Teachers unions prepare to fight anti-LGBTQ legislation

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Legislation banning LGBTQ content in schools harms teachers as well as students.

The teaching profession faces numerous challenges, teachers union leaders say, including how to address the mental health needs of students after more than two years of a pandemic and teacher shortages that the pandemic has made worse. In addition, the leaders say, they're now being forced to deal with another problem: a wave of state laws regulating what teachers can and can't say in the classroom about the experiences of LGBTQ people and Black, Indigenous, and people of color, abbreviated as BIPOC.

Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law on March 28 a bill that says public school classroom instruction on gender and sexual orientation is completely off limits from kindergarten through the third grade, prompting LGBTQ educators and advocates to question whether teachers and students are free to even acknowledge the existence of their relationships or their family members'. Students beyond the third-grade level can only receive lessons about these subjects that are "age appropriate or developmentally appropriate," but educators say the language is so vague that it will have a chilling effect on teachers' speech.

Clinton McCracken, an art teacher at the Howard Middle School Academy of Arts in Orlando, Florida, is running for president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association partly because he wants to fight against anti-LGBTQ efforts in his state. McCracken, who is gay, said that although his school has supported him, teachers at less supportive schools may be afraid to talk about LGBTQ figures that are relevant to their classes.

"I could be standing in front of my classroom and talking about Andy Warhol or Keith Haring, and it would be a great detriment to my students' learning and art if they didn't understand that those artists were gay, and that identity for them completely impacted the artwork that they created," McCracken said. "There are lots of subjects where that could be the case, and you might have a teacher who's not in my school or not in my district who edits their thoughts and what they're saying, which then is detrimental to the student's education. I know that's DeSantis' goal."

Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed legislation on April 8 prohibiting transgender students from using multi-user bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their gender. It included an amendment added late in the legislative process that bans the mention of sexual orientation and gender identity until after the fifth grade. The Ohio, Arizona, and Iowa legislatures have introduced bills that tell teachers when they're allowed to mention LGBTQ people in class. In 2021, Tennessee enacted legislation that requires that parents and guardians receive 30 days' notice before the teaching of classroom lessons that include content on sexual orientation and gender identity and that let parents opt their kids out of hearing them. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed similar legislation in 2021.

Librarians and teachers face professional consequences for refusing to comply with regulations restricting access to books with LGBTQ characters or putting up rainbow stickers and LGBTQ Pride flags in schools. The American Library Association and the National Coalition Against Censorship told PBS that they haven't seen this many book bans in decades.

Officials at the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have spoken out against bans on books and classroom instruction containing LGBTQ content and have informed teachers of their rights and set up funds to defend them. They note that attempts to restrict LGBTQ rights and erase the experiences of BIPOC in public schools are connected to organized efforts against teachers unions and public education in general.

Moms for Liberty, a conservative group reported to have 80,000 members, works for book bans and curriculum control over LGBTQ content and has opposed masking in schools. The group's co-founder, Tina Descovich, a former school board member, told right-wing talk show host Matt Buff in March that one of her motivating factors for organizing it was the power of teachers unions.

"We saw the teachers unions and the control they had over everything from how often your kids go to school to what time they come home at the end of the day," she said.

Tiffany Justice, the group's other founder, tweeted in January, "Teachers unions don't care about kids." In April, she said, "I am not sure how we convince children that their education matters when teachers unions devalued education by keeping schools closed."

Reuters reported this month that the group's influence is growing: Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds invited members to be present when she signed a trans sports ban in March, and DeSantis appointed member Esther Byrd to the Florida Board of Education.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the American Independent Foundation in an email, "It's important to remember these bans are not about helping kids but are targeted, calculated political attacks against the very institution of public education."

Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation Of Teachers, said, "Without question, we see this as part of the strategy to create distrust in our public schools and to push towards privatization. If you look at some of the groups who are behind this, like the Heritage Foundation, they have a long history of trying to privatize education."

The Heritage Foundation has promoted anger against teachers unions, using COVID-related issues as a weapon as it has also continued to falsely claim that schools are hurting kids through LGBTQ-inclusive classrooms. The head of the group's Center for Education Policy, Lindsey Burke, said in response to pandemic-related school closures, "The only way out of this mess is to free families from the clutches of the teachers' unions."

"Private schools across the country are open and ready for their business," Burke wrote last year.

Teachers union leaders say they're concerned about what legislation like Florida's "Don't Say Gay or Trans" law means for the rights of teachers.

"We absolutely have had members be threatened with discipline or with termination, simply because they are trying to establish a safe environment for their students," said Kim A. Anderson, executive director of the National Education Association. "It's the chilling effect of these laws. That is the intent of them. There are laws designed to try and threaten and intimidate educators."

Princess Moss, the NEA's vice president, spoke out against the law during a press call with the Human Rights Campaign, Equality Florida, and the National Center for Transgender Equality on April 1. "The law leaves educators to determine for themselves what they are able to say. A wrong guess could result in a lawsuit," she said.

Moss said that teachers can reach out to union representatives for assistance and legal support in dealing with the laws and that the NEA plans to continue to organize to support LGBTQ people. It has provided information to its members on the Florida law and other bills specifically attacking the rights of trans youth, and is partnering with GLSEN, Lambda Legal, and the National Black Justice Coalition in hosting a webinar for educators on Thursday.

GLSEN told the American Independent Foundation that the webinar will help teachers and advocates "navigate the untenable barriers that are created every time one of these bad bills is passed into law."

Cropper said that the Ohio Federation of Teachers will continue to organize against a curriculum bill that was introduced by state lawmakers in April, telling educators to contact lawmakers and reaching out to teachers who might be interested in speaking at legislative hearings.

The American Federation of Teachers' Weingarten told the American Independent Foundation in February that her union is putting additional money into its legal defense fund to address the impact of anti-LGBTQ bills on its members.

"We will defend them," she said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.