Now Is the Time to Protect LGBTQ Students

By Isaac James

Earlier this year, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, joined by 90 other civil rights and education organizations, urged Congress to take action on five bills that would provide safe, healthy, and inclusive school climates. These bills would all make important improvements to schools to keep children safe and support their educational success.

Critically, passage of these bills would achieve progress on an often-overlooked area of education policy: inclusive school protections for LGBTQ students.

These protections are long overdue. A nationwide study by GLSEN demonstrates the disparate level of discrimination that exists across U.S. schools. As recently as 2019, 86 percent of LGBTQ students in the United States reported experiencing harassment or assault because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and 59 percent reported experiencing discriminatory practices at their school. These percentages translate into the victimization of millions of K-12 LGBTQ students as a result of their identity.

And with the rise of legislation targeting transgender youth in states like Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, and my native Texas, the rhetoric around protecting queer and trans young people requires serious attention at the national level. As an intern with the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus during the 87th legislative session in 2021, I witnessed firsthand how state leaders worked to delegitimize and silence trans voices. Governor Abbott called lawmakers back to Austin for three special legislative sessions to address a handful of priorities, ultimately achieving his goal of restricting transgender youth from joining school sports teams aligned with their gender identity by signing a bill that erases trans identities with the outdated and bigoted term “biological sex.”

The words of 10-year-old Kai Shappley have stuck in my head since I watched her testimony to a Texas Senate committee: “It makes me sad that some politicians use trans kids like me to get votes from people who hate me just because I exist.” The lack of legal protections for young people like Kai requires tangible policy solutions that tackle discrimination and marginalization in our school systems.

It was unfortunate that the Texas legislature was not focused on making more progress on bills such as H.B. 4064, the Protect Texas Students Act, which would have protected K-12 students from bullying and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This bill is similar to one of the five federal school climate bills — the Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2021 (S. 2410/H.R. 4402) — supported by the civil and human rights community.

Enumerated anti-discrimination policies such as the ones proposed in the Safe Schools Improvement Act are connected to more positive school climates, less victimization, lower levels of truancy, higher self-esteem, and decreased suicidal ideation for LGBTQ students. If my high school had enacted these inclusive protections for LGBTQ students, I would have felt more protected against the homophobic tendencies of my classmates and more empowered to stand up for myself and my peers.

Clearly, the inequality faced by LGBTQ students takes more forms than just bullying and harassment — queer and trans youth are more likely to experience mental health struggles and disproportionate disciplinary practices compared to their heterosexual and cisgender classmates.

Three bills currently pending in Congress would address these inequities to create a more just public education system. The Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act (S. 2125/H.R. 4011) would prohibit the use of federal funds to support the hiring, recruitment, and placement of police officers on K-12 school campuses and invest in improving the learning environment for children, such as making mental health services for students more LGBTQ inclusive. The Keeping All Students Safe Act (S. 1858/H.R. 3474) would prohibit seclusion and life-threatening forms of restraint such as mechanical/chemical restraint, and the Protecting Our Students in Schools Act (S. 2029/H.R. 3836) would prohibit the harmful and dangerous practice of corporal punishment. These two bills would make progress on an issue that is deeply intertwined with LGBTQ equality: racial justice. Research shows that LGBTQ students, especially LGBTQ students of color, are more vulnerable to “harsh school discipline and biased application of policies.”

LGBTQ equality is further pursued in tandem with racial justice through the Ending PUSHOUT Act of 2021 (H.R. 2248), which would decrease the criminalization and pushout of marginalized school communities and reduce the disproportionate school-to-prison pipeline for all students, including LGBTQ students. This legislation is critical given that one in five young people in U.S. juvenile justice facilities are queer or trans — of which 85 percent are students of color.

The time is now for lawmakers to address school climate issues. Following the Texas legislature’s 2021 assault on queer and trans youth, crisis calls to The Trevor Project increased 150 percent. Meanwhile, students like Cameron Samuels from Katy, Texas are fighting against ongoing efforts to restrict online information and books about LGBTQ identities. Samuels, testifying at a December 2021 school board meeting, told trustees that allowing access to resources about LGBTQ identities “is a matter of life or death.” 

It is imperative that members of Congress act now to protect the millions of LGBTQ students who are disproportionately affected by marginalization in the school system. Contact your members of Congress today to support legislation that advances safe, healthy, and inclusive school climates. Speaking from personal experience, I can assure you there is too much at stake to remain idle.

Isaac James is a spring 2022 undergraduate intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.