Teaching Tolerance Amid Contentious Turbulence
As the parent of a Black and Latino LGBTQ+ teenager, I worry for my child’s safety more now than when he was a fragile newborn or a precocious toddler. There has been a dangerous shift in our society toward intolerance and bigotry, and it is painful for me to reconcile its depth — especially as things turn hateful and deadly. Whether it’s another school shooting, bans on Black books and history, or the rash of anti-trans bills being introduced in state legislatures, our nation’s students are in peril.
These existential threats go beyond the already discriminatory sports and bathroom bans. In Virginia, lawmakers are working to wipe mentions of LGBTQ+ people from their curricula and books, among other reprehensible policies. Texas has already passed a law to remove trans children from the homes of their gender-affirming parents, and states like Missouri, Mississippi, Indiana, and Wyoming are following suit. This is absolutely horrifying, not to mention life threatening, as youth placed in foster care are three to five times as likely to die by suicide.
As an education advocate, I want nothing more than for children to learn the basic tenants of love, respect, civility, and being a decent American. I have seen the powerful role that schools and educators can play in helping young people develop empathy for a diverse group of people and learn about identities that might relate to family members, classmates, or even themselves.
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) district in Maryland, where my kid goes to school, is an example of a school district that celebrates diversity and is supportive of LGBTQ+ students. The county enthusiastically communicates its values through their LGBTQ+ website and even recently introduced a plethora of inclusive books about the LGBTQ+ community to be included in the MCPS curriculum.
According to MCPS, “All students deserve to see themselves in their school and classroom, including students who identify as LGBTQ+ and come from LGBTQ+ headed families and have family members that are a part of the LGBTQ+ community.” I, for one, am glad — and relieved — that we chose to live in a school district that welcomes inclusivity. Unfortunately, not all students have the opportunity to attend schools in a safe and nurturing environment with supportive policies.
That generous attitude juxtaposes the intolerant climate of 2022, when more than the 150 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced — 45 of which were explicitly introduced to disrupt schooling. Of those 45, only two were enacted, and one policy is pending. Thanks to the unrelenting work of dedicated advocates, 42 of these bills failed. Still, this legislative session, there are already 18 states that have proposed anti-trans bills — and it’s only January.
Meanwhile, schools continue to be a battleground for extreme anti-American ideologies, perpetuating outright falsehoods, in this polarized political environment. And all children — no matter their identity — are suffering because of it. To build a stronger nation, our students must be able to digest history in the context of current events and develop critical thinking skills.
Purposely denying students access to a rich, complete, and culturally responsive education is a gravely irresponsible injustice. American students should be able to walk away from 13 years of formal schooling with deep knowledge about the complex issues plaguing the United States and the world. Otherwise, it jeopardizes our ability to function in a global society.
For LGBTQ+ students, efforts to ban teaching about diverse groups of students rob them of the chance to see themselves in the lessons being taught. Furthermore, the lack of teaching tolerance can result in a hostile learning environment. According to a recent school climate survey from GLSEN:
- 8 out of 10 LGBTQ+ students in the last year reported “feeling unsafe in school because of at least one of their actual or perceived personal characteristic”
- Nearly all LGBTQ+ students (97%) heard “gay” used in a negative way (e.g., “that’s so gay”) at school; 68% heard these remarks frequently or often, and 94% reported that they felt distressed because of this language
- 6 out of 10 students reported “hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or other school staff.” And 72% of students reported “hearing negative remarks about gender expression from teachers or other school staff”
- Most students (79%) reported “avoiding school functions or extracurricular activities because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable”
- 3 out of 10 students surveyed missed at least one entire day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and 11% missed four or more days in the past month
And, as if that’s not enough, according to the Trevor Project, more than half of LGBTQ+ youth have contemplated suicide.
Failure to protect LGBTQ+ students is a tragedy hoisted by adults’ own petard. But it doesn’t have to be this way; adults can fix this. There are several actions that state policymakers can employ by leveraging funding from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), outlined in this Ed Trust blog post, such as “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.”
As my son gets ready to graduate high school this spring and enter college in the fall, I want nothing more than for him to be happy, respected, and to feel safely seen in the world. Every child deserves nothing less. We adults need to do better by them.