As educators, we witness very important developmental stages in our students’ lives. It is during these years when students really come into their own, by establishing deeper relationships with their peers and a better understanding of themselves as individuals.
As advocates for our students, we also struggle with the reality that as students get older, it becomes significantly difficult for our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning (LGBTIQ) students at school.
In 2015, our country celebrated an important milestone in ensuring equity for the gay and lesbian communities. The Supreme Court decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges, upheld the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects two people regardless of gender or orientation from being denied lawful marriage. Yet, there are no similarly explicit and consistent federal protections for our LGBTIQ youth.
Many significant federal regulations, from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Education Amendments of 1972, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, protect students. But those protections are tied to race, color, religion, sex, national origin and disability.
LGBTIQ students and their families deserve the same level of protection, particularly in schools, where the bulk of child development takes place.
On any given day, many students wonder who they are and what place they have in the world. Many do not know who they can talk to and many do not have access to services that can aid them during these critical times in their lives.
Despite how far our country has come in passing comprehensive civil rights legislation, for LGBTIQ youth, intense verbal and physical harassment in school is all too common. According to a 2012 study from the Human Rights Campaign, 51 percent of LGBTIQ youth have been the victim of verbal harassment at school. Forty-eight percent of LGBTIQ youth state that their peers often disregard them on the basis that they are different, while 17 percent state that they were physically harmed at school because they identify as LGBTIQ.
Protections would ensure that LGBTIQ children have full access to K-12 and postsecondary educational programs that accept federal funds as well as remedies for harassment in educational settings. A lack of formal safeguards for our LGBTIQ students inhibits teachers from protecting youth when they are bullied or harassed due to gender identity or sexual orientation.
Adults have a responsibility to create social institutions that are safe places for all young people. For policymakers and educators with control over this most important social institution—our nation’s school system—this responsibility is especially weighty.
Our role, as educators, is to provide a safe environment for our students that encourage all of them to learn, regardless of who they are or who they perceive themselves to be.
When we were students, we needed support and encouragement. There were times at school it felt like we didn’t feel supported to share who we were. This could have left lifelong impressions on us, both as individuals and as educators.
Thus we personally know how a quality education is earned in environments where students are valued and accepted for who they are.
It will take time for state policies and national law to evolve in ways that reach the level of support our students need. But progress in our classroom and schools can start today. Resources provided by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Gay Straight Alliance Network can offer insightful guidance that helps young adults know and understand their rights.
More simply, remember that small messages of support from a teacher to a LGBTIQ student can go a long way toward helping our youth feel reassured as they struggle to understand their own identity and build self-esteem.
We urge our fellow educators to take small steps that can make a large impact on our students and the quality of education in our schools: tell students you support them.
If even one student is assured that he or she is valued, imagine the impact that student can have on others and the world.