Protections for LGBTQ Students

While the U.S. has seen important advances in gay rights in recent years, homophobia remains a significant problem in our schools. Learn what protections exist for LGBTQ students and how parents and teachers can work together to create tolerant learning environments for these kids.

Homophobia is rampant in our nation's schools today, despite the widespread adoption of anti-bullying and harassment policies that have been implemented in most districts.

For LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) youth, simply attending school can be traumatic, with roughly 90 percent reporting verbal harassment and a litany of other bullying and discriminatory experiences, according to research by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). LGBTQ youth face difficulties ranging from mental and physical health issues to homelessness and suicide.

Federal Legal Protections

Advocates for LGBTQ youth, however, feel that these policies need to be stronger and more explicit. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, and the Title IX Education Amendment of 1972 further protects against sex discrimination. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights released a statement that designated explicit homophobic behavior as a violation of federal law. This Dear Colleague Letter states that, "when such harassment is based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability, it violates the civil rights laws that the Office of Civil Rights enforces."

The letter goes on to clarify how Title IX protects LGBTQ students specifically:

Title IX prohibits harassment of both male and female students regardless of the sex of the harasser — i.e., even if the harasser and target are members of the same sex. It also prohibits gender‐based harassment, which may include acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex‐stereotyping. Thus, it can be sex discrimination if students are harassed either for exhibiting what is perceived as a stereotypical characteristic for their sex, or for failing to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity. Title IX also prohibits sexual harassment and gender‐based harassment of all students, regardless of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the harasser or target. Although Title IX does not prohibit discrimination based solely on sexual orientation, Title IX does protect all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, from sex discrimination.

Recent U.S. congressional legislation proposed further protections for LGBTQ students under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act — more commonly known as No Child Left Behind — but the amendment was voted down in July 2015. Opponents have argued that Title IX already addresses such discrimination, and indeed, more and more federal courts recognize the statute’s application to LGBTQ learners. Beyond this federal protection, though, states and individual schools still have a responsibility to enforce the law and protect students through local, district policies.

GLSEN’s Recommendations

GLSEN recently released a report on anti-bullying policies in the nation's 13,181 school districts. The organization found that while just over 70 percent of U.S. districts have anti-bullying policies, very few of these guidelines include elements that are strongly preventive and effective.

GLSEN recommends that policies contain the following key features:

  • Explicit protections that include clear language prohibiting bullying based on students’ stated or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, as well as the exact types of harassment that are forbidden

  • Requirements for staff to undergo education or training on bullying and harassment

  • Accountability measures that require schools to report instances of bullying — including of LGBTQ students — at the district or state levels (or both)

Currently, only three percent of district policies contain all three key points. Sadly, most anti-bullying policies fail LGBTQ youth, in part because many of these students do not even know such protections exist.

The Importance of Being Explicit

While all states have anti-bullying laws in place, many lack district policies or, at best, have only ineffectual ones enacted. Moreover, most do not have guidelines that specifically include LGBTQ students. Experts and advocates agree that such protections are most effective when both students and staff know about them. Indeed, GLSEN’s 2011 school climate survey found that LGBTQ youth in schools with promoted policies and supportive staff felt a greater sense of well-being and safety. Further, districts with explicit oversight for reporting incidents and with staff education measures in place also show stronger outcomes for their LGBTQ youth.

GLSEN recommends policies that directly prohibit homophobic behavior and specify LGBTQ youth as protected individuals. Moreover, the organization found that general anti-bullying policies are less effective than those that include explicit protections for LGBTQ youth, warranting specific inclusion of these students in policy statements.

The Conflict Between State and Local Requirements

The GLSEN study also found that there is insufficient compliance between state policies and local districts, due to inadequate or absent accountability. Geography and socioeconomic factors also seem to have a strong bearing on the type of policy school districts enact. Those in the Northeast were most likely to have LGBTQ-inclusive language in their anti-bullying policies, while those in the South were least likely to contain these protections. In fact, as recently as 2013, educators in one Alabama school’s sex education classes still taught that homosexuality is immoral. Further compounding this lack of coordination, some southern states, such as Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, have state laws that prohibit positive instruction on LGBTQ issues.

Mixed Successes

Recently, a school in one San Francisco district committed to installing "gender-neutral" bathrooms specifically for gender non-conforming or gender-fluid students. Other schools are using zero tolerance policies to work towards eliminating homophobia in physical education classes. Still, while such strides in LGBTQ civil rights are important, schools have a great deal of work left to create policies that adhere to federal and state civil rights legislation — and support all of their students.

Additional Resources:

Want to learn more? Find additional articles and expert advice on LGBTQ issues in education on Noodle.

You can also check out other great articles by Molly Brown, such as her debrief of the proposed changes to the No Child Left Behind Act.

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