns. (Florida’s Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment on 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 application among school districts and how far the implications of the law extend into other grades and classroom environments.

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

But critics argue it’s unnecessary. Cory Bernaert, 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 my colleague 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 staff in Orange County, Florida, said they were told that K-3 teachers could not display pride flags or photos of same-sex partners, according to the Associated Press. But Clinton McCracken, president of Orange County’s Teachers Union, tells TIME that the district has since clarified that pride flags, photos of LGBTQ families, and “safe space” stickers are allowed to remain. (Orange County’s 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 the implementation of the new law.)

Bernaert, who works in a different school district, says he has continued to have a photo of him and his partner outside his classroom door and has received no instruction from his school to remove it. (His district, Manatee County, declined to comment.)

“The fact that someone has to say to these teachers that you can have a picture of your spouse on your desk, shows the environment they’re having to work in,” says McCracken, who is gay. “While the words might say one is safe to have a picture, or a rainbow button, the environment you’re showing up in to work doesn’t feel safe.”

Parents’ rights

One of the most fraught questions Florida teachers face is whether they are required to notify a parent if a student comes out 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 monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.” The law also allows parents to access any of their child’s health or educational records used by the school district.

Teachers have expressed confusion about what this means, and some districts have issued guidance for educators to clarify the issue. In August 1 guidance, Orange County public schools stated that “a change in student services” includes newly scheduled mental health counseling, and a “change in monitoring” includes “follow up by the teacher or other school personnel after the student discloses personal information to the teacher or other school personnel.”

Joy, a guidance counselor in another district who requested anonymity because she fears retaliation at work, says she’s been told that if a student starts scheduling sessions with her, their parents have to be notified—a step she’s never had to take before. Once the parent is notified, they then have the right to either stop the services or be informed about what is being discussed. Previously, she only had to inform the parents about the contents of their conversations if the child was being hurt, was going to hurt someone else, or was going to hurt themselves. Now, she says she’ll have to tell parents about what they discuss in her sessions—even if it includes discussion of a student’s LGBTQ identity. “The fact that now I can’t even for sure tell my kids, ‘don’t worry, what you say in here stays in here’… that sucks,” says Joy.

Michael Woods, a gay high school special education teacher in Palm Beach County, says he interpreted Palm Beach’s school district’s guidance to mean that if a student tells him something about their gender or pronouns, he must notify the kid’s parents. “Let me tell you, I was that queer kid,” Woods says. “I did not come out until 31 because I was afraid.” He describes the possibility of having to out a child to their parents as “devastating.” (Palm Beach County School District 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 is unsure 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 up to potential litigation now that parents have a right to sue. “I can tell you, there’ve been a few times that I’ve gone home and just cried over it,” he says. “I feel we had made so much progress.”

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

“I got into 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 going on, here’s a little pocket of safeness for you.”

After her district denied her the “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 Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com