Back in the early and mid-2000s I taught sex education at an after-school program in New York City. One day we invited in some teens who were part of a local LGBTQ youth group to talk about their organization. During that conversation, it became clear that those students had experienced tremendous amounts of hostility. And, unfortunately, that seemed completely normal to all the young people in the room.
Over the next decade, it seemed as if things were getting better for LGBTQ youths at school. A biennial school climate survey from the LGBTQ education organization GLSEN found that starting in 2007 there were notable declines in students being victimized at school based on gender identity and sexual orientation, and there were increases in school supports like gender and sexuality alliances (GSAs) and anti-bullying programs.
But in many ways, the pendulum now appears to be swinging in a different direction. The latest GLSEN survey, from 2017, found that for the first time in years, there were fewer positive changes for LGBT students, and the rate of progress seems to be slowing down.
Schools are indirectly affected by the larger political climate, which has included growing anti-LGBTQ discourse. They are also directly affected by policies such as “bathroom bills,” (which require people to only use bathrooms associated with their biological sex); by increased governmental funding and support for abstinence-only education (which typically omits information about LGBTQ experiences); and by laws that explicitly ban teachers from discussing LGBTQ life in a positive manner.
Such policies can put even the most supportive teachers and school administrators in a bind, making it necessary for parents to step in and advocate for changes to make schools safer. For some parents, such as Carol Brochin, a professor at the University of Arizona and a parent of two, this includes taking legal action. Brochin was dismayed by the impact of a state curriculum law that barred schools from including HIV/AIDS instruction in public schools in a manner that “promoted a homosexual lifestyle.” The result, she said, was a complete absence of discussion about any aspect of LGBTQ life.
Brochin believes this contributed to a hostile climate for all students but said it was particularly hard on LGBTQ students like her younger child, Santi, 13, who identifies as transgender and non-binary. “Our middle school would say they were an anti-bullying school,” Brochin said. “But they had no way to understand that when you tease someone about gender and sexuality that is actually a form of bullying.”
Brochin joined two LGBTQ groups in a lawsuit challenging the curriculum ban on the grounds that it was discriminatory to LGBTQ individuals. In April, in an attempt to end the suit, the Republican governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, signed a bill repealing the law.
Legal action can be a crucial step for parents in some situations, but it’s generally considered a last resort. For parents who want to work to dismantle trans- and homophobic school climates, here are other options.
Support Gender and Sexuality Alliances in schools. GSAs can take a variety of forms. Some offer a place for students to meet like-minded peers. Some organize social events. Some advocate for LGBTQ-friendly policies. Many do some combination of the three. Yet whatever their focus, there is evidence that just the presence of a GSA makes a school safer for LGBTQ teens, including those who don’t participate in the group.
Because GSAs can be divisive, it can be helpful for parents to attend meetings where the issue might come up, and to let their schools know about the positive impact these groups have on student life.
Promote a safe and inclusive atmosphere for all students. In addition to her professional work with schools through GLSEN, Eliza Byard, the group’s executive director, has experience with schools as a parent. She says that part of ensuring a healthy environment for LGBTQ students also means ensuring that educational institutions are safe for any student who might be marginalized. She suggests that parents support programs for students of color, immigrant students, Muslim students and students with disabilities, as well as programs for LGBTQ students.
“The most important thing parents can do now is to uphold the core values of the school,” she says. “Show up as your best self and make it clear to school leadership that you support them in doing the right thing. Too often the only people [that the school hears from] are the squeaky wheels.”
Ultimately, schools that celebrate diversity on multiple levels are safer for everyone, because it is clear to students that bullying based on difference is unacceptable. If you have a PTA, consider suggesting your school implement a wide range of diversity-themed programs to help achieve this goal.
Take your child’s reporting of trans- or homophobia seriously, and act on it. It can be really hard for a child to come forward about being victimized for any reason. However, when bullying is related to gender identity or sexual orientation, discussing the issue with a parent can be particularly complicated. So if your child does reveal that they have been victimized, the last thing they need is to be asked what they did to provoke an attack. Take the issue seriously, and bring it up with the school by contacting a parent liaison, classroom teacher, guidance counselor or grade adviser as a first step before moving on to an administrator.
Before your conversation, make sure you have documented everything your child has told you, including when the incidents occurred and who was involved. Keep track of the school’s response in case you need to follow up.
It can also be helpful to enlist other parents, even if their children are not having the same experiences. Parents who raise concerns collectively are more likely to be listened to.
Informing a school about a child’s experiences isn’t always what a child wants. “Sometimes our kids beg us to not tell anyone what happened,” Brochin says, but ignoring hostile actions simply allows the behavior to continue unchecked. It also sends the message that such behavior will be tolerated.
Consider the impact of your actions at home. Most parents would balk at the idea that they contribute to homophobia. But the fact is, sometimes these subtle (and not so subtle) messages come from home. Be mindful of how you address gender and sexual orientation with your kids.
For example, do you reinforce gender roles, steering girls toward ballet and boys toward football regardless of where their interests lie? Do you ever mention same-gender couples when you discuss relationships? If your child says “That’s so gay,” to put something down, do you ignore it, or point out that they are making a negative comparison to being gay? If your school enacts anti-LGBT policies, do you voice your opposition? Words and actions matter, so model at home what you want to see in your children.