‘I’m terrified’: As new laws take effect, LGBTQ students and allies fear the consequences
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Cindy Nobles, a mother of four in Jacksonville, Florida, watched with mounting dread this spring as the local school board rewrote a guide meant to support LGBTQ students. She feared that every stricken passage left vulnerable children a little less safe.
The Duval County school district had reissued the guide on the heels of an alarming 2019 survey, which showed that more than 60% of the district’s lesbian, gay, and bisexual high schoolers felt sad or hopeless. Nearly 1 in 3 of those students said they had attempted suicide — twice the rate of their straight peers.
But after Republican state lawmakers passed a bill this March restricting lessons about gender identity and sexuality, Duval County gutted its LGBTQ guide. Officials released a draft in May that condensed the 37-page document into eight pages of an employee manual, and removed most references to transgender students.
“It was butchered,” said Nobles, who is president of Jacksonville’s PFLAG chapter. Now, as more school districts rush to comply with the new law, Nobles is convinced that student safeguards are in jeopardy.
“I’m terrified at the moment,” she said.
For LGBTQ kids, just stepping out into the world as your authentic self can be treacherous. Family members could shun you, classmates bully you, and bigots harass you or worse. Youth of color and transgender kids face added resistance. At the school Nobles’ youngest child attends, a trans boy was barred from the boys locker room and a trans girl was assaulted on campus.
Yet, instead of shielding such students, conservative lawmakers across the U.S. are trying to prohibit practices meant to make LGBTQ youth feel safe and supported at school.
Just this year, legislators have introduced more than 300 bills targeting LGBTQ Americans, with many seeking to limit transgender kids’ access to medical care, school bathrooms, and sports teams, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Other proposals would ban books that “normalize” LGBTQ “lifestyles,” restrict what students can learn about sexuality and racism, or require parental permission for kids to choose their pronouns or join LGBTQ clubs. Republicans say the restrictions restore parents’ authority and defend students from indoctrination.
On July 1, anti-LGBTQ laws affecting young people took effect in six states, including Florida.
“We’re just kind of preparing for a fight,” said Nobles’ child Cody, a rising 12th grader who identifies as bigender and gay.
The full reach of the new laws won’t be known until schools begin enforcing them this fall. But already the targeted legal campaign and intensifying rhetoric have left many LGBTQ students feeling under siege.
“What they’re learning,” said Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of GLSEN, which advocates for inclusive schools, “is that some people don’t think they should exist.”
Even before the recent onslaught of legislation, school was not a safe space for many LGBTQ kids.
For Alex Rambow, a teenager in South Dakota who identifies as transgender, simply being himself at school is a struggle. Yes, most teachers use his correct pronouns. But others are less accepting and some students are openly hostile.
“I just hate being there,” said Alex, a soon-to-be 12th grader. “Not for my education, but just because of the environment.”
Last year, a student followed Alex to his car shouting slurs. Another time, a group of students threatened to beat him up if he used the boys bathroom. So instead, Alex uses an employee restroom or waits until he’s home.
This April, a teacher at Alex’s school gave some students letters challenging their gender identities and urging them to accept “the biological truth.” The superintendent quickly condemned discrimination based on sexuality or gender and said the district was investigating the teacher. But discouraging abuse is hardly the same as making everyone feel welcome.
“They don’t say anything about LGBTQ students,” Alex said. “We just get forgotten and swept under the rug.”
Silence starts at the very top. While every state has some form of anti-bullying law, half do not explicitly prohibit bullying based on race, gender, or other characteristics.
The lack of specificity comes despite research showing state laws that explicitly forbid bullying based on sexual orientation are associated with fewer suicide attempts, and LGBTQ students in schools with such policies face less victimization.
When state policies protect and embrace LGBTQ students, it empowers district and school leaders to follow suit — even if some parents or politicians object.
“It gives them the mandate to do this work,” said Elizabeth Meyer, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied inclusive education policies. “They can say: This is the law and this is what I’m going to be doing.”
South Dakota’s anti-bullying law not only lacks a list of protected student groups, it also bars school districts from creating such lists. Alex’s district has no formal policies related to LGBTQ students, the superintendent confirmed in an email, though he said schools try to work with families to accommodate trans students.
The absence of inclusive policies leaves supportive parents to fill in the gaps.
Alex’s mother Amy formed a nonprofit, Watertown Love, that hosts annual Pride celebrations and monthly meetups where LGBTQ youth can go bowling or get pizza together. The district allowed her group to offer a workshop on inclusive practices during a staff training, but it was voluntary and Amy said only a handful of people attended. Meanwhile, Amy is trying to reckon with the possibility that her son will skip senior prom because he doesn’t feel safe.
“It hurts my heart,” she said.
Alex’s experience is disturbingly common. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual high school students are nearly twice as likely as their straight peers to feel unsafe at school and face bullying, according to a 2019 CDC survey. Some of those students endure additional abuse based on their race, religion, or other aspects of their identities.
Stigma and shunning, whether at school or home, can take a steep toll. Two-thirds of lesbian, gay, and bisexual high schoolers felt persistently sad or hopeless during the past year, and nearly half seriously considered suicide, according to the 2019 survey. The rates are even higher for transgender and nonbinary youth, a different survey found.
Those mental health risks reflect the discrimination that LGBTQ people face, said Preston Mitchum, director of advocacy and government affairs for the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention group.
“It’s not inherent to who we are,” he said. “It’s because of society and how society treats people.”
In recent years, as South Dakota legislators pushed more than 30 bills restricting LGBTQ rights, advocates fought back. Trans youth lobbied lawmakers and testified at hearings.
In February, Amy and Alex traveled to the state capitol, where they invited Gov. Kristi Noem to meet with trans youth and allies. She declined. A few days later, Noem signed a law barring trans girls from girls sports teams. It took effect July 1.
Whether or not such laws pass, the rhetoric promoting them can do harm. A staggering 85% of trans and nonbinary youth said the debate over laws targeting trans people negatively impacted their mental health, according to a Trevor Project poll last fall.
Campaigns seeking to regulate trans lives send young people a clear message, LGBTQ advocates say: They are a problem to be fixed.
“I’ve already got enough self-hatred as it is,” Alex said, “and that’s just piling more on top.”
It isn’t just LGBTQ students who feel increasingly targeted, but also the educators who support them.
Brandy Vance, a physical education teacher in Tallahassee, Florida, wears outfits featuring rainbows and unicorns that signal her acceptance of all students. Occasionally students confide to her that they are LGBTQ, including one child who came out as trans. Her class became a refuge for the student, who hid their identity at home.
Under Florida’s new law, schools must notify parents of changes in students’ mental or emotional condition. The state has offered little clarity about the vaguely worded rule, but Vance worries it will force her to inform parents any time a student discusses their identity.
“Do I potentially out this kid to their parents?” she said. “Or do I potentially lose the job that I know I’m meant to do?”
The law has put LGBTQ-affirming educators on the defensive. Conservative critics accuse teachers of usurping parents’ authority and imposing liberal beliefs about gender and sexuality on students — what Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis calls “woke gender ideology.”
“We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination,” he said when signing the Parental Rights in Education law.
The law, which critics call “Don’t Say Gay or Trans,” says schools must respect “the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children.” It allows parents to report and potentially sue school districts if they believe a teacher has discussed sexual orientation or gender identity with students in grades K-3 or with older students in a way that’s not “age appropriate.”
The restrictions seek to rein in districts that critics say went too far in affirming LGBTQ students. Republicans point to Leon County, the district where Vance teaches, as Exhibit A.
Last year, a conservative group sued the district on behalf of parents who said a Leon County school helped their child adopt a different gender without their consent. The lawsuit referred to a district guide, which warned that outing LGBTQ students to their parents “can be very dangerous” if families are not accepting. Republican state lawmakers began drafting the parents’ rights law after learning about the lawsuit and several districts’ LGBTQ guides, Politico reported.
After the law passed, schools scrambled to bring their practices into compliance.
Leon County convened a 14-member committee to rewrite its guide for supporting LGBTQ students. Like Duval County, the district condensed the guide and added new parent notification requirements. Most controversially, Leon County’s new manual says parents will be alerted if a transgender student in their children’s physical education class requests to use the locker room matching their gender identity.
During some three hours of public comment at a school board meeting last week, the revised guide came under fire from all sides. Some speakers said schools should only allow students to use facilities that match their biological sex, and argued that accommodating transgender students amounts to endorsing their identities.
“The school system is not a place to promote radical ideologies,” one parent said.
But other speakers said notifying families about transgender students’ locker room use would violate their privacy and expose them to hostility.
“LGBTQ students already are in a lot of danger,” said a high school student who warned the notifications could lead to bullying.
For her part, Vance said she’ll continue to accept students just as they are — even as she fears that expressing her support could now invite scrutiny or sanctions.
“If I have to go down that way,” she told Chalkbeat, “then that’s what’s going to happen.”
Beyond Leon County, other districts are also scrambling to revamp policies that could run afoul of the new law. They are doing so largely on their own, as the law gives the state education department until July 2023 to issue updated guidelines.
Meanwhile, Florida educators are trying to make sense of the changes.
A few days before the restrictions went into effect, the LGBTQ-advocacy group Safe Schools South Florida hosted a workshop for teachers. They asked union representatives whether they can still inquire about students’ preferred pronouns, post rainbow flags, or display photos of their same-sex partners.
Such activities are not expressly prohibited, the representatives said, but grade K-3 teachers should beware of actions that parents could interpret as “instruction” about gender or sexuality.
“We encourage you to be self aware, to be cognizant of the very real consequences that this law creates,” said Vincent Halloran, an attorney with United Teachers of Dade, the Miami-area union.
Florida officials have accused activists and teachers unions of trying to “sow confusion” about the new law. In a recent motion asking a judge to dismiss a challenge to the law, the state’s attorney general said teachers would still be free to display family photos or mention their partners during class.
The chaos in Florida could spread beyond its borders. Lawmakers in at least 14 states have introduced bills to restrict classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity, according to an analysis by the Movement Advance Project. Alabama’s bill passed, and the law took effect this month.
Even just the prospect of such restrictions is making some teachers second guess what is safe to say in the classroom, said Andrew Kirk, a high school teacher in Texas, where state officials plan to introduce a bill similar to Florida’s.
“This chilling effect is already happening,” he said.
Patrick Wall is a senior reporter covering national education issues. Contact him at email@example.com.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a high school teacher in South Dakota gave letters to several students, including Alex Rambow, challenging their gender identities. Alex did not receive one of the letters.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.