One of the characters in the Disney movie Strange World is a boy who has a crush on another boy. (image © Disney)

Florida’s Department of Education (DOE) is investigating fifth-grade teacher Jenna Barbee after she showed a Disney movie with a gay character to her students on May 3. The 2022 movie Strange World follows a family of explorers on an adventure and features an openly gay teenager, Ethan Clade, who has a crush on his friend Diazo.

Parent and school board member Shannon Rodriguez reported the incident to the state DOE and to the Hernando County School District north of Tampa, where Barbee teaches. The district sent a May 4 note to parents notifying them that their children had seen the movie.

“Yesterday, the Disney movie Strange World was shown in your child’s classroom,” reads the letter, shared with Hyperallergic by Hernando County School District spokesperson Karen Jordan. “While not the main plot of the movie, parts of the story involve a male character having and expressing feelings for another male character. In the future, this movie will not be shown.”

The note adds that the district’s Professional Standards Department is reviewing the matter to decide whether to take corrective action. Barbee, however, told CNN she had resigned from her position a week before she even showed the movie, citing “politics and the fear of not being able to be who you are.”

Screening Strange World could violate Florida’s 2022 Parental Bill of Rights, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill championed by Governor Ron DeSantis that restricts classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation. The bill initially applied to kindergarten through third grade, but it was expanded last month to encompass all grades up to high school seniors. For a teacher, breaking the rule is an offense that could lead to suspension or revocation of their teaching license. Today, DeSantis signed into law yet another expansion that restricts reproductive health education as well as a law banning transition-related care for minors. 

On May 11, Barbee’s friend Tweeted a letter from the DOE to Barbee informing her that she was under investigation. The Tweet went viral. (A DOE spokesperson told Hyperallergic that it could neither confirm nor deny whether the investigation was ongoing.)

Three days later, Barbee posted a TikTok chronicling the situation and explaining she had sent home a permission slip for PG-rated movies. She has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

In the video, Barbee explains that her students “didn’t bat an eye” until the school and state made the movie into an issue. She also says she chose to show Strange Love because it related to the class’s Earth science unit and teaches lessons about overcoming differences and spreading kindness.

“I never saw this perspective before,” Barbee said in the video in regard to Rodriguez’s complaint about the gay character. “So I didn’t think it was a big deal.” The teacher also explains that her role as a teacher is to be a safe presence for all of her students, some of whom have told her they are LGBTQ+.

Now, Barbee says, a DOE investigator is pulling her students out of class one by one for questioning.

If the depressing debacle sounds familiar, it may be because a similar scenario played out in March when a Florida charter school principal resigned amidst parents’ complaints that an art teacher had shown their children Michelangelo’s “David” (1501–1504).

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.