Don’t Say LGBTQ+, One Year Later: A Conversation with Cory Bernaert

by HRC Staff

In the year since “Don’t Say LGBTQ+” went into effect in Florida, the law has had devastating consequences for LGBTQ+ students, educators and their allies. The law targets LGBTQ+ youth by prohibiting instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3 and restricting instruction in grades 4-12. In practice, this bars educators across the state from having and providing a safe, inclusive classroom.

The law is part of a broader campaign against LGBTQ+ people by Gov. Ron DeSantis, alongside conservative extremists in the Florida legislature. To mark one year since the law took effect on July 1, 2022, HRC spoke with Florida kindergarten teacher Cory Bernaert about its impact. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

HRC: Can you please tell us about your background?

Cory: I started my career in Indiana and taught first grade for 2 years, then my partner and I moved to Florida. I've been teaching kindergarten for 10 years here in Florida.
We thought that we were moving to Florida, to more of a liberal state, and, wow, we were shocked! We thought that we'd be more accepted here, but the laws that are taking effect definitely make us feel like we are not.

HRC: It sounds like there are people who accept you, but there's discord between the people and the politics.

Cory: Yes, because from my experience, the average pro-DeSantis person does not have an understanding of what is actually happening. I have colleagues who say they love me for me, and they are okay with me being a gay kindergarten teacher, but they still vote for DeSantis.

HRC: What effects from “Don’t Say LGBTQ+” have you seen over the past year?

Cory: With the lack of guidance from the State on how instruction and discussion are not supposed to take place, there really hasn't been any sort of change in how I'm educating my children. I can tell you the main reason for that is because instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity does not happen in our grades, because it's not part of our standards. So, you can't expect any changes when it wasn't happening in the first place.

Now, discussions are different than instruction. And the reason that there hasn't really been a big change yet is because a parent hasn't said yet, "My child is being instructed on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

HRC: Are you afraid of what might happen?

Cory: My personal belief on this bill is that it was a fear tactic. This administration wants us to be afraid. My teaching has not changed because of this bill, but my fear level has skyrocketed.

Am I going to be sued for instructing the children in my classroom? Is today going to be the day where a parent says "I am not happy with what was said in your classroom today. You talked about your partner going on a bike ride with you over the weekend. You're instructing my child on sexual orientation”?

HRC: What about book bans? If a parent says a book is inappropriate, what’s your response to that?

Cory: To truly have effective instruction, students have to find themselves in literature. When they see themselves, they are automatically connected to the text.

I mean, it's just natural. We want to see ourselves in the world around us. So how are we going to take books away that have our students in them?
The students that we have in our classrooms today, we're saying that they can't be present in the text that they can read. If we have queer students, why are we not going to provide books that have queer characters? When the law takes that away, the state is telling them that the way they are is not okay.

HRC: Supporters of the bill say that teachers shouldn’t discuss their personal lives with students. What’s your perspective on that?

Cory: Teachers build relationships with their students, they build community. Community and relationships deal with family, and we're teaching our children by building those relationships. So, we talk about our families because that’s part of building a classroom community.

I always use this example. My fourth grade teacher, I can’t remember a particular math lesson she taught me, but I can tell you about her little dog that she had that she loved dearly. Her husband, who was very handy, would fix everything for her. I remember the tractor that he would drive around his yard. I remember how her and her husband would love to do gardening. That's what I remember from my fourth grade teacher, because she built that relationship. That's how important it is to share our families with our students. It enhances their education.

HRC: What message do you have for families and educators who are affected by “Don’t Say LGBTQ+”?

Cory: We're talking about families here. Just because, you know, society's “normal” family is the heterosexual family with two children, doesn't mean that everybody has to fit that mold. So, I always try to encourage people to remember that just as much as your family is important to you, our families are important to us as well.