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Teacher fights Florida anti-LGBTQ+ law, says ‘state can’t deny my existence’

When Katie Wood interviewed for the position of math teacher at Lennard High School in Hillsborough County, Florida, in 2021, she told the principal that she was a transgender woman and wanted to work only in a school that would make her feel welcome.

“I told her that as a transgender woman, it’s really important that I work at a school that affirms me,” Wood said.

The principal assured Wood that Lennard was that kind of school, and in August 2021, Wood, now 25, began her first paid teaching job out of college.

On her first day of class, she wrote “Ms. Wood” on the blackboard. She used “she” and “her” as pronouns consistent with her gender identity, and her students called her “Ms. Wood.” For the next two years, her fellow teachers, superiors and all other school staff called her “Ms. Wood.”

But the acceptance ended in the summer of 2023.

The prior May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed HB 1069, an expansion of the 2022 law known as “Don’t Say Gay.” The statute prohibits public and charter schoolteachers from using pronouns and titles that don’t “correspond” to their sex assigned at birth. Teachers who violate the law can lose their jobs and teaching licenses. The law also bars any employee from being required to use a student’s pronouns if they do not match their sex assigned at birth.

The law took effect July 1, 2023, but Wood didn’t know about it until the school principal informed her of it after the school year started. At first, she resisted. She privately consulted several members of the school board, her principal and assistant principal.

“Everyone told me it’s state law and there is nothing we can do,” Wood said.

After the principal held a formal faculty meeting about the law, Wood felt she had no choice but to comply. She erased “Ms. Wood” from her blackboard and wrote, “Teacher Wood.”

She is now a plaintiff in a Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit – with co-counsel the Southern Legal Counsel and Altshuler Berzon – filed this past December that challenges Subsection 3 of the law, which blocks transgender and nonbinary teachers from using their pronouns and titles. She is joined by two other Florida teachers, one of whom was fired for noncompliance.

‘Unconstitutional and unlawful’

The complaint alleges that the state Department of Education, other state defendants and three school boards violated the teachers’ First Amendment right to free speech, the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection, and their rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex. The complaint also alleges that the defendants violated the teachers’ rights under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in schools.

“This case is part of a pattern of efforts such as book bans, bathroom restrictions, the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law and many other measures by the current administration to delegitimize and drive out LGBTQ+ people from schools and life in Florida,” said Sam Boyd, senior supervising attorney with the SPLC’s Democracy: Education & Youth litigation team.

“We think it’s important to make it clear that transgender people have just as much right to be teachers as anyone else, and it’s unconstitutional and unlawful to tell them that they can’t be themselves, which includes using the title and pronoun appropriate to their gender at work.”

In April, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker granted Wood’s motion for a preliminary injunction that allows Wood to continue using her title and pronouns until the case is decided. The law continues to be in effect statewide.

Judge Walker began his decision by stating, “Once again, the State of Florida has a First Amendment problem. Of late, it has happened so frequently, some might say you can set your clock by it.” Toward the end of his sharply worded decision, he quoted Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” writing that when Wood shares her preferred title and pronouns, she, like Whitman, “celebrates herself and sings herself – not in a disruptive or coercive way, but in a way that subtly vindicates her identity, her dignity, and her humanity.”

Earlier this month, the state appealed Judge Walker’s decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asserting that Subsection 3 is necessary to advance a “curricular interest” in teaching that a person’s sex at birth is “binary, stable and unchangeable,” and preventing “confusion” by students.

As to Wood’s right to free speech, the state says that her use of her pronouns “undermines its educational mission” and “may pose a substantial danger to the [school’s] successful functioning.”

Wood’s response to the state’s appeal is expected later this summer, and oral arguments on the appeal are scheduled for the week of Sept. 22. Meanwhile, proceedings in the trial court continue and trial is scheduled for 2025.

The LGBTQ+ community is terrified

For Wood, the experience has been eye-opening.

“I spent three-and-a-half, four years learning to love and accept myself, but before the preliminary injunction every time I made a mistake [in the classroom], I was full of anxiety that if I was reported I could lose my job,” she said.

“The experience has made me realize how bigoted the state is and that this is a lot bigger than me. So, I had to make a decision: Do I just comply with something I know is wrong or do I do something? I decided that I’m not wrong. The state can’t deny my existence. I know I’m a woman. The law is hurting a lot of transgender people. They might not have the ability, strength and resolve that I do, so if I didn’t do something to fight the state, what kind of person would that make me?”

Some 900,000 LGBTQ+ adults live in Florida, but no one knows how many transgender teachers are among them.

Transgender rights attorney and SPLC co-counsel Simone Chriss, director of the Transgender Rights Initiative at the Southern Legal Counsel, said that plaintiffs like Katie Wood constitute a very small number of people willing to have their lives publicized, scrutinized and “subjected to the invasive nature of being a plaintiff in federal litigation like this.” As a result, most victims of gender discrimination in Florida schools decline to pursue a legal remedy.

“Teachers are leaving the school system,” said Chriss, who has been the target of death threats for her work. “Or they are going to other states or going back into the closet. And the teachers who people didn’t know were transgender are not coming out. This deprives students in Florida of the opportunity to see their lived experience reflected at school.”

For parents of children with gender dysphoria, the prospect of being at the center of a lawsuit against a conservative state is terrifying.

In 2022, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo – who became known nationally for promoting misinformation about public health measures intended to fight COVID – issued a memo opposing gender-affirming care for youth and social transitioning, which is the term used when youth express their gender identity through clothing, appearance and possibly name and pronoun usage.

The following year, Florida banned gender-affirming medical care for minors, and imposed restrictions on this care for transgender adults, but a federal judge struck down the ban and restrictions earlier this month.

And in Texas, the attorney general issued an advisory saying that if parents allow gender-affirming care, they could be charged with child abuse and potentially lose their children.

“I can’t put into words the fear that parents in Florida have shared with me regarding the possibility of their children being taken away,” Chriss said. “They fear Florida will go the way of Texas in terms of punishing affirming and supportive parents of trans youth. Some are homeschooling their children; some are fearful to allow their children to dress in accordance with their gender identity because they fear they will be reported to the Department of Children and Families. Some have even decided not to allow their adolescent to access gender-affirming care even though the adolescent’s doctor says it’s medically necessary for the treatment of their gender dysphoria. Talk about the epitome of government overreach – for a state that holds itself out as being profoundly concerned about ‘parents’ rights,’ this administration is stripping parents of transgender adolescents of the fundamental right to make medical decisions for their own children.”

Boyd of the SPLC also warns of dire consequences if the Florida Legislature isn’t stopped in its quest to criminalize its LGBTQ+ community.

“Other states will follow and go even further,” Boyd said. “Gov. Abbott of Texas has already said that transgender women teachers should be forced to wear men’s clothing in school, and one state legislator there has gone even further, describing all transgender teachers as ‘perverts’ who should not be allowed to teach.”

Such stigmatizing tropes have taken on a life of their own among conservatives in the past few years. Chriss noted that many of the transgender and nonbinary children she works with are being bullied by their peers with the same vilifying language that conservatives, including Florida state Rep. Webster Barnaby, have used during discussion of the state’s 2023 so-called “Bathroom Bill,” when he called transgender people “mutants from another planet” and “demons and imps.” The law prohibits the use of certain government-owned bathrooms by people whose sex assigned at birth is not aligned with their gender identity.

“The idea that, in the year 2024, fourth grade students are being called ‘groomers’ and ‘pedophiles’ by their peers is unconscionable,” Chriss said. “This is the same language that was used to demonize and dehumanize us as gays and lesbians in Florida, and it has resurged due to the shameful rhetoric being used by our lawmakers. The transgender community is just the newest scapegoat being used to mobilize a base of people who need to be angry and distracted by things they don’t understand.”

‘We still exist’

While the lawsuit against the state winds through the courts, Wood continues to advocate on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community.

As a volunteer for Equality Florida, she participated in Pride at the Capitol at the beginning of the recent legislative session, when she and fellow advocates spoke with allied legislators on upcoming legislation they wanted defeated. By the session’s end, 21 of 22 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were defeated or rendered ineffective.

Yet her overriding focus remains her students – while acknowledging that if she and her fellow plaintiffs win, “it would be really cool to be part of that in a small way.”

Lennard High School is located in the small, unincorporated, agricultural town of Ruskin, 30 minutes to the south of booming Tampa. About 43% of Lennard’s students are Latinx, with the rest about an equal mix of white and non-Latinx students of color. Because Lennard is a Title I high school, 80% or more of the students qualify for free school lunch.

“My students struggle – especially since the pandemic – because learning is an acquired skill,” Wood said. “So not only do I have to teach them math, but I have to teach them how to learn and also help them express their feelings in a positive way, because they have many disagreements in school. It’s a huge responsibility.”

“The state can continue to pass anti-LGBTQ+ laws, but they won’t be successful,” Wood said, “because we still exist. The law hurts my identity, it hurts my heart, my self-confidence; it makes me sad, depressed, but it’s also going to lead to real kids killing themselves.”

From left: People take part in the Trans Pride March in Portland, Oregon, on June 16, 2018. The march is organized annually by Greater Portland Trans Unity. (Credit: Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)