This blog post was written by NCTE member Caitlin O’Connor.
The continued number of passed censorship legislations throughout the United States, are—in so many words—inhumane and unconscionable.
These two states are no stranger to recent controversies happening in the classroom, either. Book bans have been the subject of conversation in states like Texas and Florida, and many of the books being flagged and eliminated from classrooms and school libraries contain stories and representations of LGBTQIA+ people.
The new “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida is taking book bans a step further, and seemingly aims to ban entire human beings. The bill will prevent any conversation or instruction about LGBTQIA+ history or figures from happening in kindergarten through third grade, and mandate that teachers and school personnel have six weeks to “out” any students they know are LGBTQIA+ to their families, regardless of whether they might be abused, rejected or kicked out for being LGBTQIA+.
Texas legislation, signed by Governor Greg Abbott and endorsed by the Texas Attorney General, declared that any parent who seeks out or allows affirming healthcare for their child (hormone replacement therapy, surgery, etc.) for their transgender child is committing child abuse. This legislation has been condemned by President Biden.
In 2019, 17 percent of students in Florida were prevented from discussing LGBTQIA+ issues in school assignments. Only 15 percent of Florida students reported a LGBTQIA+ inclusive curriculum, and 39 percent reported affirming library materials at school. Sixty-nine percent of students surveyed by GLSEN reported being verbally harassed for their orientation; 58 percent for their gender expression; and 55 percent for their gender in general. Across these three identity categories, between 22 and 24 percent reported being physically assaulted in the school building. And only 28 percent of respondents reflected any school personnel intervention in response to gender/orientation based bullying. Sixty-eight percent of respondents reported having six or more affirming educators (GLSEN).
Texas has the second highest number of transgender people (125,350) in the United States (UCLA). In Texas, 46 percent of respondents to the GLSEN National Climate Survey reported having access to supportive library materials; 74 percent of those surveyed reported being verbally harassed at school for their sexual orientation, and 59 percent for their gender identity. Experiences of physical assault for these identity categories remained between 25 and 29 percent. Only 5 percent of respondents reported their schools having a comprehensive bullying policy that addresses anti-LGTBQIA+ related bullying. Fifty-five percent of respondents reported having six or more affirming educators (GLSEN).
Not only is this legislation erasing entire histories and representation from students’ learning experience, but they are actively and violently weaponizing teachers and classrooms against LGBTQIA+ children and their families. And it’s not just happening in these two states.
In the face of book bans and attacks on LGBTQIA+ students and families, English teachers have a responsibility to keep the stories of LGBTQIA+ people and our histories alive. We have the power and the responsibility to be one of those six or more affirming educators in students’ lives, and support the families of those who affirm and unconditionally love their children as well.
English Teachers’ Role
English teachers (and all teachers) across the country must speak up about these issues. NCTE has a variety of resources and position statements about supporting LGBTQIA+ youth. Our position statements must become action that resists and ameliorates oppression, hate, prejudice and violence.
Whether teaching in states like Texas and Florida or not, English teachers have a responsibility to let students discuss issues of gender, gender identity and orientation in their reading and writing lives—and we can do so by asking students to consider:
- Who is present in my news/reading? Who is missing?
- Who is present in my news/reading? Who is missing?
- What words, phrases, and ideas are being verbalized about them? By whom?
- What do I think about this character? What assumptions am I making or what facts do I have about their words, thoughts, actions, and behaviors?
- How does what is actually said match up with or differ from what I currently know or think?
These questions, when applied to students’ reading and writing on gender, sexual orientation, and identity, allow students to do the thinking and make space for them to see, understand, and consider the existence, contributions, and presence of LGBTQIA+ people. That said, we are not health teachers. The purpose and power of teachers of literature and English is to present students with a variety of stories, voices, narratives, and ideas, and encourage them to think about the world around them. This world, inevitably, includes queer, trans, and nonbinary people. It always has.
We do not need to assume how students feel about LGBTQIA+ individuals or even orient them in how they feel; but to acknowledge and represent the “true, correct, and whole” reality of LGBTQIA+ individuals is our professional and human responsibility.
Supporting Teachers in Florida and Texas (and Beyond)
NCTE has been integral in leading the way to promote intellectual freedom, the inclusion of diverse voices, and helping to defend teachers. Sadly, the media rhetoric condemning teachers who include LGBTQIA+ voices in their classrooms is catching fire, and has the potential to do significant harm to our profession and to our students.
Teachers in an increasing number of states are being punished for representing queer voices in their curriculum and even classroom libraries. This is not just censorship, but a systemic erasure of a group of people. NCTE’s position statements and resources from Defend LGBTQ Stories can help teachers facing book bans and censorship challenges to provide evidence and standards-based rationales for teaching books in their classrooms.
It is equal parts alarming and dangerous. Students who are LGBTQIA+ or have family members who are deserve to be represented, feel seen, and know they are welcome, especially in the developmentally appropriate content and literature we provide them. And students who are allies or potential allies to LGBTQIA+ classmates and people deserve to know how to talk about, engage with, and learn about this community with respect and care.
Further, we all must demand action from federal leaders, especially those who have a professional stake in education. Secretary Cardona and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden must enforce Executive Order 13988, On Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation; must remind the United States Supreme Court to affirm and enforce their decision in the Bostock vs. Clayton County case; and must extend this nondiscrimination precedent to our schools nationwide. Educators can learn more about these laws and the pending Equality Act here.
Cait O’Connor is a secondary English teacher in New York. She is currently teaching eighth grade in Westchester County, thirty minutes outside of New York City. Her interests include mental health advocacy, floating in the pool, and spending time with her partner and pets. Twitter: @JustTeachingELA.
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.