As Florida becomes increasingly hostile, 2 queer teachers contemplate their next moves

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Lana Mims first heard the word ‘gay’ used as a slur in middle school. It was long before the now-36-year-old publicly identified as queer and long before she became an athletic director at a private school in West Palm, Florida. 

In August 2022 and after six years of work, she chose not to renew her contract teaching P.E. to 8th graders. “I was overwhelmed and overworked and underpaid, like most teachers, period,” she told LGBTQ Nation. “Everyone’s tired, everyone’s irritated. Our school was expanding and growing, which was great. But they used to have three people doing my job.”

Last year’s passage of the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill – and its more recent expansion – were crushing straws landing on a broken camel. 

The bill bans public school districts from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students,” which is broad enough to make any validation of queerness in a classroom a violation.  The original bill applied to grades K-3, and this year, the state Board of Education extended it through grade 12. 

When Mims got married in October 2021, students inquired about her ring, and she initially struggled with handling conversations about her wife. Queer educators have long acted with caution in disclosing the gender of their partners, and now the system makes them feel like outlaws.

Fortunately, the former athletic director says she has had positive experiences because her students approached her with curiosity rather than hate. Some expressed that her family sounded different than what they had at home and what they knew, and she would respond, “Just because your experience is different from somebody else, doesn’t mean your experience lacks value, or that their experience lacks value.” 

The fact that Mims’ students were accepting of her marriage might shock anti-LGBTQ+ Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R). The kids understood and moved on with their lives. Mims is infuriated by Republicans condemning queer existence in classrooms as perversion. 

“It’s really hurtful. This is my family – I have my wife; these are our two kids, dog and cat. How did you hear me give an explanation about how we have intercourse?” says Mims.

She has been disheartened to encounter colleagues and friends with good intentions who have been swayed by political rhetoric pushing harmful policies. She doesn’t know how to compete with the disinformation being spread online and can’t help but feel jaded.

But as a Black woman, Mims is acutely aware of the historical precedent for school censorship. 

“There was a time when books depicting black or interracial families were not a thing. It was deemed inappropriate by the education system. It was taught that you shouldn’t be teaching kids that it’s okay or acceptable to be with someone outside of their race or outside of their same pigmentation until they are of an acceptable age.”

Mims attributes her own bravery to seeing another teacher at her school, Kaylee Owens, 31, openly discussing her wife. 

Owens, who teaches 4th and 5th-grade reading, remains at the private school. She told LGBTQ Nation she was bullied after she first came out as a lesbian in an Evangelical high school. Her best friend at the time took her to the pastor, gave her pamphlets and said she was a sin. Grown men would shout the C-word on the street when she held hands with her girlfriend. 

It took Owens many years to become comfortable with who she was. She has been teaching for ten years and knows that despite progress on TV, students in real life are still expected to carry the crippling weight of feeling like an outcast in silence.  

“I’ve had students come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I just wanted you to know that I’m a part of your community,’ and, you know, I thank them for feeling comfortable enough to say that.”

The reading teacher reflects that when her students come out to her, she can’t help but think about how different her life may have been if she had understood her identity at an earlier age and received the acceptance and support of the adults around her. Perhaps she wouldn’t have grown up feeling like who she was was wrong.

“Lana and I just had this conversation maybe two years ago about how special it was that we were in a school where they [students] felt safe enough to do that. If I was teaching in a public school, I couldn’t have that safe conversation with them. That would break my heart. I don’t know what I would do,” says Owens. You don’t need to identify as queer for a queer student to consider you a safe space and ask for help, and as such, this is a situation many Florida public school teachers now find themselves in. 

These days, Owens isn’t just considering leaving the school. She’s conflicted about whether to leave the state.  

“I was born and raised here; I’m a second-generation Florida native. But I feel like I need to leave for my daughter’s sake.”

Owens is safe from the institution of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill since she works at a private school, but she worries about the future of Florida under Republican governance and her daughter’s safety being put in jeopardy because she has two mothers. The state’s House of Representatives is increasingly passing discriminatory legislation, including a bill that could put parents’ custody of their trans kids at risk.

A civil rights group warned that hate crimes will likely spike during the upcoming 2024 election

Is it possible to decipher the difference between hateful political rhetoric and a threat? 

At what point is another bill purporting discrimination considered too much?  

Owens must figure out when it’s time to leave a hostile environment. 

Her students read a book about the Holocaust, and they learned that many Jewish people didn’t escape Germany when they had the chance because it was their home. They wanted to wait to see if the situation escalated. 

“That hit hard. Because you always think to yourself, ‘What would I do? I would go! I can’t believe they stayed!’ And it feels like I’m at the beginning of that. I feel that fear, and yet I’m also thinking, I can’t leave – this is my home.”

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