LAKELAND, Fla. — Some members of the LGBTQ+ community say recognizing Pride month is more important this year, in light of measures passed by the Florida Legislature. Among them is the Parental Rights in Education Act, often called “Don’t Say Gay” by critics.
The new restrictions are driving teachers out of education, a Polk County educator said.
Daffne Cruz and her wife, Ayla, are celebrating 10 years of marriage this year. It’s something the couple wasn’t sure would be possible when they started dating, which was before gay marriage was legal in Florida.
“I think Pride month this year, more than ever, we just need to be able to celebrate our authenticity, celebrate who we are, celebrate who we love,” Daffne said. “It’s just a way for us to express ourselves.”
For the past decade, the couple has worked for Polk County Public Schools. But this is the first summer vacation when Daffne won’t return to school in the fall. She left her job as a high school assistant principal at the end of the school year.
Daffne said she felt she could no longer be vocal about her identity.
“I just want everyone to know authenticity over acceptance always," she said. "Always be yourself, always stay true to yourself and I want to be able to advocate that on a grander scale without any repercussions.”
In March 2022, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Bill into law, which prohibits classroom instruction on gender and sexual orientation, unless it’s required by state academic standards.
The regulations initially applied to K-3 classrooms. But in March 2023, the state Board of Education voted to expand the rules to K-12 classrooms. Supporters of the law said it’s meant to keep discussions about sex and sexuality out of the classroom.
Teachers could face disciplinary action, such as suspension or termination, if they don’t follow the regulations.
Bay News 9 first interviewed Daffne in December 2022. At the time, she said she was worried about the potential ramifications of the law but would not willingly quit her career.
However, Daffne said she felt a shift in the past year and reached a breaking point.
“I’ve had parents say ‘Oh I don’t want to speak to the gay administrator’ or as parents that call me the F-word, which I’m not going to say,” she said. “I’ve had parents on the flip side say ‘Hey, can you have this conversation with me and my child because I think my child might be under that community umbrella, might be LGBTQ but I don’t know how to navigate that conversation'.”
A Latino and member of the LGBTQ+ community, Daffne said she became an educator to be the representation she didn’t have growing up. She never thought she’d love the field she loves.
Daffne is still educating people, but now in front of her phone, instead of a whiteboard. She’s building a platform on social media to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Daffne’s goal is to make people feel confident and comfortable with who they are.
“I think my job on this Earth is to help push out extra love because we’re lacking that right now,” she said. “That’s kind of what I do — is spread awareness and also spread goofiness and spread love in the most positive way possible.”
The thought of leaving Florida has crossed Daffne’s mind. But she said she believes there’s a fight to be had to protect LGBTQ+ rights, so she plans to stay put for now. This Pride month, Daffne encourages everyone to celebrate who they are and to be proud of that person.