Across the country, many LGBTQ+ students are returning to school under a social and political climate that undermines their queer identities. Already concerned with academic performance and acclimating to new classroom settings, LGBTQ+ students now face the added challenge of continuing to develop their identities — including gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation — in environments that threaten their very own well-being. What is arguably the worst part of the situation is that these environments were created by the very people who have been entrusted with protecting them: elected officials.
Since 2015, we have seen more than 1,200 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in the states, with just over 100 having been enacted into law. Many of these bills have specifically targeted transgender youth, banning them from participating in school sports and receiving life-saving healthcare. Of the more than 320 discriminatory bills introduced this year, 29 have been enacted. These bills not only suggest lawful discriminatory action, but have also stoked problematic and inaccurate narratives wrongly shaping the public perception of our community, particularly LGBTQ+ youth, directly jeopardized their well-being and educational prosperity.
One of these bills is Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill, which went into effect on July 1, 2022. This bill requires school districts to ban any classroom discussion regarding sexual orientation and gender identity during grades K-3, and creates an opportunity for any parent to sue the district over content the parent finds not to be “age appropriate.” This language is too vague for school districts to understand how to protect themselves, and some schools have already gone too far. For example, some state school districts have removed books and educational materials that relate to LGBTQ+ issues from school libraries.
“The 2022-2023 school year, with the ‘Don’t Say Gay or Trans’ bill, will be challenging as my gender non-conforming child starts middle school,” said Jennifer Solomon, president of South Miami’s PFLAG Chapter. She is also a member of HRC Foundation’s Parents for Transgender Equality Council and a mother of an LGBTQ+ child.
Solomon said that by utilizing the Miami Dade County Public Schools' Guidelines for Promoting Safe and Inclusive Schools, she will continue to advocate for her child and ensure her parental rights are heard.
“I also turn to national organizations like HRC, the National PTA and PFLAG for resources and support. My child deserves to be celebrated and not targeted. He needs to be seen as equal to other children. He has the right to be heard,” said Soloman. “It is a fact that children can't learn if they don't feel safe. This law will cause my child and many other LGBTQ+ youth in Florida to worry about their safety when they should concentrate on learning subjects like algebra.”
Cynthia Weaver, HRC’s litigation director, says that beyond banning open and honest discussions around gender identity and sexual orientation, the bills can have a “chilling effect” on what students, especially LGBTQ+ students, are comfortable “discussing, learning and disclosing in at school.”
“This all limits the history and perspectives that students can learn from, history and perspectives that may help students understand who they are and how they can and want to interact with the world as they grow up,” said Weaver. “The intention behind these laws is no doubt anti-LGBTQ+. For students who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, and allies too, these laws can have an isolating effect and impart concerns with safety at school — which is becoming less and less safe in other ways — in an environment that is already socially challenging.”
While the Human Rights Campaign has been at the frontlines in the fight against these vile state bills, it has also been identifying ways of supporting LGBTQ+ students, their supportive educators, allies and families.
Cheryl Greene, director of HRC Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program, said that the need to support adults in the lives of LGBTQ+ students was “dire.”
To help and support our community this back to school season, HRC launched the “Back To School As You Are” campaign in late July. The campaign, which will run through September, consists of supportive and helpful resources and content for students, educators, youth-serving professionals and parents. It also elevates encouraging and supportive messages from LGBTQ+ students to other LGBTQ+ students as well as educators to other educators.
HRC and the HRC Foundation work together to fight for a safe, nurturing educational environment that is conducive to true learning. That includes our efforts to battle back against discriminatory legislation in the states, to fight for clarification of existing civil rights laws such as Title IX to ensure that protections for LGBTQ+ youth are understood and enforced, and of course the HRC Foundation’s Project THRIVE, which works to create more equitable, inclusive support systems and communities for LGBTQ+ youth.
“HRC fights tirelessly to ensure that federal civil rights laws like Title IX are enforced as they should be — with an understanding that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is prohibited by existing law,” said Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s state legislative director and senior counsel. “We are currently working to support rulemaking that would make this even more clear, and calling for swift action to ensure that transgender youth are able to access educational opportunities like sports, too. We will continue to battle back bad legislation in the states and work toward safe, inclusive learning environments for all.”
Spearheaded by the HRC Foundation, Project THRIVE has built a coalition with other leading national organizations who are equally committed to identifying opportunities to increase awareness about the specific needs of LGBTQ+ youth.
“Schools can issue non-bullying, non-harassment, and inclusive policies, train students, parents as well as faculty on those policies and enforce them,” said Weaver. “Administrations can team up with HRC Foundation's Welcoming Schools program to provide tailored trainings. I think nothing beats good old-fashioned grassroots work, which simply entails having one-on-one conversations with each other, other parents, students, and neighbors, to understand that we all actually have a lot more in common than we think. I think organizing and advocacy that is locally driven is more effective while leveraging tested outside resources when appropriate. Practically, this means organizing time and space to convene and discuss.”
These are the type of conversations Solomon hopes teachers and educators will prioritize as students like her gender non-conforming son return to school. She said she hopes that “good educators across the state will continue to provide guidance and protection because they love children and won't let politicians dictate how they run their classrooms.
“They will be the true heroes,” said Solomon.
During Pride Month, Project THRIVE and its 19 other leading organizations focused on the well-being of young people to record and publish a video reaffirming their commitment to LGBTQ+ youth. The video acknowledged this year’s renewed attacks on young LGBTQ+ people while assuring them of their solidarity and dedication to their safety.
Ultimately, to ensure the safety and well-being of all students, not only LGBTQ+ students, schools and school personnel must also take accountability and take actions to ensure safe and inclusive learning environments.