(LEX 18) — When it comes to his Montgomery County High School classroom, French and English teacher Willie Carver likes to let the students take the lead.
"When I see any human being, I see potential," Carver said.
That teaching style earned him the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year award a few months ago. He also engages with the students outside the classroom through the group he sponsors, Open Light.
"They teach themselves lessons on Black history, on LGBTQ history, they teach themselves about women's rights," he said. "Everyone is welcome. Specifically, LGBTQ students are welcome. There are literally spaces in school and groups in school in which they are literally not welcome, so it's important that they have that invitation, that they know this is a place where you can be."
He knows just how important support can be, growing up a gay kid in an area that wasn't always accepting.
"I heard so many horrific things about what gay people were, that it didn't occur to me that I was gay, despite the fact that I kind of wanted a boyfriend. I was told that gay people were monsters, so it didn't occur to me that I could be that," he said. "I was smart enough, old enough, around 13 or 14, to start thinking, 'Okay, I think I'm this…' and that led me to believe, 'Okay, I guess I'm a monster. I guess I don't really fit in.'"
He said even the smallest show of support can make a huge difference.
"75% of LGBTQ youth under the age of 18 said that they are consistently miserable. 50% seriously attempted suicide in the last 12 months. When we know that one, single affirming adult reduces their risk of suicide by 50%, we have to have that affirming adult," he said.
Carver said there was always some pushback, but things were generally ok. In the last couple of years, though, he said it's become intense.
"If I wake up and choose to have a group meeting, then I know someone from the community is going to attack me and attack this group and say that it's, the new word is, a 'grooming' group, despite the fact that I just have kids cleaning up a park. If I choose not to have the group, then I have to deal with the fact that I have a lifesaving mechanism that I'm choosing not to do. It is a no-win situation for any teacher who is trying to make sure that LGBTQ kids feel that they should exist and lately, it's become more and more politicized," Carver said. "Students ripping down posters every single day and the response being, 'Well, don't you feel like you're pushing it down people's throats? By having signs? I don't think so. The signs just said 'You are loved' or 'No room for hate here', or something along those lines,"
Finally, a few weeks ago, he went online and struck a nerve.
"I tweeted something like, 'I'm the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and I'm a proud gay man, but I don't know if I can keep doing this,'" he said.
More than 7,000 retweets and nearly 65,000 likes later, Carver found himself sitting at the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in Washington giving testimony yesterday as they discussed laws pertaining to LGBTQ discussions in classrooms.
"Few LGBTQ teachers will survive this current storm. Politicizing our existence has darkened schools," Carver told the members.
Carver said students seem to feel free to damage the group's items.
"Students now use anti-LGBTQ or racist slurs without consequence. Hatred is politically protected now," he said.
He told the members of the subcommittee that some parents have made up rumors.
"Last month, one parent's dangerous, false allegations that my GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) was 'grooming' students were shared 65 times on Facebook," he said.
Speaking from Kentucky, the day after his testimony, Carver reflected on what a group like Open Light would have meant to him as a teen. He said he didn't learn to embrace his identity until college.
"If I had been able, four years earlier, six years earlier, to have a space where I could feel comfortable existing, I can't even imagine how that might have changed or what I could have been," he said.
Carver said he isn't sure how much longer he'll put himself in the line of fire as a teacher, but he says he'll never stop standing up for marginalized people and he hopes to be an example.
"It's a really important time to stand up for other people in vocal ways. I sort of have this…we have a moment right now in which a very small contingency of people is trying to establish some pretty ugly narratives and they're going to be able to do that if people don't speak up for others," he said.