The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This Florida teacher married a woman. Now she’s not a teacher anymore.

Nicolette Solomon looks through letters from her former students at her home in Miami. (Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post)

MIAMI — Nicolette Solomon felt her mother’s words come through the phone and settle, heavy, in her stomach.

It was January, and her mother was talking about a new bill, just proposed in the Florida legislature, that would severely limit how teachers could discuss gender identity and sexual orientation with their students. Critics were already calling it the “don’t say gay” bill. Her mother, a vocal supporter of LGBTQ rights, sounded upset.

Solomon stood listening inside her fourth-grade classroom at Key Biscayne K-8 Center, part of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. The kids were at lunch. She glanced around at the neatly labeled black buckets of supplies, pictures of former students and a small sign reading, “If you can’t be kind, be quiet.” She looked down at the diamond wedding ring she had worn since marrying her wife, Hayley Solomon, in Coconut Grove almost exactly four years ago.

She wondered: Could she be herself and stay a teacher in Florida?

The Parental Rights in Education bill passed the Florida House and Senate in March, despite strong opposition from LGBTQ activists and the political left, including President Biden’s statement that the bill was “hateful.” Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed it into law March 28, vowing as he did so that children in his state would “get an education, not an indoctrination.”

The new law was both broad and vague, outlawing “classroom instruction … on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through grade 3” and stipulating these lessons must be “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for all older students. But it was specific when it came to punishment: Parents could sue school districts for violating the law. It would inspire a wave of copycat legislation — Alabama’s governor signed a near-identical measure into law in April, and similar bills are pending in at least 19 other states.

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Although Florida’s law does not take effect until July 1, LGBTQ teachers in Florida felt its impact immediately. In Orlando, a sixth-grade science teacher decided to resign this spring after parents wrote a letter complaining that he had acknowledged his same-sex marriage at school. In Cape Coral, a middle-school art teacher lost her job after admitting her own pansexuality to students.

In Miami, Solomon read the text of the law closely. She found it upsetting, but not because she planned to talk — or had ever talked — about gender identity, sexual orientation or LGBTQ issues in the classroom. Although Solomon’s straight colleagues often made casual references to their husbands in the course of teaching, she had never dared to mention her wife to students.

Part of her reluctance came from the lack of support — veering into open animosity — she had faced from some colleagues ever since her first week on the job. She had long ago learned to nod and smile, swallowing her feelings, when other teachers told Solomon that her marriage was a violation, that it broke God’s rules, that it went against their religion and the way they believed the world should be.

Teen LGBTQ rights activist Will Larkins spoke to The Post about fighting this controversial bill less than a month after it was signed into law. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Pondering the impact of the new Florida law, Solomon recalled how fourth-graders love to ask questions about their teachers’ private lives. She remembered the time some of her students Googled her name and somehow found her wedding video on Vimeo, which she hadn’t realized was publicly available. Solomon thought about how, under the new law, a parent lawsuit could stem from just one awkward exchange about her personal life.

But she also recalled the students she had grown to love over her four years of teaching. She thought about the handwritten letter one of her first students, a boy, once handed her: “So I have a secret that is that I am gay!” She thought about how, as far as she knew, she was the only LGBTQ teacher in the school.

Feeling sure of nothing, Solomon pulled up LinkedIn and began scrolling for jobs.

‘The best gift to receive’

Solomon, now 28, found her way to teaching through her work for a nonprofit called The Alliance for GLBTQ Youth. In that role, which she started just after graduating from Florida International University with a degree in psychology, Solomon traveled into schools and counseled LGBTQ students, helping transgender children change their names and gay, lesbian or queer children come out to parents and peers.

Soon, Solomon realized her favorite part of the job was being inside schools, spending time with young people. She began to wonder, “Why not become a teacher?” — and scored a position teaching fourth grade in Miami-Dade County Public Schools starting in 2018, the year she got married.

She found her wife, Hayley, through the dating website OkCupid. The first date was a disaster — Hayley talked endlessly about an ex-girlfriend — but the two women kept texting afterward, compelled by some force neither understood. On their second date, Solomon brought Hayley a home-cooked meal.

A few days later, the women moved in together. Six months later, they were engaged. After they married, they bought their “forever home” in Miami, close to an LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood called Coconut Grove and just 20 minutes from Solomon’s school. Her wife, employed by a tech company, was able to work from home.

The couple redid the house, kitting out the kitchen in white tile and adding large glass doors that led to a sheltered backyard with artificial grass and strings of outdoor lights that swung in the Miami breezes. They hoped to raise children there, sending them through the Miami-Dade school system.

Meanwhile, Solomon was falling in love with teaching. She had been nervous at first but discovered a natural ability to connect with the children. She was younger than many of her colleagues and found it easier to understand students’ extracurricular obsessions, such as TikTok challenges and dances. She also made a point of asking them about their hobbies and vacations.

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One of Solomon’s colleagues, third-grade teacher Gelany Arriete, 38, said in an interview that Solomon seemed sweet and shy initially but soon gained confidence as a teacher. Arriete said Solomon had a “special way of interacting with kids” that set them at ease.

“I remember one incident, she did have a student who was gay,” Arriete said. “And she made him feel so comfortable, even though the other kids would make fun of him.”

Students wrote Solomon notes expressing devotion, which she saved in a shoebox: “Some people say you are only nice because your young,” wrote one girl. “But the truth is you have a amazing personality and a amazing warm heart.” Another student wrote: “Mrs. Solomon is special … very organizd and shes fun. … She does not emberes me like other teachers.”

Solomon also kept the message that arrived from a mother, written in orange ink on a gilt-edged white postcard. Other teachers had warned her that parents in their ritzy sector of Miami, where the median household income tops $150,000, can be pushy and demanding — so Solomon was astonished by the message.

“I am so filled with gratitude for all that you have done for my daughter,” the woman wrote. “And taking the time to answer all my questions, calls and messages.”

The mother closed with, “I believe that education is the best gift to receive” — and as she read it, Solomon believed it was her calling to give.

‘Because she’s gay’

From the start, there was a part of her life that Solomon hid from her students.

For the first three years of her teaching job, no one told her explicitly to conceal the fact she was married to a woman. Solomon did it on her own, scared of sparking “drama,” she said.

She knew that Florida leans Republican and that, although Miami is supposed to be a “blue bubble,” many of the city’s older residents hold deeply conservative beliefs, including a dislike of LGBTQ people. Neither she nor Hayley Solomon felt comfortable holding hands in public — not even in their neighborhood — unless they were walking through a small slice of Coconut Grove.

So when students, spotting Solomon’s wedding ring, asked for her husband’s name, she laughed it off with an eliding joke. When a student asked if she’d been to Rhode Island — which she had, because Hayley Solomon’s family is from there — she cut the conversation short. Still, some students figured it out: some by looking up her wedding video or her Instagram, which mentioned her wife, and some by catching sight of her phone background, a wedding picture. When students presented her with this proof, Solomon briefly confirmed the marriage, then moved the conversation to other topics. Once, she brought Hayley and her mother to a “Winter Fest” family event, but the women left after less than an hour.

The only other times Solomon revealed she was married to a woman was when students came to her in her capacity as a liaison for the School Allies for Equity, or SAFE, program. Filling this role meant tacking a rainbow-colored sticker on her door — and making herself available to discuss LGBTQ identities and problems with any students who wanted to talk.

“I just felt like I’d be a good person to do that,” Solomon said. “No one else was gay at the school, you know — no one else knew anything about that.”

Over the years, a half-dozen children came out to her as gay or transgender. Most told her informally, blurting it out by her desk. With every student, her first question was, “Do your parents know?” If the answer was “no,” and if Solomon ascertained the student’s household was likely to be accepting, she encouraged the student to come out to their parents. In these conversations, if students asked, Solomon admitted she was a lesbian, happily married to another woman.

Solomon herself came out fully in college; in high school, she told only a handful of people closest to her. Sometimes she thought about how much it would have helped to discuss her sexuality with an openly LGBTQ teacher in grade school: “I definitely would have gone to that person, because I would have known they’d be accepting.”

But as Solomon’s students made her feel needed, some of her colleagues were doing the opposite.

Early in the job, one teacher — who figured out Solomon was gay after watching Hayley help Solomon cart supplies into her classroom — told her in the middle of a casual conversation, “I like you as a person, but I don’t support gay marriage.” Stunned, all Solomon could think to say was, “Okay.”

Some time after that, third-grade teacher Arriete said, another staffer struck up a conversation about Solomon. The woman asked if Arriete knew Solomon was married to a woman, adding that same-sex relations were against her religion and “not right in God’s eyes.” Arriete, whose brother is gay, walked away rather than start an argument.

Later, Arriete nominated Solomon for a “Rookie Teacher of the Year” prize, awarded through a faculty-wide vote. In a biography accompanying her submission, Solomon detailed her marriage to Hayley, as well as her stint working for an LGBTQ rights group. As staff members were sitting down to vote, Arriete said she heard another teacher mutter that she refused to vote for Solomon “because she’s gay.” Arriete looked behind her but couldn’t identify who said it.

Solomon lost the prize to another teacher who had worked at the school for less than a year, Arriete said. “A lot of people didn’t vote because she is openly gay, and that is wrong,” she said. “I am 100 percent sure she lost because of that.”

Then in fall 2021, when Solomon went to a colleague for advice about a transgender student’s request for a gender-neutral bathroom, the staffer’s face darkened.

“Let me give you a tip,” the woman said. “Don’t talk about anything LGBT. Don’t do it. Parents can get upset. Don’t do that.”

Feeling terrified, Solomon did not think of protesting. “Oh,” she said, “sure.”

Asked about these incidents, Miami-Dade schools spokeswoman Jaquelyn Calzadilla wrote in a statement Wednesday that the school district has policies “that expressly prohibit discrimination and harassment” and that the school board “strives to provide a workplace and educational environment free from” both. She noted that Miami-Dade “has never required, either directly or indirectly, that teachers in same-sex marriages refrain from mentioning or acknowledging their marriages in class.”

Five months later, Florida made Solomon’s colleague’s suggestion into state law.

The things that stick

On Feb. 2, Solomon handed in her letter of resignation, effective immediately.

The final straw was when her supervisor implied she would face consequences for taking a week’s leave so she could get fertility treatments; she and Hayley were trying to have a baby. But the bigger problem was it no longer felt possible to be lesbian and a teacher in Florida. The years of homophobic comments from her colleagues now seemed enshrined in state law, their message — “you don’t belong here” — triumphant and irresistible.

Her students cried when she told them. Some handed her letters at the end of her last day, in which they apologized for past bad behavior and asked if she would change her mind.

“I want you to stay,” one student wrote, above a drawing of six small hearts.

Until she read that note, Solomon had managed to hold in her tears.

Since then, she has spent most of her time hunting for a job on LinkedIn and traveling to a long string of fertility-related doctor’s appointments. For now, she and her wife are surviving on Hayley’s salary, although it won’t cover them both for much longer. Hoping to make some extra cash, Solomon has begun designing and selling dog collars on Etsy.

She still thinks about her students most days. But of the more than 630 jobs she has applied for in the past five months, not a single one was as a public-school teacher.

She will never teach again, Solomon said. Not in Florida.

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