ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act has some teachers and members of the LGBTQ community concerned about its potential effect on educators and students in the classroom.
The new legislation – which was signed into law on March 28 – is not the first to cause concern for members of the LGBTQ community, who have had their rights limited by previous legislation passed in Tallahassee.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a Florida legislative investigative committee called the “Johns Committee” worked to identify and remove alleged LGBTQ employees from their jobs at state universities. In 1977, the Florida legislature banned same-sex adoptions, which were later repealed by lawmakers in 2015.
The Parental Rights in Education Act, enacted in March 2022, prohibits classroom teaching about sexual identity or gender orientation.
Taking a break from teaching in the classroom for 21 years, Clinton McCracken quit her job as an art teacher at Howard Middle School so she could start leading the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association.
“As much as I loved this part of my job, I look forward to fighting for the teachers too so they can continue to love their jobs,” he said.
He believes his students’ creativity and self-expression are best expressed when both students and teachers can feel comfortable being themselves. But McCracken said he fears the recently passed law – dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by his opponents – will discourage that.
In some ways, he has already, he said, pointed the finger at some teachers who have removed gay pride and safe space stickers from their classrooms.
“There are a lot of teachers who are afraid of what they can and can’t do right now,” McCracken said. “Will the district be prosecuted? Will they be prosecuted?
Gretchen Robinson teaches reading comprehension at University High School. She says she finally felt comfortable enough to put a picture of her and his wife on her desk at school just a few years ago.
She thinks that having the strength to share her true self in class can help a student who may be struggling to gain acceptance.
“No matter what your journey is, it’s always very affirming, wholesome and positive, and makes you more confident in yourself to know you’re not the only one on this journey,” she said. “And laws like this only make it harder.”
McCracken says her love for art and her search for acceptance started early.
“People were always like, ‘Where’s Clinton?’ and my mom was always like, ‘He cuts and glues somewhere,'” he said. “So I always loved making things.”
But he says it was the safe space the art class gave him, away from school bullying, that cemented his passion and future career.
“And that’s really one of the main reasons I became a teacher is because I want to create that for other students and create an environment for other students that I didn’t have when I was growing up” , McCracken said.
McCracken, who celebrated the union with her husband years before they could legally wed, successfully pushed for same-sex partner health benefits for Orange County teachers in 2012.
He is now ready to fight back against state actions he says threaten the rights of the LGBTQ community.
“Students are more at risk because of what they’re doing, not because teachers were trying to create safe spaces for their classrooms,” McCracken said.
When he signed the bill March 28, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the measure would help teachers.
“It’s a parent’s protection, but I also think in some ways it’s a teacher’s protection, because now teachers will be protected from someone from above – whether it’s someone in a bureaucracy or a school board that tells them they have to make a gender bread man, or say tell them they have to talk about things like transgender to a first or second grader,” DeSantis said. at a press conference where he signed the bill.
Lawyer Jim Hattaway said teachers shouldn’t worry about legal ramifications because of the new law.
“It’s vague, it’s ill-defined, it’s what you expect when something is rushed,” he said. “I would tell teachers on this aspect that it is poorly written, it is of questionable applicability and if I were a teacher I would sleep well at night.”
Hattaway said that while the bill allows school districts to be sued, it does not allow teachers to be sued individually.