My son is starting high school this fall, which I find hard to believe — it seems like just yesterday that I was driving him to pre-school. This year feels different for other reasons, too. Last year, we headed into school time with the assumption that progress towards LGBTQ equality and inclusion in education would continue with little hindrance. This year, however, the pall of federal actions against LGBTQ students, particularly transgender ones, hangs heavy over all of us.
One of the first acts of the Trump administration was to withdraw guidance instituted by the Obama administration on how schools should protect transgender and gender-nonconforming students under Title IX. More recently, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a proponent of allowing students to use publicly subsidized vouchers to go to private schools, was asked by reporters Aug. 4 if she “would intervene if states offered vouchers to private schools that discriminated against LGBTQ students,” the ACLU reports. They note, “She declined to answer or provide reassurance that taxpayer dollars would not be used to discriminate.”
And despite growing efforts in recent years to reduce anti-LGBTQ and other forms of bullying in schools and online, we now have a president whose personal behavior has been described as “a lot like plain old bullying” (CNN’s Chris Cillizza) and “bear[ing] many of the hallmarks of cyberbullying” (Politico’s Sarah Holder).
If you think the president’s behavior doesn’t have an impact in our schools, think again. In November, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project conducted an online survey of 10,000 K-12 educators across the country. “More than 2,500 said they knew of fights, threats, assaults and other incidents that could be traced directly to election rhetoric,” it said in a statement. “Many teachers took pains to point out that the incidents they were reporting represent a distinct uptick; these dynamics are new and can be traced directly to the results of the election.” The behavior, it noted, was “directed against immigrants, Muslims, girls, LGBT students, kids with disabilities and anyone who was on the ‘wrong’ side of the election.”
What hope can we find, then, in back-to-school times like these?
First, I do believe we will retain much of the progress we have made toward LGBTQ inclusion and understanding in schools. Organizations like GLSEN and PFLAG and HRC’s Welcoming Schools project have been doing terrific on-the-ground work for years. Resources for educators continue to increase; one recent notable work is “Rethinking Sexism, Gender and Sexuality,” an essay collection from Rethinking Schools that offers both practical tips and reflective insights on creating classrooms, curriculum and more to nurture all children.
The professional organizations of educators, too, are continuing their support. Last summer, the National Education Association (NEA), the National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) all announced support for plans and policies to promote safety and support for LGBTQ students, working in partnership with local, state and federal authorities.
Right after the Trump administration’s announcement on trans students this year, AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement, “We want to be clear to those kids: [Abuse and harassment at school for being trans] is not OK with your teachers or with us at the AFT, and we will continue fighting to protect you.”
Additionally, the AFT invited trans student Gavin Grimm, who brought a federal lawsuit against his school for not letting him use the restroom corresponding to his gender identity, to speak at its biennial TEACH convention in Washington, D.C., in July.
The NEA kept up its support by adopting a resolution in June to “continue to advance” the rights of LGBTQ students and educators with a series of specific actions, including offering its members tools to promote local policies; legislative support; filing “friend of the court” briefs; and not holding meetings in cities with discriminatory policies. The organization also honored federal marriage-equality plaintiff Jim Obergefell at its 2017 Human and Civil Rights Awards in July.
And when the Department of Education invited representatives from two anti-LGBTQ groups to speak at its “Engaging Fathers and Families” event in June, the NPTA withdrew.
I am also encouraged by the strength and resilience of young people themselves. The status of Grimm’s lawsuit is in question now that he has graduated, but he recently told LGBTQ Nation that, despite the government’s anti-trans actions, “I see a positive future ... because the conversation is growing.”
Regardless of whether Grimm himself succeeds, others are continuing the fight. Three trans students, Juliet Evancho, Elissa Ridenour and A.S., backed by Lambda Legal, reached a settlement Aug. 1 in which the Pine-Richland School District in Pennsylvania agreed to respect trans students’ identities with regard to student records, names and pronouns; to include gender identity in its nondiscrimination policies; and to allow them to use the bathroom matching their gender identities.
And thanks to the efforts of trans advocates and allies in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R), not known as a strong LGBTQ supporter, at the end of July signed legislation requiring the state education commission to develop guidelines to create safe and nondiscriminatory school environments for trans students.
All is not doom and gloom, therefore, although we shouldn’t minimize the struggles that remain. For those seeking some advice and assistance on navigating schools as an LGBTQ family, I’ve updated my annual annotated list of LGBTQ Back-to-School Resources, which you can find at mombian.com.
May the worst struggle we have this year be in trying to get our kids to do their homework.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.