A 2015 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that “LGBTQ+ students experience pervasive harassment and discrimination, but school-based supports can make a difference.”
Educators are on the leading edge of campaigns, initiatives and legislative efforts to create safe and affirming schools and support LGBTQ+ student rights.
Fostering Safe and Affirming Schools for All Students
When students came to AP English teacher Lanie Gray for help starting a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at Olathe North High School in Olathe, Kansas, she jumped at the opportunity. Her brother, an openly gay young man, endured merciless bullying and several brutal physical assaults while at Olathe North in the 1980s.
I knew that creating a safe place for LGBTQ+ students was a cause I could fight for. I was all in.
Using resources from NEA partner GLSEN, she served as an advisor and worked with students to set up a GSA. “I knew that creating a safe place for LGBTQ+ students was a cause I could fight for. I was all in,” says Lanie.
Helping to Shape LGBTQ+-inclusive Curriculum and Textbooks
In Arizona, educators mobilized in support of the repeal of a 28-year-old law that prohibited discussing homosexuality during HIV/AIDS instruction in public schools.
“I found sex-education to be heterosexual sex education, and even then, it was vague,” educator Gabriella Siciliano told AZEdNews.com of her experience in Arizona public schools. Sciliano is a member of the local LGBTQ+ community and a teacher at Verrado High School. “It was not a comfortable, or open discussion, as I believe it should be. By under-educating our students, we are setting them up for failure, which is simply a disservice.”
The Arizona state Senate passed a bill repealing the law in May 2019.
Training Other Educators to Raise their Voices for LGBTQ+ Students
NEA educator Bo Frank says he wants the world to be a more loving and accepting place for all students. Frank is a trainer and teacher at Radford High School in Honolulu, Hawaii.
His training, Sharing Aloha: Equity, Social Justice and Inclusion for LGBTQIA Students, has been viewed by thousands of educators across the nation. In the training, he shares his own family’s journey with his daughter Sakoda, who made the transition from living as a boy to being a girl halfway through kindergarten.
“I hope that my presentation starts the conversations that are needed to create change at the school level,” says Frank. “Faculty and staff at all schools need in-service training and exposure to the basic needs of marginalized populations in our schools. Every student deserves an equal opportunity, to feel safe and accepted in school, and to reach their maximum potential.”
Backing Legislation That Supports LGBTQ+ Students’ Rights
In New Mexico, Washington, and Virginia, educators mobilized this spring in support of state legislation and court cases that would affirm the rights of transgender students.
In March 2019, the New Mexico Senate passed the “Safe Schools for All Students Act,” a comprehensive anti-bullying law that is inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Washington already has comprehensive anti-bullying protections in place. In April 2019, the state senate passed a bill that would help ensure that every school district in in the state has the resources to handle harassment, bullying, and discrimination appropriately against transgender students.
In Northern Virginia, four school districts declared their support in March 2019 for transgender students’ rights by filing an amicus (or friend-of-the-court) brief in a case involving a transgender teen who sued his school district after he was barred from using the boys’ restroom. The case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but was returned to a lower court after the Trump administration abandoned an Obama-era rule regarding transgender students.
Supporting School Naming Initiatives That Honor Legacies of LGBTQ+ Activists & Leaders
In April 2018, the Montgomery County Board of Education in Maryland voted to make Bayard Rustin Elementary School the first school in the state to be named after an openly gay person. The new school in Rockville, Md., opened in September 2018.
Rustin was a gay African-American activist who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and a leading organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The decision followed a months-long campaign by parents, students, educators and community activists who said the new school name would both honor a courageous African-American activist who embraced his gay identity and underscore the district’s commitment to inclusion and tolerance.
You can read more about NEA’s work to support LGBTQ youth on our EdJustice page.