Willie Edward Taylor Carver, Jr., was named the Kentucky Teacher of the Year and was honored at the White House this spring. But despite the accolades, he may not return to the classroom next fall.
Carver, who teaches high school and college-level French and English at Montgomery County High School in Mount Sterling, Ky., is on sabbatical this school year and is questioning his future as a teacher given the spate of anti-LGBTQ legislation across the country. He spoke to Education Week about teaching as a gay man in rural Kentucky—and why recent efforts to restrict rights for LGBTQ students are dangerous. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
I grew up Appalachian. There were moments of extreme poverty: no electricity, no running water. School was a place where we could eat. Having so many issues with violence, dependency, poverty, hopelessness—school was not that. School was a place of light and hope. My teachers not only expanded my world, but they injected it with light and love. They gave me shoes [they bought with] their personal money.
I have about 100 first cousins. I was the first to go to college. This whole journey is because teachers pushed me. There was never another [career] option for me—this is what I want to do with my life.
I have always been as gay as anything could be, but my first year of teaching [upon the completion of a master’s degree, in 2010], I couldn’t be. In Kentucky, you have to have an administrator sign off to get a teacher’s license. And an administrator pulled me into an office and said, “You will be crucified. No one will protect you, including me. You will not get a teaching license if you’re openly gay.” I moved to New England for a while, but I wanted to come back to the South because I’m Southern, and I love Kentucky. I’ve done it on my own terms.
You know, we were actually having progress as a country. I’ve been openly gay. For the most part, people have been accepting. And then it kind of changed, both on an individual scale for me and on a national scale for all of us, probably four or five years ago. I’m not directly saying that [former President Donald] Trump himself caused these things, but I think he became a symbol for people who thought they were reclaiming something that was lost. And I think for them, what was lost is the sense that America is heteronormative and that queerness is bad. Therefore, they felt emboldened.
Things that I thought were in the past were not. The bannings started happening. The effect that this has in real time on the classroom is immediate. Now you’re in a conundrum when a student says, “Hey, that Amanda Gorman poem was beautiful.” And you have to say, “Well, when we read it—and we’re going to read it—we’re going to have backlash because she is a Black woman talking about unity. And in America for some reason, equality is a bad word now. In America for some reason right now, a Black woman speaking is a bad thing. And that’s gonna be taken seriously.”
Those students now perceive the world in very different terms than they would have if these things weren’t happening. What they understand is, “My existence is a threat. My existence is somehow immoral.”
This year, I was told twice by administrators, “nothing racial.” As if that means something. I don’t know what that means. I don’t think anyone in Florida knows what “age appropriate” means. [Editor’s note: A new law in Florida bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for grades K-3 and says that those discussions with older students have to be “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”]
[Recently, a Kentucky music teacher], Tyler Clay Morgan, wrote on a board, “You are free to be yourself with me. You matter.” He wrote it in part because he knew some of his students needed that message. And students decorated the board in a delightful way—with pride flags, other flags, just everything that sort of represents who they are so they can feel valued. This led to horrific death threats [against Morgan]. His administrators sent an email to parents saying, in pretty ambiguous terms, “I was made aware of this incident. ... It is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. ... You can feel free to share this comment if you wish to do so.”
It was unclear what was [considered] unacceptable, [the message on the board or the death threats]. It creates an absolutely unsafe—unfathomably unsafe—working condition for someone whose only goal was to say to students, you matter. [Editor’s note: Morgan resigned from his teaching job. His district’s superintendent said in a statement that he didn’t have an issue with the written message but didn’t support classroom conversations that “went far beyond the music curriculum.”]
I feel unsafe to return to the classroom. My identity as a human being is a teacher. Whatever I do, and wherever I go, I would be a teacher. ... But I’m increasingly thinking, why am I in the classroom? Because I think it will change things. I think it will be a force for good. But what is the effect? If I am, every few weeks, having to stop and undergo some sort of investigation over what’s happening in my class, I’m not going to be mentally able to do this work. And then what are my students seeing? A stressed-out, unhappy LGBTQ adult. I don’t think that’s what they need to see.
The anti-LGBTQ bills are dangerous
I have seen many suicide notes—messages in the middle of the night saying goodbye—from students who did not feel like there was going to be a place for them in this world. We have been able to get intervention both in the immediate moment and in the fullness of time for any student who has contacted me. I have never lost a student, and it’s something I am very thankful for, given the suicide rate of all young people and especially LGBTQ youth.
We are, in very real terms, telling these students there is no place for you here [in school], where we’re forcing you to be eight hours a day, 200 days a year—you may not exist. People can call it hyperbolic. But if at any point in the day, you have to stop and ask yourself, “Am I allowed to talk about this part of myself?,” you do not exist.
I couldn’t count on one hand the number of teachers who have broken down crying over the insurmountable task that is going to be protecting kids that people like Marjorie Taylor Greene [a Georgia Republican congresswoman] are attacking. I don’t know how we do it other than just ignoring these rules. No one is going to allow a child to be harmed, even if the legislation says that we should.
One of the most beautiful moments I’ve had as a teacher was probably four years ago. I had a group of students in French 1 who, at the end of the day, were like, “Can you stay behind?” They closed the door, and they had this box. I opened it, and it’s just a bunch of random young adult novels. I go, “What are these?” And they said, “Middle school was so painful because there was nowhere for us to get to be. But our parents don’t check out the books we’re looking at.” So they basically traded these books about LGBTQ people so that they could create a space where—if even for a moment—they felt normal.
And they said, “You have created such an important space here that we don’t feel we need them anymore. So we wanted to give them to you as a reminder that you have made us no longer depend on them.” That’s how big this is. Especially when we’re talking about rural places where these kids are terrified to exist at all.
LGBTQ kids are the only kids we knowingly send home to be abused. We know from the American Psychological Association, from the American Medical Association, that the things people are doing to these kids, sometimes even in their own homes, are dangerous. [Research shows that LGBTQ young people whose parents tried to change their sexual orientation are about twice as likely to attempt suicide than LGBTQ young people who reported no conversion experiences.] We know these things, yet we still send them there. And if we now make school an unsafe place, where do they get to exist?
Tyler Clay Morgan has been a major moment of trauma—not just for LGBTQ people, but for people everywhere in rural Kentucky who are tired of flagrant injustice being ignored. Who’s the authority figure who comes in and says, “We’re not doing this anymore?” No one’s coming. No one’s coming to save Tyler. No one did come to save Tyler. I know probably five LGBTQ people who’ve been fired this year, all seemingly randomly.
I just had this moment when I realized, OK, this is over. I’m not going back. Or at least, I can’t go back in the same way that I’ve ever gone back. There was immediate mourning. I was heartbroken, and I wrote [on Twitter] what I was feeling.
I’m a Kentucky Teacher of the Year because our process starts in an urban area with progressive-minded people who are making the decision. Do I think for a second this accolade would’ve come if it first had to pass through even my building? No. I acknowledge the privilege I have in being in this position of state teacher of the year. I have to use that privilege and leverage it in some way. What I’ve tried to do from the get go is leverage it by being completely authentic, ... by begging anyone who will listen to protect trans kids, protect Black and brown kids, protect English-language learners, because no one is really stepping up to the gate to protect them.
I think [my LGBTQ students] have the feeling that the rest of the world doesn’t know they exist. That LGBTQ kids in the country are a squeaky-wheel problem for a lot of administrative teams, and completely invisible to the rest of the world. That’s the message. The politics do not support advocacy on their behalf. The politics do not support acknowledging the pain that they go through. And unless we can acknowledge the pain that they go through, we’re not going to solve it.