name games

Don’t Say Gay, or He, or She, or They

Florida schools under DeSantis are in a panic over pronouns.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo Getty Images/Dmitriy Viktorov
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo Getty Images/Dmitriy Viktorov

When Mandy Burkhart first found out that her children’s Florida school district would require parents to fill out a permission slip to list any alternate name their children may be called in class, she was sitting with her eighth-grader, Cailyn, in a doctor’s office waiting room.

“Cailyn asked what I was reading, because she noticed I looked upset,” Burkhart said. She explained the policy — and her frustration — that she would have to grant school faculty and staff permission to call Cailyn’s first-grade sister, Elizabeth, by her nickname, Betty.

“Tell them to call me ‘Princess Consuela Banana Hammock!’” Cailyn responded.

Burkhart filled out the form as Cailyn asked, but she said, “So far as I know, no one has used that nickname for her yet.”

It was just a taste of the maddening spectacle to come for millions of parents and students in Florida this school year thanks to Governor Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies’ harsh crackdown on anything in schools that references homosexuality or gender identity. Last year, DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Act into law, better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law because it practically forbids teaching about LGBTQ+ issues in school. At the same time, a lesser-known law was also approved addressing names and pronouns, which states that every K-12 public school cannot “ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.”

With no specific guidance from the state yet on how to comply with the new laws, school districts and their attorneys scrambled to interpret the new rules, leaving a patchwork of different regimes across the state. Seminole County, where Burkhart lives, is trying to head off trouble by sending out what’s being called the “nickname form.” If a parent neglects to complete and submit the form, schools can only refer to students by their legal names — regardless of whether students use it themselves. (Some parents and students have returned the forms with nicknames like “Your Majesty,” “Luke Skywalker,” “Megatron,” “My Lord,” “Schmookie Poo,” and “Queen.”)

Teachers are also bound by the same sort of restrictions. In Seminole and Orange counties, for instance, they are not legally allowed to offer their own preferred pronouns to students or even ask students what their preferred pronouns are, either. No matter what county they are in, if a teacher anywhere in Florida is reported for breaking the state’s rules, the law requires they be investigated by the state and they may have their license suspended or revoked.

“If I slip up and accidentally use a pronoun, I ensure I apologize multiple times,” said a Seminole County science teacher, who, like many others in this story, requested anonymity to protect them from potential retribution for speaking out. “After 32 years of using pronouns in everyday conversation, I can’t use them in my professional career?”

The teacher used to provide a space on her syllabus acknowledgement form where students could write in their preferred nicknames to be signed by both parents and students. Since the new laws, she said, she removed it from all of her syllabi. Instead, before she starts school every day, she has to check a spreadsheet maintained by the school’s administration with over 1,000 entries every day to see if one of her 150 students has been added to the list with an approved nickname. “It’s so hard to mentally remember everything as a teacher, let alone ensure I call Maddy ‘Madison’ now,” she said.

In the first few weeks of the school year, the teacher said she feels “like I am constantly on edge, trying to ensure I don’t say the wrong thing. It makes building rapport with students much more challenging this year. Normally, I am very natural and have a motherly presence, so students tend to flock to me. This year, I am more cautious.”

Her concern is not that she would be reported by one of her administrators, but that she could be a vulnerable target for a disgruntled student or parent, like the right-wing, anti-“woke” Moms for Liberty members who show up at Seminole County school-board meetings regularly to voice their opinions about county policies. “Teachers are constantly under fire for every little thing we do now,” the science teacher said. “It just takes one student who doesn’t like a teacher to say something to their parents. Didn’t like the way I graded your exam? Throw me under the bus. Didn’t like the fact that I had to write you up for having your phone out during instructional time, even though that is also a new state mandate? Throw me under the bus.”

With a critical teacher shortage across the state, some public-school teachers seem to be reaching the end of their patience with the profession. One parent was volunteering in at a high-school musical event when she heard a teacher ask the student for their preferred pronouns. “Thank you for asking,” the student replied. “They are he/them, but you’re legally not allowed to use them.” After the student left the room, the teacher turned to the parent and said, “You know, if this is why I get fired, I’m okay with being on this side of things.”

Students are also feeling the strain.

Mas Gold, a high-school senior in Altamonte Springs, is nonbinary and last year began changing their pronouns and name from their birth name, Mason, among their friends and select teachers to reflect their identity. This year, Mas and their mom hoped the permission slip might actually make the process easier for them, giving all their teachers a heads-up at once.

“Instead, I’ve had to approach a lot more teachers than last year,” Mas said. In the past, they were able to just ask teachers to call them by their preferred name and they did. But now, they have to ask each of their seven teachers to check the school’s spreadsheet of approved names. Mas has had to explain more than once, “It’s my old name, just with the end chopped off,” in front of the rest of the class.

“There are people in that class who I don’t feel comfortable telling that I don’t go by the name I was given 17 years ago,” Mas said. “It was terrifying.”

Mas said some of their friends identify as LGBTQ+ in school, but not at home where their parents would not accept them, making the new policy all the more cruel because those students will not be able to submit nickname forms. “It has been sad to see them have to go by names they don’t identify with anymore, especially by teachers who used to call them by the names they do prefer,” they said.

Mas’s mom, Jaime, would like them to forgo the affordable tuition available at Florida public state universities and leave the state for college. “For 17 years, I have told my kids, ‘You have to stay in the state for undergrad, and then you can go wherever you want for grad school.’ Now, I am completely backtracking on that,” she said, encouraging Mas to look at universities in states that don’t persecute LGBTQ+ people.

Mas, however, feels a responsibility to stay and fight for their friends.

“We can leave, but there’s also people who can’t,” they said. “This is where they’ve grown up, this is where their support centers are. There needs to be someone left here for the people who can’t afford to leave their situations.”

Florida’s new laws governing gender identity in schools extend into the bathroom, making it a crime for students to use facilities that do not align with the gender they were assigned at birth — they can be arrested and charged with a second-degree misdemeanor for trespassing. Niko, a high-school senior in Seminole County who transitioned from female to male, used the boys’ bathroom last year without fear. “I didn’t have to think about it,” he said. “Now, I try not to go at all, because there are really crappy people out there, who, if they know [that I am transgender], could potentially try and report me.” After three weeks of school, he’s still yet to use the bathroom.

At least Niko didn’t need his mother’s permission to be called his preferred name this year, because he legally changed it when he began transitioning several years ago. Not all of his friends are so lucky. One, he says, doesn’t have the support of his parents and doesn’t pass for a boy the way Niko does. That friend has had to go by his legal female-identifying name and she/her pronouns in class now, when last year he was able to be called by his preferred name. “He feels really uncomfortable,” Huddleston said, adding he knows what it feels like to have his old identity revealed to a classroom of peers by an unwitting teacher during roll call. “It happened to me several times last year before my name change was on the books,” he said. “Each time, my stomach just dropped.”

Since this school year started, Niko said Florida’s rules are almost all he and his friends, several of whom are also transgender or nonbinary, discuss over plates of chicken nuggets and pizza from the cafeteria at lunch time. They don’t feel that they have a choice. “These laws impact a large part of our life and keep us from being able to feel normal,” he said.

Unlike Mas, Niko has decided not to apply to any colleges or universities in Florida; he is determined to leave the state for his own safety. “It’s unfortunate, because it is going to cost a lot more, and I will have to move away from my friends and family,” he said.

“I have no other option if I want to continue living a normal life, and that’s all I want to do. I’m not going down the street trying to indoctrinate people. I’m just minding my own business.”

Don’t Say Gay, or He, or She, or They