Evan Linett is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a first-year MPP student.
On March 28, Florida lawmakers signed into law a bill that will restrict the discussion of LGBTQ+ topics in primary schools across the state. The bill has gained a high amount of media attention, but it is just the tip of the iceberg of states proposing legislation that is potentially harmful to the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ youth. Advocacy groups such as Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union worry that this legislation opens the door to discrimination and stigma against LGBTQ+ students throughout the public school system.
While the Florida “Parental Rights in Education” bill is the first to become law, similar proposals are gaining momentum across the country. At least seven states have introduced bills to regulate how teachers can talk about gender identity and sexual orientation with students. The surge of legislation focused on the teaching of LGBTQ+ issues in K-12 schools is part of a larger cultural debate over what children should learn in public schools about U.S. culture, history, and personal identity. The evidence is clear that schools play an increasingly important role in forming inclusive spaces where young people can talk openly about LGBTQ+ issues.
Why This Moment Matters for LGBTQ+ Youth
Whether intended or incidental, the recent wave of bills would create a stigma around these topics, and reduce access to resources for LGBTQ+ youth across multiple states. With one in five Gen Z adults identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community, states cannot remove relevant discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in schools without doing harm. LGBTQ+ youth, particularly queer and trans folks and LGBTQ+ youth of color, can be significantly harmed by school environments that create a stigma around the topics of gender identity and sexual orientation. As there is increasing cultural awareness and acceptance for individuals to better understand their identities, school policies must reflect the times and the needs of students in today’s classrooms.
According to the Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their gender identity and sexual orientation reported lower rates of attempting suicide. Additionally, young people are six times more likely to seek evidence-based mental health care when it is offered in schools than they are in other settings. Learning about LGBTQ people and issues is important not only for visibility and awareness but also for the physical safety and well-being of students. LGBTQ+ youth who learned about LGBTQ+ issues or people in classes at school had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year.
At every level, from federal to school districts, policy action is needed to support LGBTQ+ youth
As part of its annual performance plan, the Department of Education released guidance that stated its primary goal as ensuring access to a safe, supportive, and inclusive learning environment for all students. As such, the Department of Education should respond with a set of federal policies that affirm the safety of LGBTQ+ youth. Until the issue of school inclusivity is addressed at the national level, the health and safety of LGBTQ+ youth will remain uncertain within states that pass legislation that harms their ability to discuss their identities and access resources.
Schools can also offer mental health services and resources that are made to address issues faced by LGBTQ+ youth. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) posted LGBTQI+ Youth – Like All Americans, They Deserve Evidence-Based Care, in which they share how schools and providers can support LGBTQ+ youth, research behind the positive effects of providing evidence-based health care, and available resources for LGBTQ+ youth, their families, providers, community organizations, and government agencies.
In recent months, multiple states such as Texas have removed critical information about mental health resources for LGBTQ+ youth from official state websites. Equally as worrisome, only seven states and D.C. have state laws or guidances requiring sexual and reproductive health education that is LGBTQ+-inclusive. Schools can respond by advocating to remove state-level barriers to including LGBTQ+ topics in sex education curriculum and build more inclusive programs.
While important in the context of sex education, it is vital that LGBTQ+ topics are covered in subject areas throughout the educational curriculum. LGBTQ+ people have made lasting contributions to scientific innovations, social, and cultural life throughout history, despite the prejudice and legal adversity they may have faced. LGBTQ+ topics belong throughout the entire educational curriculum – and currently, only four states include LGBTQ+ topics in their K-12 public school curriculums.
Many school districts are working diligently to make sure their LGBTQ+ students are feeling seen and heard. DC Public Schools, for example, provides school-based behavioral health services in every school. Mental health workers in DC Public Schools are trained in evidence-based therapy treatments in addition to trauma-informed training such as suicide prevention, an issue that largely affects LGBTQ+ youth. Districts such as DC Public Schools should be commended for their efforts and looked to as a model for building more LGBTQ+-inclusive school environments.
For many LGBTQ+ youth, schools are one of the only affirming spaces where they can be themselves and access resources to understand their identities. By reducing discussion of LGBTQ+ topics and educational resources in schools, the recent wave of legislation will disproportionately harm LGBTQ+ youth who rely on schools as a place to find acceptance and gain knowledge about their identities. LGBTQ+ youth, particularly those at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, need and deserve to learn in school environments that value their identities and that give them the education to be safe and healthy.