Speaking Out and Showing Up for LGBTQ+ Students
Last month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits educators from teaching children in kindergarten through third grade about sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as prohibits teaching these topics to older children unless the lessons are “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” While Florida has received significant news coverage regarding this deeply harmful bill, the Sunshine State isn’t the only state taking aggressive actions against the LGBTQ+ community. In Idaho, the state House overwhelmingly approved legislation that would impose a life sentence for medical personnel who provide gender-affirming healthcare to children, as well as the child’s parents who support this care. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott issued a directive to state authorities to investigate gender-affirming medical care for transgender children as a form of child abuse. These efforts, including recent actions in Georgia, Tennessee, and elsewhere, are just some of the more than 150 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in 2022 alone. Across the country, at least 15 states are considering legislation in the 2021-22 legislative session that would impact the way schools discuss, address, or interact with LGBTQ+ students.
Attacks against the LGBTQ+ community are not a new phenomenon. For decades, a subset of politicians have pushed an extreme political agenda to marginalize some of our country’s most underserved youth. In the 1990s, many states enacted “no promo homo” laws, which ranged from placing restrictions on the representation of homosexuality in state curriculum, to explicitly prohibiting the positive portrayal of homosexuality in schools. These laws still exist in Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas—affecting more than 6 million students—and have fostered a more hostile school climate for LGBTQ+ students, who reported they were more likely to hear homophobic remarks and face harassment and assault than students who attended schools in states without these policies.
The collective impact of these harmful policies on LGBTQ+ students is devastating. GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey documents the experiences of LGBTQ students and school climates, and outlines the national crisis facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth. The report, which surveyed nearly 17,000 students across all 50 states, laid out several sobering findings, including:
- Almost one-third of LGBTQ+ students have missed at least one entire day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable
- Over 70% of LGBTQ+ students reported avoiding school functions and extracurricular activities because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable
- Nearly a fifth of LGBTQ+ students reported having ever changed schools due to feeling unsafe or uncomfortable at school
- 95% of LGBTQ+ students reported hearing homophobic remarks at school, with more than half reporting they heard this type of language often
- 86% of LGBTQ+ students reported that they experienced harassment or assault at school
GLSEN’s research further shows that discriminatory school policies and practices further marginalize and isolate LGBTQ+ students: 17% were prohibited from discussing or writing about LGBTQ+ topics in school assignments; 46% of transgender students were prevented from using chosen names and pronouns; and nearly 1 in 4 nonbinary students were prevented from wearing clothing deemed “inappropriate” based on gender. Additionally, only 14% of surveyed students reported that educators intervened most or all of the time when derogatory or homophobic remarks were made in school.
Hostile school climates also affect LGBTQ+ students’ academic success and well-being. LGBTQ+ students who experience bullying, discrimination, and other forms of victimizations in schools are more likely to miss school, report lower GPAs, and are less likely to go to college. Furthermore, LGBTQ+ students who experience victimization at school are more likely to have lower self-esteem and higher levels of depression. LGBTQ+ students of color who experience both racist and anti-LGBTQ+ victimization are most likely to skip school due to feeling unsafe, report the lowest levels of school belonging, and experience the highest levels of depression, compared to those who experience one or neither form of victimization.
States can and must take decisive actions to ensure students’ safety and foster their social, emotional, and academic development. Every child, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression should be guaranteed an education free from bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Fortunately, there are several actions states can take to achieve this objective that are supported by funding from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), such as:
- Adopting supportive state laws and policies, including anti-bullying laws that prohibit victimization based on sexual orientation and gender identity and inclusive curricular standards that ensure all students have access to positive representations of LGBTQ+ people
- Supporting effective implementation of anti-bullying and nondiscrimination laws
- Outlining within their ESSA-mandated state plans specific activities for how they will prevent and effectively respond to anti-LGBTQ+ bullying and harassment, including in Title I-A schools and through Title IV-A programming.
- Adding or improving upon inclusive material across all subject areas by, for example, creating a model curriculum that is inclusive of the historical contributions and lived experiences of people who are LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous, people of color, and people with disabilities
- Leveraging community partnerships with local organizations on school-based programming designed to better serve the whole needs of LGBTQ+ students
- Using COVID-19 relief funds to address the disparate impact of the pandemic on LGBTQ+ students, particularly those who are students of color and students with disabilities
GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey has found by implementing four supports — comprehensive policies that prohibit victimization, supportive school personnel, inclusive curriculum, and supportive student groups like gender sexuality alliances or gay-straight alliances (GSAs) — improves school climate for LGBTQ+ youth along with their academic, social, and emotional well-being. For example, transgender and nonbinary students who reported having one or more supportive educator were far less likely to report missing school in the past month due to feeling unsafe than transgender and nonbinary students who indicated they had no supportive school personnel (26% vs. 46%).
So what can you do to help promote safe, welcoming schools for LGBTQ+ students?
- Participate in GLSEN’s Day of Silence on Friday, April 22, a national student-led demonstration where LGBTQ+ students and allies all around the country — and the world — take a vow of silence to protest the harmful effects of harassment and discrimination on LGBTQ+ youth in schools. You can learn more and register to participate here and you can also ask your Members of Congress to cosponsor the National Day of Silence resolution
- Urge your Members of Congress to pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA). SSIA (House Bill 4402 / Senate Bill 2410) helps states and school districts prevent and effectively respond to bullying that disproportionately impacts LGBTQ+ and other students who experience marginalization. Currently, only 21 states, DC, and Puerto Rico expressly enumerate sexual orientation and gender identity in anti-bullying laws. SSIA would ensure every school district adopts a locally tailored anti-bullying policy that, at minimum, prohibits bullying on the basis of sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), race, color, nationality, and disability
Lastly, remember to show up for LGBTQ+ students—today and every day. As with all students, LGBTQ+ students deserve a safe, supportive learning environment where they can thrive and reach their full potential—and they need our support more than ever.
Bonnie Washick Ph.D. is the federal policy manager for GLSEN, a national organization whose mission is to ensure that every member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.