Article Written by Beatrice Stefan
Long before coming into effect, Florida's 2022 “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a law instated by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis to “make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination”(Yang), received backlash across the country. Formally referred to as the Parents Rights in Education bill, this bill forbids Floridian schools from discussing or encouraging discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in primary grades (FL House Rep.), preventing young students from accessing LGBTQ+ representation and information. In the same year, Alabama passed House Bill 322, which, in addition to containing "Don't Say Gay" terminologies akin to the aforenamed bill in Florida, requires public school students to use bathrooms assigned to their biological sex (Legiscan, AL HB322). While the induction of both these bills shocked LGBTQ+ rights activists, several states, such as Louisiana and Texas, have pre-existing laws implementing comparable restrictions (LA Laws, TX Statutes). Although not the first states to pass "Don't Say Gay" bills, the recent actions of Florida and Alabama are still historically significant, as they are the first states to pass such laws since 2001 (Sosin). Similar laws were introduced but not passed in at least fourteen additional states between 2020 and 2021, warranting further concern for an apparent increase in legislature surrounding LGBTQ+ representation in schools (Movement Advancement Project).
In addition to the “Don’t Say Gay” bills, states across the U.S. have passed laws that adversely affect transgender students. More specifically, state laws restricting bathroom use (e.g., House Bill 322 in Alabama) and the participation of transgender youth in competitive sports are the most common. Legal debates about bathroom and locker room use have been occurring for years, with an article from the National Conference of State Legislatures stating that “bathroom bills” were considered by nineteen states in 2016 and nine states in 2015 (Kralik). However, not all states share these sentiments; California passed a bill in 2013 allowing students to use facilities based on their gender identity (Kralik). This bill also allows transgender students to participate with athletes of the same gender identity, a right taken away from those in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and at least ten other states as of 2022 (Kralik; Barnes). Some of these bans include intramural and college-level sports, with the majority banning transgender girls and women in particular due to the belief that they would have an inherent biological advantage (Barnes). Other states have implemented requirements ranging from legal documentation to proof of medical and social transition for transgender students to participate in school sports (Barnes). Many of these laws are written from a binary point of view, leaving nonbinary students out of the picture altogether.
In school, LGBTQ+ students face countless forms of discrimination unrelated to state laws, including harassment from other students. Bullying is a common issue. Data from 2019 states that only 17-18% percent of cisgender, heterosexual students experienced bullying on school property, compared to 43% of transgender students, 29% of gay and lesbian students, and 31% of bisexual students (Roberts). More concerningly, transgender and non-heterosexual students have an increased risk of being threatened or injured with a weapon at school; 29% of transgender students, 16% of gay and lesbian students, and 11% of bisexual students have experienced on-campus threats or injuries, compared to 7% of cisgender, heterosexual students (Roberts). Some teachers and administration members also lack a proper understanding of LGBTQ+ youth and accommodating resources, worsening their in-school experiences. From public schools seldom normalizing diverse pronoun use to poorly managed classroom discussions surrounding topics of gender and sexuality, the ignorances and biases of peers and adults often show through in education.
Despite the discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ students, many have worked hard to improve their school community. Some students have started Gender & Sexuality Alliance (GSA) chapters, although these groups are less common in certain states (Child Trends). As an alliance group, GSAs are open to students of all sexualities and genders. According to GSA Network, these organizations initially served as safe places for LGBTQ+ students and have grown to become “vehicles for deep social change related to racial, gender, and educational justice” (GSA Network). Teachers can and often do make efforts to support LGBTQ+ students, too, sometimes showing support with “Safe Space” stickers and inclusive language in their classrooms. Even small actions like these can make transgender and non-heterosexual youth feel more welcome and at ease in an often prejudiced school environment.
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