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Perspective | North Carolina can’t afford to lose its LGBTQ+ teachers

Every day, students ask questions about their teacher. “What are you doing this weekend?” “Do you have kids?” “Are you married?”

For heterosexual teachers, this is no big deal. But LGBTQ+ teachers in North Carolina are now forced to consider if their responses to innocent questions could be breaking the law.

In August of 2023, the North Carolina General Assembly overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 49,  the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” which has earned the nickname of the “Don’t Say LGBTQ+ Bill.”

The legislation requires that public schools notify parents of changes in students’ names or pronouns, bans K-4 curriculum that includes gender identity, sexual activity, or sexuality, and requires that schools create a process for parents to review instructional materials, as well as access their child’s school library records. This legislation is detrimental to LGBTQ+ educators, students, and families and may exacerbate North Carolina’s already crippling teacher shortage. 

At the start of the 2023-24 school year, North Carolina had 2,840 teacher vacancies statewide, or about 3% of the state’s teaching corps. Students cram into overcrowded classrooms, courses are being canceled, and long-term substitutes without formal teacher certifications are stepping into full-time instructional roles.

The shortage stems from many issues within the education system, including low teacher pay (North Carolina ranks 40th in the nation for teacher pay), the COVID-19 pandemic, and declining numbers of students entering teacher training programs. However, North Carolina passing legislation such as SB 49 will only worsen the shortage as current LGBTQ+ teachers leave the classroom for other professions and future educators choose to teach in less hostile states. 

Although North Carolina is not yet seeing the mass effects of anti-gay education legislation, other states that enacted hostile laws are seeing increased teacher resignations. Many teachers in Florida and Kentucky feel their state’s legislation is stripping teacher autonomy, and educators are choosing to quit. North Carolina will likely see similar waves of resignations in the coming school year as teachers grapple with the impact of SB 49. 

Many claim that legislation such as the “Don’t Say LGBTQ+ Bill” has little or no effect on the majority of teachers. However, a study by the Pew Research Center found that 41% of participating teachers said that debates about LGBTQ+ and race issues hurt their ability to do their jobs. The negative impact does not stem from educators having to change their curriculum. Sixty-eight percent of educators in the same survey said LGBTQ+ issues rarely or never come up in their class, 21% said sometimes, and only 8% said it comes up often. The negative impact instead stems from the hostility and fear exclusive legislation, such as SB 49, adds to the classroom. Suddenly, if a student asks, “Why does Joe have two moms?” the teacher may dodge the question out of fear of breaking the law. 

This legislation not only impacts educators but also restricts how educators can show up for students. For LGBTQ+ students or students who have queer families, having LGBTQ+ educators can be a haven. Having their family structure or their identity validated is critical to their emotional well-being.

And that emotional well-being is fragile. According to the National School Climate Survey, 83% of LGBTQ+ students in grades K-12 experienced harassment or assault in the 2021-22 school year. Thirty-two percent of LGBTQ+ students missed school at least once a month due to feeling unsafe. Having LGBTQ+ role models and normalizing queerness in schools can increase student safety and their sense of belonging. 

Others defend SB 49 by claiming it does not impact many people. However, in North Carolina, 4% of the state’s population, or roughly 382,000 people, identify as LGBTQ+. Of that group, 26%, or about 99,000 LGBTQ+ individuals, have children. There are tens of thousands of children growing up in queer households in the state who need to see their family structure represented in school. 

The LGBTQ+ population is steadily growing, meaning that SB 49’s harm will grow with it. In 2020, 5.6% of the U.S. adult population identified as LGBTQ+, but in 2022, it had increased to 7.1%. Additionally, one in five Gen-Z adults identify as LGBTQ+. As veteran teachers retire, and schools seek to replace them with new teachers, North Carolina’s “Don’t Say LGBTQ+ Bill” will deter younger generations from entering the profession and teaching in the state, worsening the ever-growing teacher shortage. 

North Carolina must overturn SB 49 to protect queer educators, queer students, and queer families. The LGBTQ+ community is rich in history and culture that should be celebrated, not persecuted. Queer teachers should feel comfortable discussing their partner or spouse as nonchalantly as their heterosexual counterparts, and schools should be encouraged to decorate for Pride Month the way they do Women’s History Month or Black History Month. Until SB 49 is overturned, the teacher shortage will continue to worsen, and LGBTQ+ students will continue feeling unsafe and unrepresented in schools. Only when North Carolina education moves away from hate and towards acceptance can the state guarantee all children an equitable and quality education. 

Stephanie Pett

Stephanie Pett is a Duke University student obtaining her masters in public policy and in business administration. Previously, Pett was a seventh grade math teacher in Charlotte.