One day last week, Jessica Thomason’s sixth-grade daughter came home from school with a question: “What’s a three-way?” she asked her mom. Thomason, a substitute teacher and mother of two in Sarasota, was taken aback. Though she had been following the rapid unraveling of a local conservative power couple, she hadn’t said anything about it to her daughter. But the scandal, in which Christian Ziegler, chair of the Florida GOP, has been accused of raping a woman who had been involved in a sexual relationship with him and his wife, Bridget, had apparently become a topic of playground conversations. “Oh!” Thomason’s daughter mused. “Is she a lesbian?”
Thomason’s daughter’s question gets to the heart of weird plot twist in Florida’s culture wars: The state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law—which Bridget Ziegler says she helped craft—forbids teachers in the state from talking about same-sex relationships in most contexts. “The irony is crazy because you have this woman and her husband who are so concerned with preventing children from hearing anything that doesn’t totally align with their values,” said Thomason. “And then it’s like, I’m having to explain a three-way to a 12-year-old this week.”
Now Ziegler’s own scandal is prompting conversations that a law she backed forbids, teachers I spoke with told me. “Children aren’t guided into what’s appropriate or not appropriate,” said Thomason. “They just sort of say whatever, and everyone’s a little bit afraid to correct it.”
Gail Foreman, a social studies teacher at Booker High School in Sarasota, said her students have been curious about the scandal, but she has been “very careful not to say anything to any of them that could result in me getting a human resource call or complaint.” Last week, a student said to her, “So what’s up with Bridget Ziegler and her three-way?” Foreman thought about advice she had received, when the “Don’t Say Gay” bill went into effect, to simply instruct students to Google anything she wasn’t allowed to answer. That idea seemed ridiculous to Foreman, who prides herself on teaching students critical thinking skills. But she knew she didn’t have a choice. “I said, ‘I wasn’t there. So read the newspapers. But just remember this: She didn’t break any laws.’ The student said, ‘But Ms. Foreman! She’s a hypocrite!’ I said, ‘Well, if you go back and look at history, there’s a bunch of them in there.'”
The news is also an annoyance for teachers even when students don’t bring it up. Mary Holmes, who has spent the last 28 years of her 36-year teaching career at Sarasota’s Oak Park School, which serves disabled K-12 students, said that the scandal has been a prominent topic of conversation among teachers at her school. “We don’t have the time or the inclination to stand around and gossip about her, but when it’s front-page news, day after day, it wouldn’t be possible to ignore the elephant in the room,” she said. She described an atmosphere of exhaustion among teachers. “We’re all just ready to get back to the purpose for which the school board was elected and our purpose as educators, which is the students.”
Tamara Solum, another substitute teacher in Sarasota, told me that her elementary-aged students seem largely unaware of the drama, but for the teachers, “it’s a distraction,” she said. “Teachers are demoralized right now, and they have to focus on all these very vague laws to make sure that they’re not teaching something wrong.”
Since news of the scandal broke, Florida Republicans have been calling for Christian Ziegler to resign, which he has so far refused to do. Last week, Bridget Ziegler stepped down from her role as a vice president at the Leadership Institute, a group that trains conservative activists to run for office. Sarasota school board chair Karen Rose, a conservative, said in a statement that she planned to ask Bridget to resign from the board. “I am shocked and deeply saddened by the conduct and deplore the salacious news coverage,” she wrote. “I personally care about Bridget and her family and deeply regret the necessity for this course of action, but given the intense media scrutiny locally and nationally, her continued presence on the Board would cause irreparably harmful distractions to our critical mission.”
During her time on the school board, Ziegler made national news for her successful campaign to recruit more conservative members, flipping the board’s majority from Democrat to Republican. With her newly aligned board, she led a crusade against books and curricula that were inclusive of LGBTQ people. In a Facebook post the day before news of the scandal broke, she boasted that she had “terminated gender diverse guidelines,” “eliminated equity committee,” and “eliminated [the] equity policy & position.” Last year, Ziegler parlayed her school board success into a job with the Leadership Institute, where she led the initiative to train prospective conservative school board candidates from across the country.
In 2021, Ziegler helped found Moms for Liberty, the conservative group that spearheaded the parents’ rights movement, which opposes teaching children about sexuality, the gender spectrum, and institutional racism. In 2021, when Christian Ziegler was Florida’s GOP vice chair, Christian Ziegler praised Moms for Liberty in a Washington Post article. “I have been trying for a dozen years to get 20- and 30-year-old females involved with the Republican Party, and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic,” he said. “But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.” Though Bridget Ziegler stepped back from Moms for Liberty in 2021 because of her school board role, she remained involved, speaking in sessions about school board campaigns at both of the Moms for Liberty annual conferences that I attended. Moms for Liberty says it considers the “Don’t Say Gay” bill a “model policy.” Leadership Institute was a major sponsor of both Moms for Liberty conferences.
In Ziegler’s own district, the “Don’t Say Gay” law has had a chilling effect, teachers told me. Foreman, the high school social studies teacher, said that the LGBTQ students in her school are “very quiet on campus now. Our transgender kids don’t want anybody to know anything other than their non-biologically-assigned sex, because they’re afraid. “It’s a different atmosphere than it was before this parents’ rights bill.” Foreman, who is out as a lesbian, said that the school district removed pride-related decorations her students had made from her classroom. “At that time I had about 15 to 18 gay kids, and it hurt us,” she said. “Because it was like, you’re trying to make me invisible. You’re trying to make me abhorrent to society.”
Sarasota School Board chair Karen Rose has said that she will officially ask Bridget Ziegler to resign at the school board meeting scheduled for Tuesday, though the board doesn’t have the final say in whether Ziegler is allowed to continue serving; only the governor can make the decision to remove her. Ziegler hasn’t yet commented on the calls for her resignation.
In the meantime, Foreman knows her students won’t stop asking questions—about this scandal and other topics that are forbidden to discuss. Among other things, she wishes she could teach them about “the roots of the parents’ rights law—who particularly wanted it, and why their world changed so fast.”