2021 is set to become “the worst year” for state legislative attacks against LGBTQ people in history.
Our new paper, released with IGLYO, an LGBTQI youth organization, cited the 2017 GLSEN School Climate survey showing that two-thirds of students in the United States had not been exposed to representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and their history in school. New bills in the pipeline this year risk blindsiding LGBTQ students even more.
States where students might benefit from having their eyes opened to diversity, keep classes closed to lessons that can be taught from inclusion. Bills in Arkansas and Tennessee are going through that would allow parents to waive curriculum for their children related to LGBTQ people. Legislation in Idaho awaiting Senate approval also requires parental notifications and opt-ins for discussion of sexual orientation outside of sex education classes. Lawmakers in Missouri are considering measures that would require parents to be notified before instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity but would exclude historical references.
In Iowa, a bill requires parents to give written consent for gender identity to be discussed with their children, while a separate bill requires a curriculum covering gender identity to specify “the potential harm and adverse outcomes of social and medical gender interventions.” Another bill in Arkansas, passed in the state House last month, obliges teachers to refer to students by their “biological sex.”
A similar bill in Arizona was recently vetoed by Gov. Doug DuceyDoug DuceyJuan Williams: GOP infighting is a gift for Democrats Mace chief of staff steps down during turbulent week Trump to attend fundraiser for Arizona GOP Senate candidate MORE (R). The alternative he suggests is for all sex education curriculum to be posted online, with no exceptions. “I’m proud that Arizona is one of only five states where sex education is 'opt-in,'" he wrote in a statement. He also urged other states to follow suit.
Other legal forms of exclusion from education for LGBTQ students are being actively sought. In North Dakota, the governor signed a House bill into law last month, which will allow student groups that receive state funding through their universities to turn away LGBTQ students “under the guise of free speech.” In Tennessee, House bill 1182, which aims to prevent transgender people from using bathrooms aligning with their identity, has gone up to the governor for approval.
There are also several bills related to transgender athlete bans. Legislators in 28 states have already considered or passed bills, as in Arkansas and Idaho, that prohibit transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams. A recent such law in Florida makes it possible for schools to require a genital inspection of student athletes suspected of being transgender.
These bills will have far-reaching implications for children and young people’s lives. The United States’ leading child health and welfare groups, representing more than 7 million youth-serving professionals and more than 1000 child welfare organizations, have just released an open letter calling for lawmakers in states across the country to oppose these bills. It cited the need for all children to be given equal protection.
Without protection, bullying, discrimination and exclusion can run wild. In the United States, 12.5 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual students reported not going to school at least once in the previous 30 days because they felt unsafe at or on their way to and from school, compared with less than 4.6 percent of heterosexual students.
Having an inclusive curriculum matters to LBGTQ students’ safety in school. The 2020 GLSEN school survey found that students in schools with inclusive curricula were less likely to feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation (42 percent versus 63 percent) or to be often or frequently exposed to biased language (52 percent versus 75 percent).
According to a new study released in the United Kingdom, LGBTQ young people are three times more likely to self-harm and twice as likely to contemplate suicide than their non-LGBTQ peers. Isolated from support networks and often facing tension at home, young LGBTQ people have suffered more than most during lockdowns. This reality has been confirmed in pre-pandemic studies too. A peer-reviewed study by the Trevor Project found that transgender and non-binary youth who report experiencing discrimination based on their gender identity were more than twice as likely to consider suicide in the past year compared to others.
It is no secret that there are entrenched divides in public opinion in the United States over such issues. Yet, there has to be hope in the results of a recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, which found that two-thirds of Americans are opposed to laws that would limit transgender rights. Perhaps the real hope, which may also be the fear driving the creation of many of these bills, is that hiding something doesn’t make it stop. There are laws, but there are also inclusive schools, inclusive teachers, welcoming students and inclusive communities that can make the difference. We all have a role to play in not looking away and in fighting unjust exclusion. Every student matters — no matter their identity, background or ability.
Manos Antoninis is the director of UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report.