LGBTQ children feel 'erased' in schools, from book bans to the 'Don't Say Gay' bill

Gay and transgender youth are facing limiting legislation, harassment, and book bans.

LGBTQ children feel 'erased' in schools, from book bans to the 'Don't Say Gay' bill

Spencer Lyst High School in Williamson County, Tennessee has been repeatedly vandalized by students. Teachers have neglected to mention LGBTQ issues in their class textbooks. His state has banned trans kids from participating in school sports teams that are compatible with their gender identity. Parents called for school officials to take out books on sexual orientation and gender identity from the county’s elementary curriculum. Lyst was also leading the Pride club of his school at a September homecoming parade. However, Lyst and other LGBTQ students were booed in front by a group parents.

Lyst, 16, stated that he was used to the constant feeling of being attacked at school due to his identity.

He said that it was "difficult" for students to enter the school's bathroom because of their fear of being "mighty".

He said, "Like, can you go to the toilet or am I going get hate for just being here?"

Lyst's experience at school is far from an isolated one.

Since the beginning of the school year, schools across the country have removed LGBTQ-affirming flags and posters, banned books on gay and trans experiences and disbanded gay/straight alliance clubs. Students have attacked queer classmates in school districts across the country, while state legislators have filed hundreds anti-LGBTQ bills that seek to redefine lesbian, homosexual, bisexual and transgender students' positions in U.S. schools.

Mary Emily O'Hara (the rapid response manager for LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD), stated that there is no way to separate any of these things at a Monday media briefing. "What we are seeing is that anti-LGBTQ groups on a national scale make schools the new battleground across all types of school policies, and different forms of legislation. Anti-LGBTQ movements are currently targeting schools.

Conservative school officials, parents, and lawmakers claim that LGBTQ issues are not appropriate for school. They are too political and inappropriate for students. Queer youth, their families and LGBTQ and ally teachers feel that they are being "exterminated" from the U.S. educational system.

"I'm not going to go back in the closet"

Jennifer Solomon, a 50-year-old South Florida mother, has four kids. Her 28-year-old eldest child, Nicolette Solomon, is a lesbian and teaches fourth grade in Miami-Dade County. Cooper, her youngest child, identifies himself as male but Solomon stated that he "expression is feminine." Cooper, 11 years old, prefers to wear the school's girls uniform. He also enjoys dressing up as a fairy-tale princess.

She told NBC News that "he's the antithesis of a tomboy" was a good way to describe him.

Solomon, who is the leader of her local chapter for PFLAG, a LGBTQ family advocacy group, said that despite all her efforts to protect her children, she still finds it difficult to sleep at night because of anti-LGBTQ school policies.

Ron DeSantis (Republican governor of Solomon) indicated he would support a new piece state legislation - titled the Parental Rights in Education Bill, but dubbed " Don't Say Gay bill - that would ban the discussion of gender identity and sexuality in schools.

DeSantis spoke at a Miami news conference and said that it was "entirely inappropriate for teachers to have conversations with students regarding gender identity." He cited alleged instances where teachers told children "Don't fret, don't choose your gender yet" and "hide" classroom lessons from their parents.

"Parental rights? Who has parental rights? DeSantis only gives you parental rights if your child is being raised by you. Solomon, a nurse manager at an insurance company, expressed concern about DeSantis. "DeSantis paints the picture that every family looks like a 1950s mom and father with two children and a cat or dog. This is not Florida; this is not the country.

"DeSantis found a weakness, and that weak point is children," she said, suggesting that DeSantis supports the measure to gain political advantage.

Nicolette Solomon stated that she is already hesitant about mentioning her wife, and by default her sexuality, at school. However she claimed passage of the "Don’t Say Gay” bill would be "the straw breaking the camel’s back" and promised to stop if it becomes law.

"If I don't feel like myself seven days a week and five days a weeks, then I'm going to the closet. I can't do that." She said that it was not healthy for her mental health. "And I don’t think I can bear it to see my students struggle and want me to answer their questions about these things, and then have to tell them the truth. This is not me as a teacher.

According to Freedom for All Americans, conservative state legislators have filed over 170 anti-LGBTQ legislation in less than two months. At least 69 of these bills are focused on school policies. The non-profit group that advocates for LGBTQ nondiscrimination nationwide stated in an email that it did not track LGBTQ school policy bills last season because it wasn't as widespread as it is now.

According to GLSEN, an advocacy group dedicated to ending discrimination against LGBTQ students, three states, including Lyst’s home state Tennessee, passed bills last year that allowed parents to opt out of any lesson or coursework that mentioned sexual orientation or gender identity. According to PEN America, a free speech non-profit organization, 15 other bills are being considered in eight states, which would ban speech about LGBTQ identities from classrooms.

Perhaps the most important trend in state legislation targeting LGBTQ youths is those that target transgender students.

According to the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, last year at least 30 states considered legislation to prohibit trans students from participating in school sports teams that are compatible with their gender identity. Nine states have enacted the bills. 26 states have submitted similar bills so far in the year. South Dakota has enacted its version this month.

Although not directly school-related, there have been several bills that attempt to stop transgender youths accessing gender-affirming healthcare. Since early 2021, at least 20 states have suggested such measures. Only two states, Arkansas and Tennessee, have enacted these bills into law. After the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the Arkansas law in court, a federal judge temporarily blocked it. This was in July for trans youths and their families.

Cooper Solomon stated that he believes lawmakers are pushing antiLGBTQ legislation because they were "born in another time."

The fifth grader stated that "I think back then, a very long time ago, they didn’t accept this, which was really bad." "It's okay to be like that, and it won't hurt anyone," I said.



 

"My community was under attack"

The last straw for Jack Petocz (17) was when Flagler County High School, Florida removed his young adult memoir about the trials of being Black queer boy. It was George M. Johnson's book "All Boys Aren't Blue."

A school board member filed a criminal case against school officials in November for allowing copies to remain in two high schools in the county. The book, which has been challenged by at least 19 states , was not allowed to be copied. Although the complaint was dismissed by the school board, the superintendent decided to keep copies of the book off the shelves while new policies are developed to allow parents to have more control over the library.

Petocz, a gay activist who led a student demonstration in protest of the book's removal, stated that she felt like my community was being attacked. "We are already a minority. You know why you are trying to hide this vital information in our libraries. These books are essential to establishing a sense identity."

Books on race, sexual orientation, and gender identity were once criticized in schools. However, there has been a rise in opposition to school libraries over the past few months.

As book bans began to spread in the fall across the country, national groups such as No Left Turn in Education or Moms for Liberty started circulating lists of school library materials that they claimed were " indoctrinating children to a dangerous ideology" in order to gain support.

These bans became a major topic in the highly contentious Virginia governor's election. Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity executive and political novice, made education a key issue of his campaign, and won.
Youngkin's win prompted other politicians, with the governors in Texas and South Carolina asking state school officials to ban certain books, calling them "pornography and obscenity".

Spotsylvania County school board members called for LGBTQ books with "sexually explicit material" to be burned. This made national headlines.

Deborah Caldwell Stone, Director of the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, stated in November , that although challenges to books with LGBTQ- or race-related content were historically "constant", the association has seen a recent "chilling" increase.

"I have worked for ALA for over 20 years and I have never seen such a large number of challenges," she stated. Students who are desperate to find books that reflect their lives and answer their questions about their experiences, their identities, and their feelings about them, will feel the most impact.

A group of 600 authors, including Judy Blume, the bestselling author for children, and publishers, bookstore owners, and advocacy groups, signed a December statement condemning the trend.

Setting a "different tone"

Advocates say that while state bills and book bans are the most prominent media stories, there are other troubling trends that contribute to the distress many queer students feel. These include the removal of Pride flags or other LGBTQ-affirming symbols in classrooms, the dissolution of gay-straight alliance clubs, and the resignation of teachers protesting anti-LGBTQ policies.

For example, in the fall, rainbow stickers were removed from classroom doors at MacArthur High School, Dallas.

"While we value the idea of reaching out and supporting students who may not have had this support in the past, we want to set an entirely different tone this school year," a school official wrote to staff. NBC News received the email from a MacArthur High School teacher.

Although the sticker removals provoked protest from students, the school officials did not respond to the criticism and changed their policy.

In Newberg, Oregon, school board members took similar actions that made them national news. The school board in September banned teachers from using Pride and Black Lives Matter flags or other symbols that it considered " politically" at school.

"We don’t pay our teachers for pushing their political views onto our students. "That's not their place," Brian Shannon , a school board member, said at a recorded meeting.

Protests in the town erupted against the policy, which attracted members of the Proud Boys far-right group, which has supported violence and was endorsed by the Proud Boys. A recall attempt of Shannon and another school board member regarding the flag removals failed last Month.

Some teachers in school districts have resigned over similar measures. A Missouri teacher quit in September following a directive from his district to remove his Pride flag and not discuss "sexual preference" or human sexuality at school. Parents accused teachers in a Tennessee middle school of trying to " indoctrinate" students into homosexuality after they helped them start a gay-straight alliance.

According to local news reports and advocacy groups, students are also targeted by school officials, lawmakers, and parents.

A 2020 GLSEN survey of LGBTQ students found that 69 per cent of respondents experienced verbal harassment at school based upon their sexual orientation. 57 percent reported being harassed based solely on their gender expressions or outward appearance and 54 percent based upon their gender identity.

More than 12 local news articles - from California and Florida - reported last year on trans students being harassed or attacked in their bathrooms by other students. Advocates say that it is not clear if the attacks are increasing or if local outlets are reporting them more frequently.

The impact of affirmation

Advocates warn educators about mental health risks facing LGBTQ youths, and how anti-LGBTQ policies may exacerbate them.

The Trevor Project, a LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organisation, conducted a survey last spring. It found that 42 percent of nearly 35,000 LGBTQ youths surveyed, and more than half of nonbinary youths, had seriously considered suicide in the previous year. A separate survey by The Trevor Project in the fall found that two-thirds (63%) of LGBTQ youths surveyed said anti-trans legislation has negatively impacted their mental health.

Researchers at The Trevor Project also discovered that LGBTQ youths who report having at least one LGBTQ-affirming place -- such as a school or home -- are significantly less likely than others to commit suicide.

That in mind Lizette Trujillo drove three hours per day to Tucson, Arizona, where her transgender son, aged 14, attends. Daniel socially changed in 2015 and Daniel's school was open for him to use the bathroom that corresponded to his gender identity. Trujillo stated that this was not an Arizona given. They also had experience with teaching trans youth.

Trujillo stated that while the commute is not without challenges, sending Daniel to school has made him happier.

Daniel stated, "The greatest difference at my school was that I am supported by all my teachers, the principal and staff; I have sports and the bathroom." It makes learning much easier.

His mother was able to concentrate on her son's gender-affirming healthcare, filing for new ID documents and dealing with emotional hardships.

Trujillo stated that it's not enough to be concerned about your child's schooling when he or she socially transitions. You'll hit walls as you begin this gender transition. "I didn't know we were going to lose our family."

To address the multitude of issues facing LGBTQ students and teachers, President Joe Biden has pledged support. The White House rebuked Florida's "Don't Say Gay” bill earlier this month and linked the legislation to national disputes.

This is not an isolated act, but it should be noted. We're seeing Republican leaders across the country take steps to regulate what students are allowed to read, how they can learn and, most importantly, who they can be," a White House spokesperson stated in a statement to NBC News. "This is politics at its worst, cynically using students as pawns for political warfare."

Students "fighting for their fundamental rights"

Many examples of students taking action and turning around anti-LGBTQ policies in the United States are plentiful.

Aaryan Rawal (17) was one of over 400 Fairfax County students who successfully urged school officials to reinstate two LGBTQ-related books in November. Rawal, a gay man, stated that he was relieved that school board members had listened to students' demands but regretted that he was forced to miss classes and lose sleep because of the organizing efforts.

Rawal stated that "no student in any country in the United States wants to go school fighting for their fundamental rights." "Instead of doing statistics homework, or hanging out with our friends, we were required to attend school board meetings and lobby members for things that shouldn't be up to debate."

A group of students from Palm Beach, Florida met with their new superintendent to discuss their experiences as LGBTQ students in the county's schools. Two students present at the meeting said that they were among those who went around and shared stories about bullying and harassment from teachers and students.

Marcel Whyne, a high school student from non-binary backgrounds, stated that students have formed a collective awareness that "School sucks" and that being LGBT is normal. He was one of the attendees at the meeting. "That shouldn’t be the standard we have for LGBT children. You have the right to be treated as your peers, go to school, and not be afraid that you will be harassed, taken photos of, and attacked just for being who you are.

Spencer Lyst in Tennessee was inspired to create Indy Pride at his high school. He said that it was difficult but a rewarding experience.

Lyst stated that "people should be aware that no matter which bill or book they try ban, or what they try ban students or teachers from discussing in schools, it doesn’t change who they are and will continue to remain," It doesn't work to try to protect your children by going legal. They are who they were, and if that isn't enough, then maybe you have some work to do.

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