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‘I don’t want to talk to the gay one’: LGBTQ teachers say they are fighting erasure in their own classrooms

<i>Courtesy Daffne Cruz</i><br/>Daffne Cruz said a surge in anti-LGBTQ bills
Courtesy Daffne Cruz
Daffne Cruz said a surge in anti-LGBTQ bills

By Scottie Andrew, CNN

(CNN) — Daffne Cruz has worked at public elementary, middle and high schools in Polk County, Florida, for 10 years. And for all 10 years, she’s never made an effort to downplay or hide her queerness.

A high school assistant principal, Cruz has faced criticism from other school administrators in the county for being an out gay educator. She wears bowties and suspenders to work and proudly displays photos of her wife and their daughter around her office. Some have suggested she conceal her queerness for the sake of her career; she said one county official misgendered her in a forum of her colleagues.

But it wasn’t until this school year that a parent came into her school’s office and said, referring to Cruz, “I don’t want to talk to the gay one.”

Cruz said she was shocked. But the surge in bills that aim to restrict the discussion of pronouns, gender identity and sexuality in classrooms, along with the hateful rhetoric that often accompanies debates of those bills, has “created a culture of audacity, boldness and intolerance” among parents and administrators, Cruz told CNN.

“It’s inviting a lack of respect,” she said.

This year alone, states have introduced more than 220 bills related to gender identity and sexuality in schools, per the ACLU. That list of 13 states that have passed bills this year ranges from Arkansas prohibiting schools from requiring teachers to use a student’s correct pronouns or name without parental consent to Wyoming disallowing trans girls from participating in girls school sports.

Florida’s HB 1557, colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which kickstarted a trend of attempted legislative bans on discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools, was expanded in April to restrict some discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in public classrooms from kindergarten to 12th grade. The original bill, passed last year, was limited to kindergarten through third grade classrooms.

These laws don’t just minimize LGBTQ history or prevent classroom conversations with students about what it means to be queer and trans: LGBTQ educators who spoke to CNN said these bills, regardless of whether they’re passed in one’s home state, start to chip away at their confidence and comfort in a classroom. Knowing their presence in a classroom is a matter of debate can make it even harder to continue their work in a profession already plagued by stagnated pay, concerns about safety and major labor shortages. And while many queer educators are using the attacks as fuel to keep going, the harassment some LGBTQ teachers have faced is driving some of them to leave the field entirely.

Some LGBTQ teachers have been targeted

First grade teacher Jake Daggett is a reliably smiling face among instructors with large Instagram followings. An elementary school instructor in the Milwaukee area, Daggett regularly shares clips of his students enthusiastically performing chants to learn about punctuation marks and suffixes, along with other tips he’s used as a literacy teacher. And though he maintains his optimism in the classroom with his young students, the reality of being a gay teacher in a political climate that’s become increasingly hostile toward LGBTQ people can be much more challenging, even dangerous, he said.

“For us queer teachers right now, it’s almost brave to show up,” he said. “(We) can’t even focus on what we’re teaching because we’re just trying to defend our rights to be in a classroom.”

Last year, after a student gifted Daggett a coffee mug that read “Ask me my pronouns,” the influential anti-LGBTQ account Libs of TikTok found and shared a photo of Daggett posing with the mug, which caused an uproar among some viewers who took issue with Daggett encouraging students not to make assumptions about someone’s gender. He said he received death threats after the story made national headlines.

Daggett, who just completed his seventh year of teaching, still receives hateful messages on a daily basis on his popular Instagram account, where he has 113,000 followers, he said. But it’s “very rare” for parents and others in his school community to be the ones raising concerns, he said.

Discussions of pronouns and family structures – some of his students have two moms, for instance, he said — crop up organically in his classroom, Daggett said. Students might ask him about his weekend and excitedly push him for details about a carnival he and his partner attended. He’s paused lessons after overhearing a student use the term “gay” in a pejorative way, taking time to address the student and their questions about the word. One of his first graders even reprimanded Daggett recently for referring to the titular character in the picture book “The Gruffalo” with male gendered pronouns — “‘Mr. D., we don’t assume!” Daggett said the student reminded him.

None of those discussions are from pre-planned lessons, Daggett said, but they’re still essential ones. Like observing Black History Month with a lesson on Martin Luther King Jr., or reading a book with a character wearing hijab, these brief but meaningful conversations help his students learn what it means to be inclusive. And his students’ families have largely supported him, he said.

“Students come to school, they’re loved, nurtured, held to high expectations,” he said. “I invite families in, I don’t mask who I am, I don’t pretend.”

Serious strides in LGBTQ visibility and representation in media and politics convinced some that “everything’s fine now” in terms of rights and acceptance of LGBTQ people, Daggett said. But it’s “worse than it was.”

“We are losing,” he said.

Last year, after Florida introduced what critics called its “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, several other states followed suit and filed similar bills that affect whether teachers can use pronouns or names students ask them to use.

The last two years have also seen more than half of US states propose legislation that attempts to restrict the rights of trans people, from banning gender-affirming health care for minors or barring students from playing school sports that match their gender, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which tracks anti-LGBTQ legislation.

And this year, some conservative lawmakers have attempted to place restrictions on drag, affecting where and when the artform can be performed and who can view it. (However, in Tennessee, a federal judge this month deemed its anti-drag bill unconstitutional.)

Daggett and Cruz said these bills are a distraction from concerns that teachers have raised for years, including low pay and risks of school violence.

LGBTQ teachers build followings online to share the good and bad

Some LGBTQ teachers have fought efforts to silence them through visibility, turning to TikTok and other social media to reach an audience beyond their classroom.

Selina Peña, a high school English teacher in South Texas, shares lighthearted TikToks from her classroom about the “Gen Z drama” she overhears, how she bounces back when ADHD momentarily robs her focus, and the specific joys and trials of being a queer Latina teacher. In nearly all of them, she wears a lanyard from the Human Rights Campaign that reads, “I proudly support LGBTQ+ youth.”

“Navigating the intersection of multiple identities myself, I am committed to establishing a learning atmosphere that not only accepts but also celebrates diversity in all its forms,” Peña told CNN.

That’s the atmosphere she creates online, too, one that’s amassed her more than 80,000 followers and fans from across the country. Many comment to thank her for her candor or wonder how their high school years could have been different having an out gay teacher like her.

Despite the legislative attacks aimed at queer and trans people, Peña said she wants to continue to do her part to make LGBTQ students at her school and around the US “feel acknowledged, supported, and empowered as they embark on their journey of self-discovery and education.”

Teachers on TikTok is a thorny topic, though, and Cruz said her videos have landed her in trouble with school officials in the past, particularly those in which she discusses Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or the state legislation that impacts queer and trans students. But posting far and wide is a way for her to engage students beyond her small school community – and sound the alarm about concerning developments in her home district, she said.

“Our community is so clouded – there’s a rain cloud over us,” Cruz said. “I want to be beacon of hope in the queer community in whatever capacity that I can.”

LGBTQ teachers find different ways to persevere

Daggett has struggled at times to maintain his optimistic demeanor in the face of near-constant hateful comments on his Instagram account and the general stressors of being a public-school teacher — it’s hard enough, he said, to stay afloat even when anonymous critics aren’t flooding his Instagram with hateful comments.

But he keeps going, he said, because of the relationships he’s formed with his students and their families. Seeing them almost every day makes it easier to tune out the oft-vocal strangers who harass him online.

“I just focus on the people that I’m actually impacting,” he said.

High school English teacher-turned-curriculum creator Brittany Jeltema, who shares inclusive lesson plans through her website “The Superhero Teacher,” recently moved to Florida with her wife and two children. Though she said she’s “naturally terrified” for LGBTQ youth during this time, she said she felt it was her family’s “responsibility to be part of the (LGBTQ) community” in the state and lend her voice to the movement.

But many LGBTQ teachers are finding it difficult to cope, especially when supporters of anti-LGBTQ legislation zero in on them. NBC News reported on two teachers in Florida and Kentucky, respectively, the latter of whom was named Kentucky Teacher of the Year in 2022, who quit their jobs after some parents and community members criticized them for being out gay men and sharing details about their personal lives with students.

Other queer and trans teachers, particularly after Florida passed its “Don’t Say Gay” bill last year, have said they no longer feel supported or mentally healthy enough to continue teaching, according to reporting from CNN affiliate WPTV.

“There are a lot of people that, very rightfully so, don’t keep going (in the profession),” Daggett said. “I fully support that. If you’re to the point where your mental health is being affected, for our low salaries and low level of general respect in society, you have to do what you have to do.”

Daffne Cruz, meanwhile, doesn’t think she’ll return to her post at her Florida high school after finishing this school year. She’s opting instead to partner with Equality Florida and other organizations in her home state that work to advance the rights of LGBTQ Floridians, students and adults alike. She’s watched the queer and trans students she’s advised go on to graduate and embrace their identities more wholly once they leave, but she feels she’d have a greater impact if she starts to work on a statewide level.

“I think that I’ve given everything that I’ve been able to give, starting within the four walls of a classroom,” Cruz said.

Being herself, too, without minimizing any elements of her identity, is perhaps the biggest draw of leaving education. She’s choosing herself, she said, now that she can’t continue to be authentic in the job she loved.

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