After being openly gay for several years, Willie Carver Jr. never thought about going back into the closet once he started teaching. But during his first week as a high school English teacher 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,’” Carver, 37, recalled. “‘No one will protect you, including me.’”
Twelve years later — and shortly after he won his state’s Teacher of the Year award — Carver announced last week that he would be leaving the profession.
Carver said that after changes in his school’s administration, he was eventually able to teach openly as a gay man. However, he spent years watching school administrators try to stifle LGBTQ identities — or what he described as “death by a thousand cuts” — he said.
Among many instances of what he described as LGBTQ prejudice, Carver said, his employer ordered teachers to remove books written by LGBTQ authors from the school’s curriculum, defended students who were accused of tearing down rainbow Pride posters from school walls and shut down a student-led poll that aimed to gather insight about the school’s climate for LGBTQ inclusion.
The “straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said, was when the school administration failed to address repeated harassment against him and LGBTQ students.
In March, a group of community members started to show up at school board meetings and repeatedly accused Carver and LGBTQ students of being “groomers,” he said. The word “grooming” has long been associated with mischaracterizing LGBTQ people, particularly gay men and transgender women, as child sex abusers.
In recent months, conservative lawmakers, television pundits and other public figures have accused opponents of a newly enacted Florida education law — which critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law — of trying to “groom” or “indoctrinate” children. Advocates have been urging public officials not to use the charged rhetoric, warning that it could lead to verbal and physical harassment against LGBTQ people.
Carver said verbal attacks against him continued online, with one member of the group posting images of him and LGBTQ students on social media coupled with homophobic comments and slurs. In response, school officials told Carver they couldn’t respond every time a community was upset with something happening at the school, he said. They didn’t approach the LGBTQ students who were harassed to address their concerns, either, Carver added.
In an email, the superintendent of Montgomery County Schools, Matt Thompson, refused to answer specific questions about Carver’s allegations but said Carver is a “wonderful” teacher.
“I have put up with these problems over the years because the benefits outweighed the cons,” Carver said, citing a need for rural students to have LGBTQ role models. “But I’ve now reached a stage where I’m starting to see that the toll on mental health is going to be such that my students are not going to be seeing a successful LGBTQ person in front of them. They’re seeing someone who is stressed out and unhappy.”
Throughout the last year, school officials 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 throughout the country, students have attacked their queer classmates, while state legislators have filed a historic number of anti-LGBTQ bills — more than 340, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group — many of them seeking to redefine lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students’ places in U.S. schools.
Teachers throughout the country have previously told NBC News that as a result, they fear talking about their families or LGBTQ issues, and like Carver, some LGBTQ teachers have left the profession this year.
Speaking among other teachers and students, Carver said at a congressional subcommittee hearing in May that LGBTQ teachers and students regularly face discrimination. The panel sought to examine issues of race and LGBTQ people in U.S. schools.
In September, the state Education Department — out of more than 500 nominations — chose Carver as the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.
From early on in his life, Carver 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 secure place just by having parents who were working really hard to make ends meet,” said Carver, who grew up nearby Montgomery. “School was, for me, a place of security and a place of promise.
“And so, from the get-go, it has been my goal to take any person in the room and let them truly believe that they’re capable of something grand, that they’re capable of something tremendous,” he said.
In response to his departure, the Education Department said in a statement that it was “proud of Willie and what he has accomplished in his teaching career.”
Next school year, Carver will still be aiming to help students, having taken on an administrative role at the University of Kentucky, where he has earned a position in student support services.
CORRECTION (June 28, 2022, 9 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. He is Willie Carver Jr., not Willie Carter Jr.