The Polk County School Board meeting room was awash in rainbow colors Tuesday evening for the district’s annual Pride Proclamation.
“Polk County, Florida, is part of a global community in which people of diverse cultures, races, creeds, genders, and sexual identities must work together toward peace and understanding,” School Board member Kay Fields read from the proclamation. “The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students within Polk County contribute to this vibrant, innovative, culturally-inclusive, world-class community and to its diversity … Various advancements have been made with respect to equal rights and protections for all peoples including the LGBTQ community, throughout the State of Florida and the United States … Members of the LGBTQ+ communities still face ongoing discrimination based on their innate status, resulting in immeasurable human tragedy, loss of life, community isolation and abuse … Parents, families and friends of lesbians and gays of Polk County envision a world where diversity is celebrated and all people are respected, valued, and affirmed inclusive of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.”
Fields’ reading was met with applause and cheers, a different atmosphere from last year’s reading. That’s when members of County Citizens Defending Freedom, Winter Haven 9-12 Project and others stood up and turned their backs on LGBTQ+ students and then walked out of the room.
Kerri McCoy, vice president of Polk Pride, applauded the School Board and Superintendent Frederick Heid for their inclusion of the LGBTQ community.
“I’m hopeful that the people who are here on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community are standing in solidarity to thank you, Superintendent Heid, and the School Board members for this proclamation and for letting our LGBTQ+ kids and their families know that they are accepted here at Polk County Schools,” McCoy said.
Polk Pride President Scott Guira said he started Polk Pride because of his work with Lakeland Youth Alliance and its mission to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ students.
“I appreciate you all making a declaration today that Polk County Schools is a safe community for all young people,” said Guira, who grew up in Lakeland, earned the rank of Eagle Scout as a Boy Scout, and works as a Publix store manager. “I’d also like to thank you all for taking the time and investing in our young people.”
Parent Shana Fox said she was a teacher for 20 years and that her students taught her to question the assumptions and beliefs she held.
“This is not a moral or political issue. These are people – beautiful, kind, brave humans who have gathered here tonight to celebrate their individual unique identities,” Fox said. “Unfortunately, there are people working hard to build back the divisive wall, brick by brick, by questioning, shaming and denying the identity and humanity of LGBTQ+ community members. That’s why listening to the voices of love, kindness, acceptance and celebration are so important this evening. I am here to be one of these voices. I want to make sure that every student and every individual in this room tonight hears this message of love.”
And then her young daughter spoke.
“I have friends, family and neighbors who are LGBT. I love them all so much,” Bella Fox said. “They’re kind people who do good things for the community and world.”
Bob Nickell, a special education inclusion teacher at Boone Middle School in East Polk County, quoted from an opinion column that recently elected Lake Wales Mayor and CCDF member Jack Hilligoss wrote in November for the CCDF website. It has since been removed from the website.
Hilligoss wrote that some teachers “see the classroom as the front line in a culture war for our nation. In other words, they feel a moral obligation to indoctrinate your child in the name of education. They are often enabled in this agenda by timid administrators and inattentive boards.”
Nickell said that is simply wrong.
“We don’t indoctrinate; we teach kids to get along,” Nickell said. “When kids get along, they’re happier. When they’re happier, they don’t try to harm themselves.”
According to The Trevor Project, an online resource that provides information and support to LGBTQ youth, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people and LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
“LGBTQ youth are not inherently prone to suicide risk because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but rather placed at a higher risk because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized in society,” The Trevor Project website states.
“I am so proud of this superintendent and this board for leading the way by showing love and tolerance, not hate and bigotry,” Nickell said.
There were a handful of CCDF, Project 9-12 members or other conservatives in Tuesday night’s audience. Usually, they fill up about one-third of the chairs in the room each meeting.
Christine Pease, 70, of Lakeland said she has grandchildren in the Polk County school system. She advocated for the inclusion of the Christian children’s book, “God Made Boys and Girls: Helping Children Understand the Gift of Gender,” by Marty Machowski in PCPS media centers. She thanked the board for the opportunity “to speak God’s truth and love.”
“In the first chapter of Genesis, we’re told that, ‘God created mankind in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,'” Pease said before reading a passage from the book that talked about DNA and chromosomes. “I just want to express my desire for my grandchildren to be learning the truth … Knowing the truth will set us free.”
Anita Carson, who works for Equality Florida, a civil rights group for the LGBTQ+ community, said she left a nine-year teaching career in part because of the way LGBTQ students are treated in Florida with the recently passed, so-called “Don’t Say Gay Bill.” That law reads: “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
Carson helped to organize the crowd of about 200 people who arrived for Tuesday’s meeting.
“I have had tons of students come out to me over the years. I’ve led them through conversations about how they can come up to their parents,” Carson said. “This bill threatens that for a lot of teachers, and I fear that it will harm the mental health of our students, but I thoroughly appreciate that the proclamation went through today and that this board and our superintendent are showing that all students are welcome here. Because every student deserves to be respected, they deserve to be protected. They deserve to have a safe place to live and to learn, and every family deserves to have respect.”
Guira said a Pride celebration, open to the community, is planned for Saturday, June 18, in Munn Park from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.