North Carolina’s newest piece of anti-LGBTQ legislation—the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—isn’t likely to pass Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk. But even if the bill fails, conservative parents and politicians will continue to wage a nasty culture war, one that’s already imposing consequences on teachers and students statewide.

Last month, a special-needs preschool teacher in Wake County resigned amid a national firestorm over LGBTQ flash cards she had pinned to a bulletin board on her classroom wall.

It’s unclear why the teacher resigned—whether it was a personal decision or because of the initial response to the flash cards from the principal and school system—but by all accounts, students will be impacted most by her departure.

“The saddest thing is our children lost the most incredible teacher. It’s just awful for them,” says Jackie Milazzo, whose child is in the teacher’s preschool class. “She has changed so many children’s lives. Who my son was at the beginning of the school year, he’s grown in ways that we could have never even dreamed of …. The parents that I’ve spoken to are absolutely devastated.”

The teacher submitted her resignation just before Republican state house Speaker Tim Moore publicized an inflammatory and misleading news release accusing her of using “LGBTQIA+ themed flashcards, including a card with the depiction of a pregnant man, to teach colors to children.”

In fact, the flash cards were not used in the teacher’s daily lessons but merely displayed in her classroom’s art center. The flashcard Moore referenced appears to depict a lesbian couple, one of whom is pregnant. The set of 12 cards, each labeled with a color, also appears to show a multiracial family, same-sex couples with children, and parents with disabilities.

“They latch onto that one postcard, but the rest of them, they show people of different races, different disabilities, different family dynamics,” Milazzo says. “This doesn’t feel inappropriate for my child to see. If anything, as a special-needs child, it’s wonderful they are seeing that being different in any way isn’t scary. It isn’t bad, it’s normal.”

Those safe spaces created by caring teachers may soon be a thing of the past, however.

North Carolina’s newly introduced House Bill 755, or the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, is part of a much larger conservative movement to crack down on LGBTQ rights through schools. Republicans nationwide felt they hit on a winning political strategy when they discovered they could get support by spreading fear among parents about their children being “indoctrinated,” “groomed,” and “sexualized” in schools.

“We knew because this was an election year that there would likely be some bill,” says Kendra Johnson, executive director of LGBTQ rights advocacy nonprofit Equality NC.

“There’s a playbook we’re seeing nationally, which is parents’ rights bills, trans sports bans, and other things like medical denials or bans on gender-affirming care. [The bills] largely come out of conservative think tanks as model legislation and then are adopted by whichever conservative politician needs to have their name in the newspaper.”

North Carolina’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, similar to the infamous Florida legislation, prohibits teachers from talking about gender identity and sexual orientation in K–3 classrooms.

Another part of the bill allows parents to object to the use of certain textbooks and educational resources. It also requires schools to tell parents what books students have checked out from the library, encouraging attempts by conservative activists to ban school library books dealing with LGBTQ characters or issues.

Officially, the bill’s ban on talking about gender identity and sexual orientation covers only formal classroom curricula. But, as Johnson points out, there is no formal classroom curriculum that covers LGBTQ topics. Students in K–3 classrooms are simply not taught about gender identity or sexual orientation as part of their daily education.

“This has been a long game from our conservative opposition, actually manufacturing problems in order to solve them,” Johnson says. “There’s always a wedge issue that’s thrown out in election years. This is part and parcel of a strategy to elevate a nonexistent issue, propagate a cultural war, and then create some solution.”

Republican state senators Phil Berger, Deanna Ballard, and Michael V. Lee stuck to that narrative during a press conference last month, arguing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill is a way to ensure children are receiving “age-appropriate instruction.”

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s FACTS task force—Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students—was likely a precursor to the bill, Johnson says. The task force is aimed at “exposing indoctrination in the classroom” and holding teachers accountable to “inappropriate content … of a sexual nature.”

The watchdog environment created by politicians encourages community members—not necessarily parents—to monitor local teachers and report them for things as simple as having a rainbow “Safe Space” sticker on their classroom door. Historically, teachers targeted in this way have resigned rather than face discrimination from their school system and threats from the community.

Teachers who try to support LGBTQ students, or gay, lesbian, or transgender teachers who mention their personal life, are all at risk. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill doesn’t currently prohibit those kinds of conversations, but it sends a clear message: LGBTQ students and teachers are not welcome in public schools.

“It sends a very negative message to people who are already deeply marginalized and are already struggling to have their identities accepted,” Johnson says. “We saw in Florida, already, an increase in suicidal ideation amongst the population of young folks who are LGBTQ+, because the message that it sends is that your identity is so horrible that it’s unmentionable in a classroom.”

Suicidal thoughts among LGBTQ youth have trended upward in recent years, according to the Trevor Project. About 45 percent of LGBTQ youth nationwide seriously considered suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth, according to the nonprofit’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health.

In North Carolina, schools are already unsafe for LGBTQ youth. A GLSEN report shows that in 2019, most LGBTQ students regularly heard anti-LGBTQ remarks as well as experienced verbal harassment about their sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender.

Almost 65 percent of LGBTQ students experienced discrimination at their school, including for public displays of affection. Half of transgender students were prevented from using their chosen name or pronouns in school, while 70 percent were not allowed to use the school bathroom aligned with their gender.

The “Don’t Say Gay” bill would make schools even more dangerous for LGBTQ youth, forcing teachers and staff to out transgender students by notifying their parents if they ask to be addressed by a different gender pronoun. Educators would also be prohibited from withholding information about a child’s LGBTQ status if they came out at school but not to their families.

“For many kids, unfortunately, school is the only safe space they have,” Johnson says. “So the forced outing that would be codified in this bill puts kids in real danger. We’re not just looking at the mental health outcomes, we’re looking at actually real recrimination from parents who may not be supportive.”

Parts of the bill also require schools to “establish a process for parents to learn about the nature and purpose of clubs and activities offered at their child’s school,” which could help conservative activists shut down Gay-Straight Alliances in public schools.

“It criminalizes teachers who may attempt to be supportive,” Johnson says. “It’s taking away a lifeline for kids who are at risk.”

The bill, which passed the state senate last week in a 28–18 vote along party lines, is now headed to the house for a vote. If approved, it would go before Democratic governor Cooper, who would likely veto it. But simply by introducing it, Republicans have already made schools more unsafe for LGBTQ teachers and students as school boards become less likely to pass protections for LGBTQ youth, teachers fear promoting equality in the classroom, and gay, lesbian, and trans- and gender-nonbinary students become even more afraid to come to school. 

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