Since middle school, Tiffany Jarrett knew she wanted to be a music teacher. 

She grew up in a musical family, but it was her school band director who made her realize she wanted to work in education. She describes her as an amazing human who was supportive of her students. Jarrett saw her and thought, "I want to do that."

“I want to be the person who inspires someone else. I want to help someone else find their passion," Jarrett said. "And even if, you know, a kid doesn't do it the rest of their life, I helped them find a place to belong.”

And for a while, that’s what she did. She’s been a teacher, a TA, a substitute, and most recently, she served on the COVID team for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. 

That position ended last week, and in an ideal world, she says she would go back to being in the classroom. But with pending legislation targeting LGBTQ youth and educators in North Carolina, Jarrett, a lesbian woman, is reconsidering the job she once thought was her calling. 

Senate Bill 49, known as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” passed in both the state House and the Senate last week. It was introduced in January and has been dubbed NC’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill by LGBTQ advocates. 

The bill would require teachers to inform parents if a student asked to change their name or pronouns at school. It would also prohibit instruction on gender identity or sexuality in Kindergarten through 4th grade. 

So, what if a child asks about a family with two moms? Or two dads? Or a transgender child?

The bill makes an exception for student-initiated questions, but in a recent Senate session, Sen. Amy Galey, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, shared her view on how those questions should be answered. 

“How does the teacher answer that kind of question? In my opinion, the teachers should say ask your parents," Galey said. 

The bill, which is now headed to the governor’s desk, leaves educators questioning what they can and can’t say in class, whether that’s about a lesson or about themselves. 

Rebby Kern is the Director of Education Policy for Equality NC, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ rights. Kern says they’ve heard from several teachers who were told not to use certain materials in their class because of this bill.

“There's a lot of fear. In the last three years, a lot of the phone calls I get from other organizers or educators is, 'Can I be fired if?' That's an awful place to be," Kern said. 

It’s a place that Jarrett says she’s already been. She taught for a year at a religious private school in Winston-Salem, and says she was dismissed after a student saw her in public with her partner, and outed her to the administration. 

She believes she would have more support in a public school, but she can’t help but think about the potential for trouble with parents, or administrators, or maybe even the law. 

“What do I do if a kid is like, you know, 'do you have a husband? Do you have a boyfriend?' What do I say? 'No, I have a partner. And she is a woman.' Like, do I just say no, and leave it like? It’s really, it's a sad thought. And it's also, it's not fair," Jarrett said. 

She says her heterosexual colleagues wouldn’t have to think twice about their answer. But it’s something that LGBTQ educators in the state say they’ve had to think about a lot. 

That’s why, a few months ago, Ryan Hughes and Sara Porter, who are both teacher educators in Guilford County, created a supportive network for LGBTQ people in education called L.E.A.R.N. which is hosted at the Guilford Green Foundation & LGBTQ Center in Greensboro. 

The group has only had a few meetings so far. At the first one, Hughes asked everyone to write down some of the challenges they face as queer educators on a big sheet of paper. 

“The tension between coming out and putting yourself at risk versus being an out and positive role model for potentially gay students," Hughes read from the list. "Somebody else said coming out or not as an educator. They said that their challenge is lack of safe space for queer teachers and students.”

Hughes also asked members about their vision for the group. Someone said they’d like attorneys to get involved to advise them on pending legislation.  

“If and when these bills are passed, how do we protect ourselves and what are our legal rights to come out of the closet in our work?" Hughes said. 

Torie Wheatley, an English teacher at North Mecklenburg High School in Huntersville, just north of Charlotte, says she had similar concerns before coming out. Now, she’s the advisor for the Gay-Straight Alliance at her school, and on Twitter, she describes herself as a “Ratchet Queer Teacher.”

She credits a supportive administration for her decision to come out, but even then, it wasn’t easy.

“Not only am I queer, I'm Black. Not only am I queer and Black, I'm queer, Black, and I'm a woman. So it is scary," Wheatley said. "And I have the ideal situation of being around support, but that is very ideal. That's not common. And we have to do better to make that a common space.”

That goes for teachers, but also for students. Wheatley says she felt like she couldn’t make her kids feel safe being themselves, if she had to hide who she was. 

And other LGBTQ teachers, like Tiffany Jarrett, say they would have greatly benefited from having an openly gay teacher. 

“So I think about it, and I'm like, I could be that person, for some kid out there who's struggling," Jarrett said. "But at the same time, there’s a danger to being that person.”

Jarrett says she’s been asked to apply for multiple music teacher jobs, but she’s passed on most of them. She doesn’t want to be stuck somewhere that isn’t safe for her, which might mean not being in a North Carolina classroom at all.

Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.

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