Florida teacher investigated for showing Disney movie with gay character calls on fellow educators to ‘stand up’

Florida is being investigated by the Department for Education after showing Disney’s Strange World.

A Florida teacher who is being investigated by the state after she showed her class a Disney film featuring a gay character is calling on other educators to “stand up for what’s right”.

Fifth-grade teacher Jenna Barbee, who calls herself a human rights activist, “a dreamer” and “a fighter”, tells PinkNews the investigation for “indoctrination” after she showed her class Disney’s 2022 animated movie Strange World is still pending.

The film that led to Barbee being investigated features Ethan, an openly gay character, and a romantic plot between him and his crush, Diazo.

Due to the investigation still pending, the 26-year-old teacher, who has a son with her fiancé, says she has been left wondering if she will lose her teaching license, face suspension or receive a fine.

However, the investigation hasn’t stopped her from championing inclusivity and acceptance in the classroom.

Barbee now works at a private school teaching English and has started her own children’s book publishing company, of which her first book, Two Fires will be published.

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She says her book, which stems from the experience of being investigated by the state, focuses on positive and negative energy. She describes that the latter needs to “burn hot and fast but burns out quickly”, whereas positive energy, such as love, “is harder to have and means you have to love yourself and your darkest parts”. 

“I used all the negative energy from the people who would say really nasty things to me and I turned it into a positive message to get out there,” she tells PinkNews.

Jenna Barbee: ‘Teachers are terrified’

The impact of being investigated for just wanting to show “an amazing movie” is one Barbee says teachers across the US are now facing. 

“It’s our children who are losing out here because as teacher we go to school, train, and then get a job and now we’re being told exactly what to do, not to do and how to do it,” she continues.

“You’re so worried about saying even one wrong thing because a student might go tell their parent and the teacher could get fired.” 

Barbee recalls an art teacher who was suspended for two weeks after telling a student not to say homophobic things. 

Florida teacher Jenna Barbee with her fiancé and son.
Florida teacher Jenna Barbee with her fiancé and son. (Jenna Barbee)

“Teachers are terrified – we’re extremely micromanaged,” Barbee says.

“Students aren’t learning anymore, they’re memorising to fit a test and every student’s brain is different.” 

Referencing Moms for Liberty, the conservative, anti-LGBTQ+ political organisation behind multiple book bans, Barbee says US schools are doing the “opposite of what we need to be focusing on”. 

Moms for Liberty worked with Florida governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis to push his repressive ‘Don’t Say Gay’ legislation, which bans discussions of LGBTQ+ topics in all grades across the state’s public schools.

Barbee describes DeSantis’ ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law as “creating only stigma and segregation”.

“It’s disturbing,” she says. “They’re trying to make it seem that a student walks into my class and I’m like ‘here’s how to be gay 101 for dummies’ – it makes no sense.

“It’s a biological thing and they are trying to act like it dose’t exist. By not talking about it you’re shunning it, you’re making more mental health issues and people are left terrified.”

Allowing students to learn about the LGBTQ+ community and other minorities is important, the fifth-grade teacher explains, “because everyone learns and sees that the soul inside is what matters”.

Jenna Barbee at the St. Pete Pride parade
A few months after the investigation began, Jenna Barbee marched in the St. Pete Pride parade. (Jenna Barbe)

Barbee is certainly not being cowed into silence by the investigation into her actions, and she tells PinkNews that it’s important for other teachers to “stand up for what’s right”.

In a rallying cry to other educators, Barbee continues: “Have faith, and good will come if you do stand up and are honest.”

In response to people who call her woke, Barbee says she likes to respond: “Woke is a shorted version of awake and awake means my eyes are open and I’m seeing clearly, so I hope you can wake up soon too.” 

Jenna Barbee isn’t giving up on Florida

Florida can be a scary place for the LGBTQ+ community right now. The torrent of extreme anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, which particularly impacts young people, has led to a “mass migration” out of Florida.

Despite Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature mounting increasing attacks on the LGBTQ+ community and limiting the ability of teachers to show up for all of their students, Barbee is refusing to flee her home state. 

She believes she can still affect positive change in Florida.

“I’m a dreamer and I’m a fighter and as much as I’m ready to move to Tennessee or Colorado, which are so ahead of the times, this is my home state and I can’t just run from it,” Barbee says.

“I have to make sure things change here first and I leave my mark before I go.”

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