The Pulse

“Don’t say gay” legislation: A threat to the embodied classroom

By: - February 28, 2023 12:27 pm

I am a Black lesbian woman with 20 years teaching experience. However, when I began my teaching career at a predominantly Haitian high school, I was not out to my students. I wasn’t closeted either. As a 22-year-old novice instructor, I believed sharing my private life to my 17- and 18-year-old students would disrupt the power dynamics I thought maintained student respect and class order. Additionally, having just come out to myself and my folks five years prior to entering the classroom, coupled with not having had queer-identified role modeling teachers when I was in school, I had not yet grasped the language with which to name and understand myself.

Inadvertently conditioned, I was complicit in “not saying gay” before the bill was mandated. In other words, my Black lesbian woman’s body entered the public classroom split—a readied participant in a hidden curriculum intended to duplicate oppression.

I failed to give my students a wholistic education that could encourage them to identify and know themselves in relationship to the world, and to myself, which may have secured a humanity in them that countered America’s racist, homophobic past and present.

I should’ve been open about my sexuality—especially when LGBTQ-identified 10th and 12th grade students would lag behind the dismissal bell to glean advice from me about their relationships, talk to me about their homophobic parents, or confide in me their promises of running away from home. I should’ve been open, so that in community with me, they’d find their own safe, brave openings – so they’d have a role model. But I wasn’t open, and my hiding spilled into my lack of source materials and instruction.

I had no books I could lend them, no people I could reference, no theories from which I could instruct and hold an honest, open conversation. As a result, my LGBTQ+ students were—like Martin Luther King describes in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech—out here on a “lonely island . . . in the midst of a vast ocean.” And though Black and queer folk are un-drowned, the Americans who endeavored to cast us away then are making waves intended to wipe us out now.

DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill has made its way to North Carolina through Senate Bill 49, titled, “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” which was passed earlier this month. The revision includes a prohibition of gender identity and sexuality instruction in grades K-4. However, considering sex education usually occurs in 5th grade, and of the 39 state curricula that do include sex education, only ten of them include sexual orientation—while “five states allow only negative information to be shared about homosexuality and place a positive emphasis on heterosexuality”. Senate Bill 49 is not a ban on curriculum and textbook material, but an erasure of the queer teacher and student voice.

To forbid teachers and students from discussing gender and sexual identity in the classroom is to suggest that they, that we, are not subjects in history worth reading, knowing, and cultivating relationship; it’s an absolute annihilation of human beings—a fostering of hate in the classroom. The classroom is a site of resistance where teachers and students have regular opportunity to engage loving-kindness as well as mutual respect and understanding, thereby we have to counter the forces whose initiatives aim to use academic institutions to splinter our country.

Conceding to omit classroom discourse on any one identity is a resistance to America’s humanity.


Dr. Kendra N. Bryant is an Associate Professor of English and Composition Director at North Carolina A&T State University.

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