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As Fla. lawmakers push to limit LGBTQ discussions in schools, Orlando vows to keep teaching its history

Jeff, left, and Bryan Bevins-Spitler attend a vigil on June 13, 2016, in Orlando as the names of victims of the mass shooting a day earlier at the Pulse nightclub are read. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

ORLANDO — After a gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in 2016, breaking the heart of this city, Orlando created some of the most LGBTQ-friendly public schools in the country.

The Orange County district began hosting an annual gay pride month, complete with supportive notes on campus marquees and bulletin boards. School administrators made sure every high school and middle school had a gay-straight alliance. And students were supported if they wanted to use the pronouns that matched their gender identity.

But amid an increasingly bitter debate over school curriculum and textbooks, Orlando-area educators find themselves in a pitched battle with GOP leaders and emboldened conservative activists over how to teach and support LGBTQ students. Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature is considering a measure that would ban discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity with elementary students in public schools. Parents would also be able to sue districts that expose their children to lessons that are “not age-appropriate.”

Although there remains considerable confusion over the legislation’s potential impact, some teachers worry they might not be able to discuss the Pulse nightclub shooting in the classroom if the measure passes. Others wonder how they would respond when a student wants to talk about their sexual orientation, or if they can keep the rainbow-colored “safe space” signs on their classroom doors.

“This is a dangerous bill, which basically tells our GLBTQ students that something is wrong with them,” said Clinton McCracken, 49, a teacher at Howard Middle School Academy of Arts. “This bill says I won’t be able to have conversations or be able to create an affirmative space for my students.”

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State Sen. Dennis Baxley (R), who sponsored the bill in his chamber, said recently that the measure is designed to shield young children from classroom lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity so they can discuss those issues with their parents first. Although it’s not directly stated in the Senate legislation, Baxley stressed that the bill would mostly apply to students below fourth grade.

“My concern is we are off track, and rather than equipping these very young students with basic skill sets, we have an agenda that is part of the curriculum that I believe is social engineering,” Baxley said last week at a Senate Education Committee hearing. “Kids are kids. Let them be children, and let’s focus on training them skill sets rather than socialization.”

Lawmakers in Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee are considering similar legislation, according to Pen America, a freedom of expression advocacy group.

In Florida, the legislation cleared committees in both the House and the Senate earlier in the month.

On Thursday evening, amid a growing backlash to the legislation, the House Judiciary Committee amended that chamber’s version of the bill to clarify that it regulates only classroom “instruction,” instead of more casual conversations about sexual orientation.

“Nowhere within this bill are we banning a word,” said Rep. Joe Harding (R).

But Democratic lawmakers and LGBTQ activists told the committee — which approved the bill on a 13-7 party-line vote — that they remain staunchly opposed to the legislation.

“This is still a ‘don’t say gay’ bill,” Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director for Equality Florida, told lawmakers.

The Florida debate is occurring as state legislators consider a range of bills that seek to limit how teachers and employers discuss race, diversity and sex with students.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has championed one of those bills, referred to as the Stop Woke Act, that seeks to end school lessons or diversity trainings that make someone feel discomfort, guilt or anguish. Although DeSantis has not endorsed Baxley’s legislation, the governor appears sympathetic to the measure.

“I don’t want the schools to kind of be playgrounds for ideological disputes,” DeSantis said last week, adding that he wants Florida students to stay focused on math, science and reading skills. “So let’s get parents involved.”

Among Orlando-area leaders and gay and lesbian activists, however, the legislative fight in Tallahassee is just one line of what they see as a multiprong attack by Republican lawmakers and far-right activists on the city’s LGBTQ community.

“I thought we had gotten to a point where those folks were looked at as the fringe and laughed at, but now they have been mainstreamed by politicians, and they feel empowered,” said Patty Sheehan, an Orlando city commissioner who is also a lesbian. “There is always a risk of us going backward when you have politicians who are pushing this nonsense.”

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A Republican stronghold in federal elections until the mid-1990s, the Orlando region has been moving to the left on political and cultural issues. The city added sexual orientation to its citywide public accommodation and nondiscrimination act in 2002. A decade later, Orange County schools added gay, lesbian and transgender students to the district’s nondiscrimination policy.

In the weeks after the Pulse nightclub shooting, which took an especially heavy toll on the city’s rapidly growing Latino population, local elected officials made an even more concerted effort to support gay residents.

The community raised millions of dollars for the victims, plastered murals across the city to highlight diversity, and established new support groups to nurture gay, lesbian and transgender residents of color.

Teresa Jacobs, the chairwoman of the Orange County School Board, was the Republican mayor of Orange County at the time. After the shooting, she ordered the rainbow pride flag flown over the Orange County government building. Jacobs braced for backlash from some residents, but she received just two emails opposing her decision.

Within a few months of being elected board chairwoman in 2018, Jacobs asked her colleagues to designate October as LGBTQ+ Awareness Month, which is now an annual event that includes public proclamations and the flying of the pride banner on some campuses.

“I, again, was kind of expecting some pushback,” Jacobs said. “Maybe from a board member. Maybe from the public. And there was none.”

But over the past two years, amid divisions over the 2020 election and the coronavirus pandemic, Jacobs has encountered increasingly vocal opposition to the school district’s embrace of LGBTQ issues. This year, for example, a group of residents opposed the schools’ pride month for the first time, Jacobs said.

“They come to our meeting, and tell us how wrong we are, and I feel like I am back in the year 2000,” said Jacobs, referring to early battles over gay rights that she encountered at the start of her career in public service. “It’s a much smaller group, and it’s not reflective of our community, but we are seeing that, and we had not seen that for the first couple of years” after the Pulse shooting.

In October, Orange County’s school district policies came under further scrutiny when a man objected to finding a copy of “Gender Queer: A Memoir” in a high school library. The book, which has become a flash point in battles over school curriculums nationwide, contains illustrations of sexual contact, masturbation and a sex toy.

When the man refused to stop reading passages from the book during a board meeting, Jacobs had him removed. The school board later ordered that the book be removed from library shelves. The district is reviewing that decision as well as parental challenges to two other books, “Lawn Boy” and “Born a Crime,” according to a school spokeswoman.

To Sheehan, the Orlando commissioner, the battles engulfing the Orange County School Board are reflective of a deeper erosion of the nation’s political discourse, which she views as a direct threat to the spirit of unity that prevailed throughout Central Florida after the Pulse nightclub attack.

The most jarring examples have been acts of vandalism aimed at the Pulse Interim Memorial, where photographs of the victims are arrayed on a wall alongside inspirational messages. In 2020, amid the nation’s divisive presidential election race, someone posted white supremacist literature including Nazi swastikas on the wall.

Then, in October of last year, security cameras captured a man in a wheelchair setting a piece of the wall on fire. A suspect was arrested a month later and charged with felony criminal mischief, according to local media reports.

Sheehan is also frustrated by the expansion of the nation’s stark political divisions deeper into downtown Orlando, where new apartment and condominium towers are rapidly redefining a skyline that has been a traditional safe space for LGBTQ residents. She noted that some far-right activists have been showing up at local festivals and waving banners that include slurs directed at President Biden.

“People just don’t act in a civilized fashion anymore,” said Sheehan, who believes conservative legislators are also acting like “schoolyard bullies” by pushing for the legislation.

But Bev Kilmer, a former state legislator and veteran conservative activist, said Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee are simply responding to the outrage that growing numbers of parents feel about the topics their children are taught.

In 2013, Kilmer founded the Freedom Speaks Coalition, a parental rights advocacy group that sponsors presentations for church and community groups on Florida school curriculum.

Kilmer believes some districts, including Orange County, teach sexual education and anatomy lessons that are too explicit. She also argues that school districts with nondiscrimination policies are failing to inform parents about sensitive conversations between students and teachers over issues such as gender identity. And she refers to school gay-straight alliances, which campaign for tolerance, as “sex clubs.”

A few years ago, Kilmer said, most of her presentations would attract a few dozen participants. But since the start of the pandemic, as more parents and children have been working and learning at home, Kilmer said as many as 150 people now regularly gather in church basements or community centers to hear her speak.

“We are coming on in gangbusters, and we are either going to have this trash pulled out of school or we are going to want our children taken out of schools,” said Kilmer, 64, who lives in the Villages retirement community. “Why do we have to teach about sex when our students can’t read or write?”

Republican lawmakers in Florida and elsewhere, meanwhile, also now find themselves engaged in complicated conversations about sexuality and parenting, and what role schools should play when a student doesn’t feel safe at home.

Asked during a recent hearing about how a teacher should respond to a student who asks a question about sexual orientation, Baxley responded, “You might want to ask your mother.”

“Are you aware some people can’t ask their mother?” Sen. Shevrin D. “Shev” Jones, a Democrat, responded.

Under the Senate bill, Florida school officials could not withhold school records dealing with a child’s “mental, emotional or physical health” unless a “reasonably prudent person” determined the disclosure would lead to “abuse, abandonment or neglect.”

George Wallace, the executive director of the Center, a hub of community resources for LGBTQ students, noted that his art teacher was the first person he told he was gay when he was in 10th grade in the late 1980s.

“I am fearful that students who have allies within the school district — be it the teacher, the librarian or the lunch lady — are not going to be comfortable talking to them, or asking questions or coming out to them,” Wallace said.

Ricardo Negron-Almodovar, who was in Pulse on the night of the shooting, said it’s also important for the next generation to learn about what happened that night.

When he heard the gunfire in the nightclub, Negron-Almodovar dropped to the ground and then escaped through a side door. In 2018, Negron-Almodovar co-founded Del Ambiente, an organization that promotes holistic development in LGBTQ Puerto Ricans.

“We cannot pretend what happened at Pulse did not happen,” said Negron-Almodovar, 32. “This is Florida. This should be taught in schools, at an early age, to bring a different perspective and be a support system as children grow and understand their sexual orientation and sexual identity.”

Jacobs, the school board chairwoman, said there is one children’s book in particular that she hopes remains a vital part of the upbringing of Orlando youths, “Mi Tio Pulse,” or “My Uncle Pulse.”

The book was written by Keith Newhouse, a 38-year-old Orlando book publisher, to help children process grief.

The book does not directly refer to sexual orientation but includes some rainbow-colored illustrations and features a tearful uncle explaining to his nephew’s elementary school class how an “unsafe person” hurt “many people” at a place where people went to “dance and have fun.”

“I hope someday I can go to a place like Pulse, and we can dance and have fun together,” the boy tells his uncle at the end of the book, while hugging him and apologizing for making him cry.

“I would like that very much,” the uncle responds. “We should all feel safe wherever we are.”