This post is written by The EmpowerED Student Network, including, Alexa Maqueo-Toledo, Carson Bock, Dereke Townsend, Farah Ommay, Salwa Daouk, Trey Cunningham and Ivy Enyenihi.

The Education Trust is a national education research, policy and advocacy organization, and we opened The Education Trust in Tennessee in January of 2020, centering student voices in their work from the beginning. Most notably, there are two primary student programs that are informed, convene, and advocate on pressing education issues. League Leaders, the advisory council to the broader EmpowerED Network, are seven high school and college students across Tennessee.  We work to spread awareness and equip students with the necessary tools to advocate on issues facing students, teachers, and schools. Throughout the Spring 2022 semester we focused on discussing, elevating, and advocating against various anti-Critical Race Theory (CRT) legislation.  Recently, we have focused on elevating the voices of students of color, highlighting the specific issues that undocumented immigrant students face, studying how to run an advocacy campaign through practice on school censorship bills, and many other pressing topics that our fellow Tennessee students face.  

Now, in honor of Pride Month, we are using our voice to call out the legislation that is being brought forth in our state to harm LGBTQ+ students and people.  The majority of this legislation is primarily composed of anti-trans laws or laws that demonstrate transphobia and discrimination towards transgender individuals.  Many people may know that the first Pride started with the Stonewall Riots, but what many people don’t know is that the first Pride started with transgender people.  The Stonewall Riots took place at the Stonewall Inn in June of 1969 in protest of police brutality against transgender and GNC (Gender Non-Conforming) patrons of Stonewall. These actions of fighting back against oppressive and discriminatory laws and policies targeting the LGBTQ+ community have inspired the continued passion towards the fight for equality in the queer community ever since.  The courage of the folks at the original Pride has especially inspired  younger generations as we have faced a regression of progress and relentless attacks through legislation and prejudice in recent years.  

Our generation of young people and students has been incredibly progressive and has helped to redefine the way that we see gender and sexuality as a culture. We now reject the ways that queerness was used as a punchline in pop culture, and we continue to push for queerness and queer characters to be represented in meaningful and impactful ways. However, even seeing these characters go through the struggles that many of queer people face with acceptance within their families and with personal acceptance, we still aren’t seeing characters go through the types of oppression that LGBTQ+ folks in the south and especially queer students in Tennessee are experiencing.

In examining mental health analyses, LGBTQ+ folks are far more likely to experience mental health crises and conditions than are their heteronormative peers.  Couple this with the already poor mental health statistics for students and there is a group of students that is at tremendous risk for mental health crises (45% of queer youth seriously considered suicide in the past year according to a 2022 study from the Trevor Project) including anxiety, depression, and suicide.  The number of LGBTQ+ people in the US who have also reported struggles with their mental health is estimated to be larger than the population of the state of Kentucky per Mental Health America.  

Queer students show significantly better outcomes when they have support, see representation or receive affirmative care or acceptance. Currently in the state of Tennessee there are countless bills targeting queer students, but the one that has perpetually scared us is HB/SB 1944 because of its far reaching impact on students of color as well.  This bill is colloquially known as the school book ban or book censorship bill.  As students who are the primary users of school libraries, we  worry that this bill’s vague language to ban “obscene” materials under the guise of banning pornography is really designed to target queer stories and stories centering people of color.  The lack of visibility of queer and intersectional stories for students alone is frightening enough, and this is quite frankly the least abhorrent and directly homophobic bill of the slate of awful bills of late.

Another frightening bill that tries to remove representation of LGBTQ+ people is HB0800/SB1216, which prevents the state from using textbooks that ‘normalize LGBTQ+ issues and lifestyles.’  The application of this is that queer stories will be removed from English and language arts curricula ensuring that the impacts and actions of queer folks throughout history will be effectively erased from Tennessee curricula.  Aside from the general lack of representation that this creates, it is also a horrifying regression to a dark era in our past, and essentially reverts the progress that has been made for the equality of the queer community since the first pride.

Unsurprisingly, there are also legislative attempts to prevent trans athletes from playing sports on the team of their identity.  HB1895/SB1861 was passed and signed into law to give the state the power to withhold funding from LEA (local education associations or districts) that don’t confirm that a students assigned sex at birth matches the gender of the team they with which attempt to play sports.  Laws and bills like the ones presented in this essay create hostile environments for students at school and lead to a perpetuated culture and environment of homophobia, transphobia, and hatred.  Schools are supposed to be safe places for students, but the onslaught of bills targeting queer students will negate that and make schools a place to indoctrinate students into a heteronormative and oppressive society.

Rather than regurgitate facts and figures here, we implore you to scroll through this Trevor Project study referenced previously.  As a group of students who are aware of the challenges LGBTQ+ community faces, the findings in this study are jarring. The report in itself is a public cry to address the mental health crisis that the LGBTQ+ youth, and especially LGBTQ+ youth of color, and it is our duty as Tennesseans to extend love and compassion. 

So, you may be wondering: What can I do? First, be sure that the schools, communities, and programs you are a part of are welcoming and inclusive for all students. You can do so by making the extra effort by hanging the Pride flag or other symbols of inclusivity. If you are an adult advocate, step up and show up for all of your students. Create meaningful relationships with the students you mentor and remember that it is our job to humanize the spaces we are a part of. If you are a student reading this, practice kindness, inclusivity, and acceptance in your school and community. Show up as an ally to different events, actions, and sign petitions showing your support. It is going to take every single one of us to create the change we wish to see!  

Below is a compiled list of organizations and resources to support LGBTQIA+ students and community.

LGBTQIA+ Youth Resources: 

LGBTQIA+ Youth Resources: