‘We say gay’: Berkeley school district clashes with restrictive LGBTQ+ Florida legislation

photo of BUSD classroom
Theo Wyss-Flamm/Senior Staff
Amid concerns over legislation dubbed “don’t say gay” in Florida, parents of Berkeley students discuss measures taken by Berkeley Unified School District to support the LGBTQ+ community. Parents also remarked on the differences in attitudes between different states in regard to LGBTQ+ students.

In Berkeley, California, school libraries read like confetti clouds of LGBTQ+ pride as bookshelves are replete with literature on gender identity and sexual orientation for all ages.

On another coast just more than 2,000 miles away, those same books are being removed from classroom collections in preparation of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, set to go into effect July 1.

“It’s really hard being in Berkeley where the kids are in a bubble of support and acceptance, so much more than the rest of the country,” said Sara Kaplan, mother of two children in the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD. “It’s really important that that bubble gets popped in a slow, age appropriate way and they are aware that we are fortunate here, we’re not fighting for affirmative care for them. That’s just not true for my friends in Texas and Florida and Ohio.”

Dubbed “don’t say gay” by its critics, the law prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade, stipulating that such subjects must be taught in a manner deemed “age-appropriate” by parents through the 12th grade.

In the weeks following the newly minted law, more than a dozen states proposed to enact similar legislation, creating a patchwork of anti-LGBTQ+ agendas across the country. While many students and educators in Berkeley don’t anticipate similar actions by their state’s lawmakers, some regard Florida’s measures as a warning.

“I don’t expect something like that to happen here but you know, it could,” said Ruby Lim-Moreno, a recent Berkeley High School, or BHS, graduate. “And maybe it already is.”

A window into Berkeley schools 

When school bells ring again and advertisements for back-to-school supply sales adorn store windows, hallways will echo with the clamor of children reuniting. In Florida, students who identify other than heterosexual along the gender spectrum may cheer a little quieter, with nary a murmur of LGBTQ+ discussions.

In Berkeley, students, staff and faculty will carry on, reading literature and organizing club meetings to embrace their gender identities.

“Berkeley Unified is an LGBTQ+ affriming and supportive community where we “say gay,” honor and celebrate the history and acheivements of LGBTQ+ students and staff, and welcome the many contributions to our classrooms, schools and school community made by LGBTQ+ students and staff,” said BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott in an email.

At Malcolm X Elementary School, or MX, families with LGBTQ+ relatives and allies of the community meet throughout the year, calling themselves Rainbow Families, according to Kaplan, who has been the PTA representative of the group for the past seven years. Their big focus is organizing an annual Pride event, which this year garnered 500 celebrators.

During the week of the event, staff, faculty and students decked out in rainbow colors, Kaplan said. Instructors were asked to emphasize “Welcoming Schools” in their classrooms, a teaching approach adopted by BUSD that embeds LGBTQ+ topics into school curricula and prioritizes gender inclusion.

photo of sara kaplan

Sara Kaplan / Courtesy

The school’s walls were covered high and low with posters kids created on the importance of pronouns, Kaplan said. One poster, reading “What does LGBTQIA+ pride mean to you?” was filled with post-it notes of students’ answers.

Under Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, such banners would be torn down.

While all BUSD schools operate under a Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Student Policy to promote a safe environment free from stigma and discrimination, according to McDermott, not every school resembles MX.

“Malcolm X is the most vocal and transparent one,” Kaplan said. “Other schools keep it a little quieter and the people there keep it quieter; a lot of students aren’t out publicly.”

Coming out

Falling outside the cis-heteronormative binary is common, but it is usually accompanied by a coming out story.

Last summer, Owen Blair, a recent BHS graduate who was co-president of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, started socially transitioning into his identity as a “trans guy.”

His return to school coincided with the return to in-person instruction following over a year of online learning from the pandemic. Once-familiar faces had become distant strangers, making it easier to reintroduce himself, Blair said.

“But then again, I did have to find people that I’d never have class with ever again and be like, ‘hey, remember me’ and that was really awkward,” Blair recounted.

Having attended a school with an alleged revolving door to sexual harassment, Blair claimed, he counts himself “lucky” to have graduated largely unscathed. Some of his friends have been less fortunate, he alleged.

Like Blair, Lim-Moreno, former president of the Alliance of Gender Expansive Students, said she’s “been lucky to have support” as a transgender woman. But her emotional scars linger.

Over the last year, Lim-Moreno struggled immensely with a teacher that she alleged refused to use proper pronouns and made transphobic comments.

When students file sexual harassment and gender discrimination complaints, BUSD investigates the incident and evidence presented to determine if a Transgender Policy was violated, according to McDermott. She noted that students also have direct access to BUSD’s Title IX Coordinator at the BHS campus.

In the end, the teacher left on their own accord with “no action” from the administration, Lim-Moreno alleged, setting a tarnished precedent for teachers to follow in their footsteps.

“There needs to be a greater seriousness taken to people who are being transphobic and homophobic in the administration and in staff,” Lim-Moreno said. “That makes a huge difference when a person who is in a position of power over you and is supposed to be helping you learn is not accepting of who you are.”

A mile south of BHS at MX, Kaplan’s son found great solace in his teachers in the midst of his gender transition during the second grade.

It was a day like any other; Kaplan had arrived at school to pick up her son. Instead of reuniting with her child alone, she was greeted by his teachers too, along with a personal reckoning.

“He told me that he had a secret, that his inner person was a boy and he was ready to socially transition immediately since he had come into that information like a year before,” Kaplan said. “He confided in a teacher and they were wonderful.”

As supportive as MX is, Kaplan alleged that it still has a lot of red tape and bureaucracy like all public schools and is not immune from the transphobia that stains society.

Although coming out is a deeply personal choice, some are not given the opportunity to tell their stories in the first person. Kaplan’s transgender daughter, now heading into fifth grade at MX, was outed to her school community by a fellow student.

Kaplan said it’s concerning as a parent when schools allegedly allow transphobic comments to go on unfettered, adding that she has reservations about her son attending BHS at the end of the summer.

“If that’s happening in Berkeley, California where the school is doing their best, I can’t even imagine how difficult it could be in these other states where the school can’t be supportive,” Kaplan said.

A space to be gay

When not at home, most kids can be found at school. Their classrooms are familiar spaces, deemed safe or threatening by the personalities that fill them.

In her time as a theater teacher at MX over the past 13 years, Mariah Castle has seen a student’s school community act as a springboard for their sense of confidence, self-expression and social relationships. When kids are able to transition in a supportive school environment, they often come alive and blossom into their unique personhood.

School is so deeply rooted in a student’s sense of self that it is impossible to fully fathom the implications of any legislation designed to curtail gender identity and sexual expression dialogue, Castle said. The Florida law, she alleged, will have traumatic effects.

“When LGBTQ+ students don’t feel safe to be and express who they are, that leads to higher suicide rates and greater mental health problems,” Castle said. “It makes communities weaker when we’re not celebrating and including people for who they are. I think that makes the whole community suffer.”

Art in and of itself is a form of self-expression, which makes it intertwined with gender identity, Castle said. She recalled being delighted when a transgender student of hers requested a male role in a Shakespeare play, watching with glee as they embodied a masculine character that aligned with their gender identity.

With her transitional kindergarten students, Castle always reads and acts out some gender expansive books, sprouting conversations that push gender boundaries.

“Can boys wear dresses?” Castle will ask her class, to which some four year-olds bounce up and say “of course.” Others, she said, become suspended in a pause, displaying a dizzied and dazed expression.

Overall, the exercise is meant to plant seeds, Castle said. Even if students do not come away with a concrete conclusion, they are at least exposed to such topics in a safe space.

Trust in teachers 

“It’s scary and surreal,” Castle said about the Parental Rights in Education law.

What’s most heartbreaking, Castle added, is the parental notification requirement.

When a student in Florida receives mental, emotional or physical health services at their public school, beginning July 1, the school will be required to notify the child’s parents. An exception is carved out if educators believe there is a risk of “abuse, abandonment, or neglect,” according to the law.

Whether seeking guidance on their parent’s divorce or comfort while wrestling with gender, sexuality or mental inner quarrels — thoughts that pass through all people —  the student’s parents will be informed.

“The law totally undermines the relationship of trust that’s essential for teaching,” Castle said. “It legally requires teachers to tell on their students and betray that trust.”

In 2013, BUSD passed a “Gender Identity and Access” regulation affirming students’ right to privacy, which includes the right to control the dissemination of personal information such as transgender status. Under the guideline, schools may not disclose a student’s transgender status or gender identity to others — including parents.

photo of board meeting

Kaleo Mark / File

In rare circumstances where there is a necessary legal or compelling reason for disclosure, the school must inform the student to give them the opportunity to tell their own stories, if they so choose.

“Essentially, it’s the opposite of the Florida law,” Castle said.

Echoing this sentiment, Jasmina Viteskic, BUSD Title IX coordinator and compliance officer, touted BUSD as being on the right side of history. Students are encouraged to openly speak to their families about their transgender status and sexual orientation, but forcefully outing kids when they are not ready is wrong and can place them in danger, she said.

Children’s minds are like treasure troves of hidden gems and flummoxing thoughts. Buried within those musings may be doubts about their gender identity, which many parents aren’t aware of.

Having encountered some of these mothers, fathers and guardians — not yet privy to their child’s inner gender explorations — Kaplan said it’s amazing when schools can provide guidance and support to these students, sometimes acting as a lifeline. Students in other states can’t all say the same, she noted.

The underpinnings of creating safe schools is having trust in teachers and the district. The curricula problems that arise, Kaplan said, are usually because of parents.

When her youngest child was in preschool, Kaplan read the book “I am Jazz” to the class, which features a transgender protagonist. This same book helped her child realize they identified with another gender.

After the reading, many parents complained and asked to be notified ahead of time of any future plans to educate on gender identity so they could have the option to keep their child at home that day, Kaplan said.

“I found that really disturbing,” she said.

Reading these books and having LGBTQ+ lesson plans is not going to make a cisgender child transgender, it’s going to allow a child who feels other to resonate with a new identity, Kaplan said. Educating children is vital to their growth, but educating parents and adults is almost more important to protect students’ safety at home, she added.

The nonprofit that she runs — Rainbow Families Bay Area — provides support groups for parents, caregivers and preteens.

“We all just want to feel seen and represented, not alone,” Kaplan said.

Popping the bubble 

Kaplan’s now 14-year-old son refuses to visit his grandparents at their home, and has for a while. Him and his sister feel like targets, constantly fearful of being outed.

Their grandparents live in Florida.

Though Viteskic noted that California and Florida are on opposite ends of the coast and political spectrum, she said the Parental Rights in Education law still affects students in Berkeley. Viteskic alleged kids that grow up in California and decide to go off to college in a different state may even experience a regression of their rights.

“We as an entire nation have equality; if one of us is affected, all of us are affected,” Viteskic said. “Just because Florida is far away doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect us.”

The law, while no direct physical impact on BHS, had an immense emotional toll on the school, according to Blair. It ignited outrage and worry about what could be next, an unceasing despair about the future.

With school being a place for people to learn about all facets of themselves and the world around them, the Parental Rights in Education law is innately limiting education, Blair said. Amid all the national efforts to silence the voices of gender expansive students, Blair claimed even Berkeley could be doing more.

“At Berkeley High, I feel like administration often falls behind,” Blair alleged. “I don’t know why they do it, they always drop the ball.”

In addition to creating a more robust sexual education program that addresses queer issues and teaches safe sex to all — not just heterosexual students — Blair said he would like to see more queer spaces.

While BUSD has gender-neutral restrooms across all of its campuses, Viteskic acknowledged that there’s work to be done in building more gender-neutral spaces, such as locker rooms.

Before the district created nonbinary restrooms, Kaplan shared stories of kids getting bladder infections from “holding it in all day.”

What may be a small change in the eyes of some students can make a world of difference to their classmates.

“These little things aren’t little to these kids that are dealing with them. They have medical and mental consequences, it really is life or death,” Kaplan said. “If the kids don’t feel like there’s a safe space at home and they don’t have that safe space at school, then what are they left with?”

Contact Maxine Mouly at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @moulymaxine.