After being openly gay for several years, Willie Carter Jr. never thought of going back into the closet once he started teaching. But during his first week as an English teacher at a high school in Montgomery, Kentucky, a small town 40 miles east of Lexington, a school administrator had other plans for him.
“He said, ‘You will be crucified,'” recalls Carter, 37. “‘No one will protect you, not even me.'”
Twelve years later — and shortly after winning his state’s Teacher of the Year award — Carter announced last week that he was leaving the profession.
Carter said that after changes in his school’s administration, he was finally able to teach openly as a gay man. However, for years he witnessed school administrators trying to stifle LGBTQ identities — or what he described as “death by a thousand cuts” — he said.
Among the many examples of what he described as LGBTQ prejudice, Carter said his employer ordered teachers to remove books written by LGBTQ authors from the school’s curriculum, defending students accused of tearing Rainbow Pride posters from school walls. and a student-led poll designed to understand the school climate for LGBTQ inclusion.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said, was when the school board failed to respond to repeated harassment against him and LGBTQ students.
In March, a group of community members began appearing at school board meetings, repeatedly accusing Carter and LGBTQ students of being “groomers,” he said. The word “grooming” has long been associated with mischaracterizing LGBTQ people, especially gay men and transgender women, as child molesters.
In recent months, conservative lawmakers, television pundits and other public figures have accused opponents of a newly passed education bill in Florida — which critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law — of seeking to “nurture” or “indoctrinate” children. “. Proponents have urged officials not to use the indicted rhetoric, warning it could cause verbal and physical harassment targeting LGBTQ Americans.
Carter said verbal attacks against him continued online, with one member of the group posting images of Carter and LGBTQ students on social media along with homophobic comments and slander. In response, school officials told Carter they couldn’t respond every time a community was upset about something that happened at the school, he said. They also did not approach the LGBTQ students who were being harassed to allay their concerns, Carter added.
In an email to NBC News, Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Matt Thompson declined to answer specific questions about Carter’s allegations, but said Carter is an “amazing” teacher.
“I’ve put up with these issues over the years because the benefits outweigh the drawbacks,” Carter said, referring to the need for rural college students to have LGBTQ role models. “But I have now reached a stage where I am beginning to see that the mental health toll will be such that my students will not envision a successful LGBTQ person. They see someone who is stressed and unhappy.”
Over the past year, school officials in states across the country have banned books about gay and trans experiences, removed LGBTQ-affirming posters and flags, and disbanded Gay-Straight Alliance clubs. In school districts across the country, students have assaulted their gay classmates, while state lawmakers have filed a historic number of anti-LGBTQ laws — more than 340, according to the LGBTQ advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign — with many trying to redefine lesbian, gay, or lesbian. bisexual, transgender and queer students in American schools.
As a result, teachers across the country have previously told NBC News that they are afraid to talk about their families or LGBTQ issues, and like Carter, some LGBTQ teachers have left the profession this year.
Speaking to other educators and students in May, Carter told a congressional subcommittee that LGBTQ teachers and students regularly faced discrimination. The panel sought to examine issues of race and LGBTQ people in American schools.
In September, Carter was selected from more than 500 nominations as the Kentucky Teacher of the Year 2022 by the state’s Department of Education.
Early on in his life, Carter said, he always knew he wanted to be a teacher.
“As a young child, there were many times in my life when home was not a safe place by just having parents who worked very hard to make ends meet,” said Carter, who grew up near Montgomery. “School for me was a place of safety and a place of promise.”
“And so my goal from the start has been to take every person in the room and really make them believe that they are capable of something great, that they are capable of something great,” he added.
Commenting on his departure, the Kentucky Department of Education said in a statement it was “proud of Willie and what he has accomplished in his teaching career.”
Next school year, Carter will still focus on helping students, taking on an administrative role at the University of Kentucky, where he earned a position in student support services.