After the Miami-Dade School Board voted against recognizing LGBT History Month in October while the Broward School Board voted for it, it was a tossup how South Florida’s northernmost county would decide at their Sept. 13 meeting.
Several activists spoke at the Palm Beach County School Board meeting about the importance of recognizing history, with Superintendent Mike Burke stating that the board would recognize LGBT history month at the Oct. 18 board meeting.
One of the first speakers on LGBT issues during public comment was Tom Lander, board chairperson of Safe Schools South Florida, an advocacy group for LGBT students.
He described a sheriff threatening to put homosexual students in juvenile detention when he was a 13-year-old student at a Florida public school.
“All of a sudden I had a target on my back. I had a feeling that that was me. But nobody ever talked about LGBTQ,” Lander said. “And why is the history important? Because if those words were never said, and if in my class I heard that Michelangelo lived as a gay man, that King James, who commissioned the Bible had an LGBT connection, that Alan Turing who broke the code for our World War One, that Sally Ride, an astronaut, was a lesbian, that Francis Bacon. If I knew that these people might have been gay in a history class or a science class, I would have had hope that I could be anything I wanted to be.”
William Rizzo, a local teacher who sponsors his school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, talked about angry emails he receives from parents telling him that it is an “absolute sickness to put these ideas in the minds of children.”
He described forwarding these emails to his administration and the district, with the only response being his administrator telling him to ignore it.
“Many other LGBT teachers chose to quit and move to more accepting states,” Rizzo said. “It gets tiresome hearing how the district does care about us. You need to take a stronger stance and protect us, we feel that you do not have our backs.”
He talked about his students now requiring parental permission slips to attend the GSA, with some students no longer being able to attend.
“I'm the one who has to stand before them and tell them they no longer have that space,” Rizzo said, through tears. “So my questions for you tonight is what are you going to do to protect me and all the other LGBT teachers? How are you going to show us that you understand my plea and are actually concerned? And most importantly, how are you going to protect my students who now have no safe space to go to?”
Emmy Kenny, an artist and educator, shared stories from her fellow LGBT teachers.
“There are so many teachers that are affected by these new laws, but they are afraid to voice their opinions, because there have been staff that have been retaliated against,” Kenny said.
The first story they shared was from their friend who taught in the Palm Beach County school district for about a decade who moved to New Jersey because he would have had to use the women’s restroom under new legislation when he identifies as a man.
She also talked about a friend who just received their substitute teaching certificate and is reconsidering getting into the field because they are non-binary.
“Another teacher is me,” Kenny said. “I was asked to join the art staff of the new high school and I saw it as an amazing opportunity to take what I've learned teaching at Dreyfoos and the Norton Museum and build out a really excellent art program at the Dr. Joaquín García High School, but after a lot of contemplation, I just decided that I could not put myself in a position where I could do what was right for my students, but illegal or comply with discriminatory laws and endanger my students because they know the danger we put them in when we do not affirm their identities.”
Pranati “Pranoo” Kumar is the owner, founder, and education leader of Rohi’s Readery, a local social justice-driven children’s bookstore.
“Now I know you are saying we have not challenged books or we're doing everything we can to ensure children receive quality content. But I disagree,” Kumar said. “Because if you were as a district standing up to the injustices, you would be over communicating to families about our rights. Instead, our community is living in the unknown, especially our educators and caregivers that walk into the readery every day, but most importantly, our students.”