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What does Hillsborough school's LGBTQ History Month proclamation mean for the community?

Rainbow LGBTQ pride flag and American flag wave on a pole above a home surrounded by tRainbow LGBTQ pride flag and American flag wave on a pole above a home surrounded by trees
Stephanie Colombini
Josie's family wave an LGBTQ pride flag along with an American flag outside their St. Johns County home

School proclamations are largely symbolic, but in the midst of a turbulent political climate for the LGBTQ+ community, the recognition is powerful, some say.

Ashley Bradley was one of more than two dozen people who spoke in favor of a proclamation for LGBTQ History Month at a Hillsborough school board meeting on Tuesday.

"Growing up I was not represented, I saw no one that looked like me, no one that felt like me, I felt very isolated." said Bradley. "I didn't know there were people in history as a part of our community, so I appreciate you for allowing us to have an LGBTQ History Month."

Ashley Bradley speaks at the October 17 board meeting in support of the LGBTQ History Month proclamation.
Hillsborough County Public Schools
Ashley Bradley speaks at the October 17 board meeting in support of the LGBTQ History Month proclamation.

The proclamation is a largely symbolic gesture made by school districts, but it's become a point of controversy across the state as some districts reject such recognitions amid a turbulent political climate.

Last September, the Miami-Dade County School Board, the largest in the state,blocked the LGBTQ History resolution after some board members argued it violated state law.

The Polk County School Board, in August, decided to eliminate proclamations of cultural celebrations and other issues altogether, with some board members citing the declarations as a "distraction" from education.

For Bradley and others who spoke about being bullied and harassed for their identities as a student, the official recognition signified inclusion and acceptance.

"We were told not to exist," said Bradley, "Our children in this county deserve better, and I appreciate you guys for sticking up for them."

The Hillsborough school board voted unanimously to approve the resolution Tuesday night. In June, the board had also passed a proclamation for Pride Month.

The proclamations do not include any curriculum changes, nor are any district-wide events planned in relation to LGBTQ History Month, according to the district communications office.

But speakers at the meeting said there's still value in making a public statement in support of the LGBTQ community especially as recent state laws continue to restrict classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.

"I realize the courage it has taken to remain 'woke' in this trying political environment," said Peter Horseman, who identified himself as a gay citizen and a member of Faith Family United Church.

"We are concerned that policies and rhetoric toward LGBTQ plus students, parents, teachers and faculty feel targeted and less safe. We're concerned that books lifting up diversity and the struggle for justice have been taken off library shelves, sometimes as a response to self-censorship."

Jenn Hart, an elementary school teacher in Hillsborough County thanked the board for "helping all children succeed."

"We cannot create an atmosphere in schools, that one type of child or teacher has an existence that cannot be talked about or celebrated because another group of people do not approve."

But teachers say that they're dealing with the effects of bills such as the Stop Woke Act, the Parental Rights in Education Law, known to critics as "Don't Say Gay,” and other "divisive concept" bills on a daily basis.

Roger Marcellus, who teaches 9th grade English, said he and his colleagues feel like they're constantly walking a line between expressing their true identities or violating state statutes.

Because the language in these bills are so broad, Marcellus said, sometimes, their indecision can be about something as simple as including a rainbow on classroom materials or decorations.

"I had teachers come to me in tears, they're like, 'We don't know what to do. We don't want to lose our jobs, but we don't want our trans and nonbinary students, or any of our LGBTQ students to feel alienated,'" said Marcellus, "And they [teachers] also identify as LGBTQ and they're like, 'how is this affecting me? how can I teach and do what I feel is right?'"

Surrounding school districts have come under fire for LGBTQ displays before. Teachers in Sarasota were asked to remove "COEXIST" flags with rainbow colors from their classrooms last August. Pasco County schools removed "safe space" stickers from campuses last school year as well.

"This is what was so sinister about the 'Don't say LGBTQ Law'," said Equality Florida's Senior Policy Advisor Carlos Guillermo Smith. “Not only was it vague and not clearly defined, but the penalties and sanctions against educators and school districts who were found to have violated the law were severe, so much so that it has scared many school districts and many teachers away from including LGBTQ people at all just to be safe."

While there are federal protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, Smith said these state laws create confusion and uncertainty around what districts should be doing.

That's why Equality Florida is pushing for school districts to "provide clear written guidelines for their faculty, support staff and admin to support LGBTQ students," said Smith. Some districts have had to revise those guidelines to comply with state laws.

Bradley said she and her wife have started homeschooling their adopted daughter because they don't feel safe sending her to school. They're scared of the direction the state is taking.

"We always have that fear of them taking away our rights to be parents as well," said Bradley, "If I could move, I would, but really, who's going to stay and fight for these people that can't move?"

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.