Growing up in suburban Ohio, some of my only allies were teachers. Like a lot of queer people born in the 1980s, I recall school as a hellscape, full of loud bigotry and frequent physical assault. Teachers took time for me. They gave me reasons to believe in myself and my future, when all my classmates gave me were reasons to despair. I also took classes from bullies and bigots. I knew which members of the school administration were prone to muttering homophobic slurs in the hallways. Still, the good teachers mattered. They may have saved my life.
The U.S.’s current culture wars have focused, with monomaniacal fervour, on schools: Laws against teaching critical race theory. Laws against letting trans students use the correct bathrooms or play on the right sports teams. Laws requiring teachers to out their queer or trans students to potentially hostile parents. Laws against saying gay. These laws are undeniably meant to harm queer and trans students. But what happens to the good teachers, when they are prohibited from giving students the support they need?
The answer is that they stop teaching. According to two Florida-based teachers I spoke to, these attacks aren’t just making a hard job harder. They’re actively pushing teachers to quit.
“I’m tired. And I want to move on,” says Merritt (not her real name), a teacher at a specialized art and design high school in south Florida.
Merritt has been teaching for 25 years—and, for the past several, she’s been opening every new class by asking students for their preferred names and pronouns. Six years ago, she had her first openly non-binary student, and had to familiarize herself with singular “they” pronouns.
“I could not wrap my head around it not being plural until one day they explained how language evolves and even Shakespeare transformed the language of his day. I certainly couldn’t argue with that,” Merritt wrote in an email. “I think my asking questions and needing clarification from kids was a real opening for them to feel at ease with me. I was open and needed educating, and nothing pleases a kid more than to know more than me!”
Merritt has become a trusted figure with the queer students in her school. Several have come out to her—and some are out in her classroom when they can’t be out elsewhere. Along with asking for pronouns and names, Merritt makes it a point to ask students which terms are safe to use with their parents, and does not out students to unsupportive parents, which experts say could potentially become illegal under Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Allowing students to be safely out isn’t just a nice thing to do, Merritt says—it boosts their academic achievement by removing a painful distraction.
“There are many kids who are not safe at home. I saw the biggest impact with virtual learning on them,” she says. “A lot of them were non-functional because their deadnames were staring them in their faces on Zoom screens.”
This is anecdotal evidence, but it lines up with expert guidance.
“It has always been true as long as we’ve been looking at this, that negative events in schools, [anti]-LGBTQ2S+ language and harassment and assault, all have negative effects on LGBTQ2S+ student achievement,” says Dr. Joe Kosciw, head researcher for GLSEN’s School Climate Survey, which measures the experience of LGBTQ2S+ middle and high school students in the U.S. In a phone interview, Kocsiw told me that these factors can reasonably be predicted to affect students’ willingness (or even ability) to graduate high school, enter college and take decent-paying jobs later in life.
Making kids miserable at school limits their choices in adulthood. No shock there. What is surprising, though, is how little it takes to make a difference. Kosciw says that even if a student is experiencing anti-LGBTQ2S+ discrimination and bullying, receiving support can bring them back on track. “Knowing that there’s a GSA or having a teacher that [they] can talk to can offset the negative effects.”
That support is precisely what laws like “Don’t Say Gay” are calculated to remove—directing queer kids back toward a domino chain of worse mental health, worse grades and worse adult lives than their straight and cis counterparts. It’s a cruel but effective system that marginalizes queer and trans people almost from birth. After all, if you ruin someone’s life when she’s 13, odds are she won’t have the power to make trouble for you later on.
As for Merritt, she intends to keep doing what works—which is supporting queer students. Being one year from retirement, she explains, there’s not much anyone can do to stop her.
“When that bill passed in Florida I put a sign up in my room that said ‘It’s safe to say gay in here,’” Merritt says. “Even if I really piss someone off I’ll be done before they can get rid of me.” Still, this is an experienced and beloved teacher, leaving under conditions of burnout and disillusionment. Queer students lose someone willing to stick up for them, and the newer teachers who take her place are legally barred from providing support.
“Teachers aren’t pushovers,” Merritt says. “But we also know when we’re shouting into the void. We all know the politics of the day is to kill public education. So I think older vet teachers like me are more likely to pack up all our toys and go home.” The question, she says, is what happens when they’ve left. Or, as Merritt puts it: “Who’s left to die on that hill?”
Susannah (whose name has also been changed to protect her privacy), a teacher at a public Florida high school, is pretty sure that some of her students know she’s trans. Others might suspect she’s gay. In the handful of years she’s been teaching, she hasn’t told anyone at work about her identity—and now she can’t tell them, for fear of losing her job.
It’s normal for teachers to be semi-closeted in Florida, Susannah explains, even if they (like her) are open in most other areas of their life. “‘Openly gay’ in Florida means a woman who teaches gym and keeps her hair short and everyone just understands she’ll be bringing her ‘roommate’ to work functions,” she told me in an email. “Sex and sexuality is a verboten topic; the culture here is to not bring it up unless you’re cis and straight.”
Still, for trans teachers, secrecy can be even more urgent. Susannah tells me that every trans teacher she knows is closeted, and always for the same reason: “Parents. Kids don’t care about being queer. They like to make jokes about whatever is funny on the internet, and you get some detritus blown in from right wing media spaces, but the kids don’t really have the hate behind it … but about two percent of parents do care. It’s a vanishingly small minority. But they rattle the cages of admin constantly.”
In the current landscape, Susannah tells me, teachers already spend much of their time and energy figuring out how to dodge enraged conservative parents. If a parent finds a bone to pick with the mandatory reading list, for instance, “they scream not at my boss, but my boss’s boss, and shit rolls downhill in education. Everything is about keeping parents out of your hair.” As the culture wars escalate, the consequences of these battles get more dangerous: “If LibsofTikTok decides to mention you on their Twitter hate feed, there will be armed Nazi goons outside your school shortly afterward.”
Thus, Susannah says, school administrations increasingly default to minimizing risk rather than educating their students. Current anti-LGBTQ2S+ and anti-CRT legislation makes doing the right thing even harder. According to teacher training documents provided to Xtra, Florida legislation has created a maze of legal difficulties and trap doors in which teachers are never precisely forbidden to say certain things, but are always at risk of being sued if someone decides they’ve said too much.
The handout on the HB-1557—the official designation of the law informally known as “Don’t Say Gay”—tells teachers that they “would most likely not be prohibited” from doing things like “referring to yourself or your spouse as you prefer” or “placing a photo of your family on your desk,” but may only do so “so long as these did not lead into actual teaching of the topics.” (Italics are in the original.) If a parent suspects their child has been taught about sexual orientation or gender identity at a so-called “age-inappropriate” level, they are permitted to sue the school, and the teacher can be disciplined. Three guesses as to whose family photo is most likely to be accused of teaching students about sexual orientation.
Similarly, the handout on Florida’s anti-CRT law (HB-7, or “Stop WOKE”) states that students can and must be taught about “the vital contributions of African Americans to build and strengthen society” (again, emphasis in the original). They can be told that slavery happened. Yet teachers are forbidden to teach students that some identities are inherently privileged over others. The handout takes care to note that, although early discussion of the bill centred on race, it actually bans teaching about most forms of structural discrimination: “So, for example, just as a teacher could not espouse the concept that a white person is inherently racist … neither could a teacher espouse the concept that a male is inherently sexist.” Although sexual orientation and gender are not specifically named, it would be easy for discussions of homophobia and transphobia to get caught up in that net.
With instructions this vague and contradictory, defaulting to the most cautious position becomes inevitable. “Please consult your supervisor with questions or concerns about actions that may possibly violate the law, preferably before such actions are taken,” the HB-7 handout warns. “Arguments can be made to protect individual employee defendants who act reasonably, but nothing is guaranteed.”
“When I started teaching, I was afraid of not being good at classroom management,” Susannah told me. “Now? It’s offending the delicate sensibilities of someone who doesn’t understand nuance, education, children, basic dictionary definitions and who doesn’t see people as worthy of respect.”
Her response is much the same as Merritt’s: she’s leaving. “I think this is my last year,” Susannah said in her email. “I don’t want to live in this state anymore. I’m not sure I want to live in the country anymore.” As for the trans students who are certain to pass through her school, and the benefit they would have accrued from having a sympathetic trans authority figure in their lives—that’s just one of many possibilities this backlash has taken away.
Kids are the primary casualties of the attacks on schools—queer kids, whose teachers are required to disrespect them and sell them out, and kids of colour, who are forbidden from putting a name to their own oppression. Yet the loss of these teachers, and many more like them, shows that the impact may be even more widespread than that. What does it say when teachers are forbidden to build relationships of trust and respect with their students? When avoiding legal liability becomes a bigger priority than teaching correct facts?
Queer kids are being hurt. Trans kids are being hurt. Kids of colour are being hurt. But when teachers are forbidden to teach, are any of our kids getting what they need?
Teachers can save lives. They can open up the door to a better future. There is another way to put it, though: with every good teacher we lose, there are countless futures that never get to happen. We can make teaching impossible, and we can drive teachers out of work, but the cost will be higher than anticipated. Those teachers aren’t going to be the only people we lose.