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Miami-Dade School Board votes against LGBTQ History Month declaration following heated debate

Katie Lepri Cohen
Members of the Proud Boys gather outside a Miami-Dade County School Board during a contentious debate on September 7, 2022 on whether the district should recognize October as LGBTQ History Month. The board rejected the measure in an 8 to 1 vote.

The Miami-Dade County School Board has voted against designating October as LGBTQ History Month, after some parents railed against the proposal, which they claimed amounts to “indoctrination” and would violate a state law restricting classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation. The measure’s sponsor says the opposition was fueled by disinformation and an anti-LGBTQ political agenda.

In a packed auditorium at the school board administration building, dozens of students, parents, educators and clergy gave impassioned speeches about whether the state’s largest school district should symbolically recognize the historical contributions of LGBTQ people.

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“I wish I'd had LGBTQ History Month when I went to school. I wish I'd heard stories of happy, fulfilled LGBTQ people going about their lives,” read a comment written by May Marquez, who is transgender. “I'm sure I would have come out to myself much earlier if it were the case, instead of repressing my feelings out of fear of being shunned by my family or friends.”

After hours of public debate, the board voted 8 to 1 to reject the declaration, which was meant to “remind all cultures within our wider community of the important roles that LGBTQ people have taken in shaping the social, historical, legal, and political worlds we live in today,” according to the agenda item.

Wednesday’s vote was a stunning reversal from one year ago, when the board overwhelmingly approved a similar designation. Board Member Christi Fraga was the only one to vote against the measure in 2021. Board Member Lubby Navarro was absent.

Board Member Lucia Baez-Geller, who sponsored the measure, urged her colleagues to stand against what she said was a campaign of “disinformation”.

“Last year, the board had the courage to support this item, despite all of the attacks,” Baez-Geller said. “There's a reason why this item continues to be under attack, as this year of course is an election year. And unfortunately the anti-LGBTQ agenda has become a very dominant political wedge used by certain people.”

Katie Lepri Cohen
A person waves a transgender rights flag outside the Miami-Dade County School Board building on September 7, 2022 during a contentious debate on whether the district should designate October as LGBTQ History Month.

This year’s declaration would have directed the superintendent to explore offering resources for teaching 12th grade social studies students about the landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases Obergefell v. Hodges and Bostock v. Clayton County, which established marriage equality and protect LGBTQ people from job discrimination.

The declaration would have been largely symbolic, Baez-Geller said, and any instruction would have been voluntary, with parents having the ability to opt their children out of lessons or activities.

“We teach the Supreme Court cases because they have shaped our nation. They are the law and they are what guides our nation today,” Baez-Geller said. “This is American law. American history. There's nothing scandalous about our law.”

Ultimately, she was the only member to vote for her proposal.

“LGBTQ history is American history,” supporters say

So many people came to speak on the proposal Wednesday, that a line of dozens of people snaked outside the school board building, as they waited to be admitted into the packed auditorium.

Outside the building, members of the Proud Boys gathered, wearing hats, shirts and bandanas emblazoned with the organization's insignia. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the Proud Boys as a hate group.

Other members of the public formed a prayer circle, some kneeling on the sidewalk, heads bowed and hands raised. Eyes closed in prayer, one person said “public schools are conspiring against your will,” according to reporting by the Miami Herald.

Inside the auditorium, the meeting was tense and unruly, with audience members repeatedly booing and jeering members of the public and board members alike.

At one point, some opponents of the proposal stood up and turned their backs to the dais while Baez-Geller spoke, only sitting down after they were warned that those who disrupted the meeting would be removed.

Supporters of the measure said it’s especially important now, at a time when Gov. Ron DeSantis is centering much of his political agenda on LGBTQ issues, and claiming public schools are “indoctrinating” children.

“We shouldn’t be depriving our students of foundational chapters of our nation’s history,” said Maxx Fenning, the president of the local LGBTQ support organization PRISM. “LGBTQ history is American history because LGBTQ Americans are Americans.”

Fenning, and some other supporters of the measure, wore pink triangles – a reference to the symbols that the Nazi regime forced gay people to wear during the Holocaust. An estimated 10,000-15,000 queer people were deported to concentration camps and most of them died there, according to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

Alie Skowronski / Miami Herald
Maxx Fenning speaks in support of the Miami-Dade School Board designating October as LGBTQ History Month. Fenning, president and founder of PRISM, an LGBTQ nonprofit, wore a pink triangle to reference the symbols Nazis forced gay people to wear during the Holocaust.

The school board’s student advisor, Andrea Pita Mendez, said she was “very scared” to speak out on the measure at the contentious meeting. But she said she felt compelled to raise her voice on behalf of her peers, who are growing up in a “very different time”, compared to the adults in the boardroom.

“Our students told me that they support this item,” she said. “We are the ones that sit in those classrooms. We embrace diversity and inclusivity. Because we do love each other and we do support each other.”

Opponents threaten to sue board, citing House Bill 1557

Speakers opposed to the measure argued it would contradict their religious beliefs and would violate a state law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis which prohibits classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation, if it’s not considered age or developmentally appropriate.

Echoing the rhetoric of those who opposed the proposal, Board Member Lubby Navarro argued the measure would run afoul of House Bill 1557, the so-called Don’t Say Gay law.

“The teachers have to follow the law. The school board members have to follow the law. The superintendent has to follow the law. Everyone here has to follow the Florida state standards,” Navarro said. “I’m sorry. I cannot support this.”

Speaking before the vote, Eulalia Jimenez, the chair of the Miami-Dade chapter of Moms for Liberty, characterized the proposal as “indoctrination”.

“This is a direct slap across the governor's face, as well as to a large part of the community who do not support using the school system to sway the children in any which way regarding sexual identity,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez has echoed QAnon conspiracy theories. The theories falsely espouse that a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping political elites are sexually abusing children.

Some opponents of the measure labeled the teaching of LGBTQ history “Satanism”. Others threatened to sue school board members, calling them child abusers and claiming that passing the measure would enable sexual predation of children.

Experts have disputed this rhetoric, which plays into long-standing false claims that LGBTQ people are more likely to molest kids.

“This rhetoric is not new. It is the exact same rhetoric that has been used repeatedly in the past to dehumanize and demonize minorities: Jews, African Americans and gays,” said University of Miami Journalism Professor Alberto Cairo, who spoke in support of the measure.

“This is the exact reason that this history must be taught,” he said.

Vote follows August 23 elections, when DeSantis allies won big

Wednesday’s meeting is the first since the August 23 elections, during which a majority of the school board candidates who were endorsed by Gov. DeSantis won their races, running on pledges to support his education agenda.

Miami-Dade School Board Member Marta Pérez, a 24 year incumbent, was ousted by a political newcomer named Monica Colucci who was endorsed by DeSantis. Speaking to WLRN in the days after the election, Pérez said even board members who weren’t on the ballot this cycle got the message: defy DeSantis at your peril.

Matias J. Ocner / Miami Herald
Miami-Dade Public Schools board member Dr. Marta Pérez, left, talks with member Christi Fraga during a special meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

“I think some of the board members are petrified,” Pérez said. “And they will vote in lockstep. Because they're going to be so afraid that the same thing would happen to them.”

DeSantis has shown his willingness to remove elected officials from office – for allegations of mismanagement, in the case of four former Broward County School Board members – or for what DeSantis sees as a failure to enforce state laws – in the case of the former Hillsborough County Attorney.

Speaking at Wednesday’s meeting, Mina Hosseini, head of the local education nonprofit P.S. 305, said the debates like the one on the LGBTQ declaration – fueled by partisan politices – are a distraction.

“We've seen these dynamics, the one that we're seeing play out tonight, continue to distract from the real issues that we're dealing with,” Hosseini said. “We just took 30 minutes to talk about a $7 billion budget. What happens when our [federal coronavirus aid] dollars are no longer accessible to our school district?”

In stark contrast to the public interest in the LGBTQ declaration, when the board approved the district’s new $7 billion budget, not a single member of the public spoke on the item.

The Miami Herald contributed reporting to this story.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter