David Thomas recently served as a principal in a Florida school. The out educator details how his state’s proposed “don’t say gay” bill will damage children, terrify teachers, and smear LGBTQ+ families.
Florida is on the verge of passing legislation called Parental Rights in Education — more commonly known as the “don’t say gay” bill. Introduced by Republicans, House Bill 1557 “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels; requires school districts to notify parents of health care services; authorizes parents to bring action against school district to obtain declaratory judgment; provides for additional award of injunctive relief, damages, & reasonable attorney fees & court costs to certain parents,” as stated in the Florida legislature’s summary.
Longtime educator — and new Floridian — David Thomas describes just how insidious and cruel “don’t say gay” is:
I’ve been in education for over 21 years. I started out as a teacher, taught PE and health, coached basketball, and then I moved up and became athletic director, dean of students, counselor. I moved into an administration role and went back to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and got my master’s in school administration there and moved into an assistant principal role and did that for several years and have been a principal since 2013. I was a principal for a large school in North Carolina for many years before I moved to Florida. I’ve only been in Florida since 2020.
Being in Florida has been a culture shock for me. It’s weird, coming from North Carolina, but Florida is a completely different rule of thumb when it comes to education. I found out the hard way. When I first started working, I was told not to mention the fact that I was gay because we have a school full of Trump people. This was a charter school but considered a public school. I was only there a year and then I left.
I was told Florida is Trumpland, but I wasn’t prepared for what that meant. Going to restaurants and the owners have figurines of Trump within their restaurants; going to grocery stores and seeing protests with Trump people. Just the other day, I saw this huge lifted truck and it had a Trump picture on its hood and on the other side it said, “Let’s go, Brandon.” And that’s nothing out of the ordinary here; it’s what you see. So you feel kind of stifled when you’re not a white straight male here. What I’m seeing, I’m ashamed of being a white man in general.
[This proposed bill] would be detrimental to so many kids. As a school administrator, you get used to the politics around education. You have to deal with legislators making decisions about things that go on in school, and they’ve never stepped foot in a [public] classroom in their lives. You see these bills frustrate and stifle teachers and administrators, but this one is far worse than I’ve ever seen before. It talks about age-appropriate [matters] for primary school kids, but what does that mean? You can’t give me a definition of age-appropriate when talking about gender identity and sexual orientation. It’s so broad.
I reflect on my own life. I knew I was gay when I was 4. Your environment— your school, your family — determines whether you accept [your identity] or not. Growing up in western North Carolina in a very conservative Southern Baptist town, I knew I was different, but I didn’t have anybody to talk to about it. The more I grew up, the more I was told I was going to hell. So now I’ve seen LGBTQ+ students advance a whole lot and I think it’s because they legalized [same-sex] marriage and the actions of the Obama administration. With middle school and high school kids I worked with, being LGBTQ+ wasn’t a big deal. You’d have students come to you as a counselor who were questioning their sexual orientation or gender, and you were able to talk more freely with them about that without having to worry. Plus, as a counselor, I was able to tell them what you say in this room stays in this room unless you’re a threat to yourself or somebody else. That helped them relax. It was one of those things where students started to really explore who they were really were.
Seeing this bill come across, it’s like we’re going back 30, 40, 50 years. LGBTQ+ students will be looked at as not normal, like one of those taboo things you don’t talk about. Students are going to regress because they don’t know who to talk to. I found the majority of our students dealing with [LGBTQ+ identity], their first bullies are their parents. They hear what their parents are saying or what they were taught in church, and they’re afraid to talk to their parents about their identity. I know I was. I hid it, I tried to be straight, I dated girls, I was even engaged [to a woman] at one point because I didn’t want to go to hell.
My husband and I want to start a family, but with this bill, our family will be viewed as an illegitimate family unit within the school system. We will probably be targets of bullying. Our kids will too. Our kids won’t be able to talk about their parents in school. We probably won’t be allowed to be involved in the [Parent-Teacher Organization].
I emailed the governor [Ron DeSantis, who is pushing the bill]. Of course, I haven’t heard back, but I asked if he would just sit down with someone who was a seasoned educator who was gay and terrified about what this bill could do to our students, teachers, and administrators. But Republican leaders aren’t interested in having a conversation with people who are different. They don’t want to hear it; they walk away from it. They just flat out make decisions that dehumanize those who aren’t straight or white or male.
This bill is going to set us back to the Anita Bryant years. Republicans say we’re trying to push our agenda on them. We’re just trying to have families. We’re trying to get married, have kids. We want to be normal human beings and be treated as such. They’re the ones who have the agenda. They’re the ones trying to erase LGBTQ+ history and Black history by banning books. It’s becoming a very slippery slope. People ask what can we do. Our voices have to be louder. We cannot let these big-mouthed, ignorant people continue to rule the roost.