Let’s be clear about something that ought to receive a lot more attention in the news cycle than it has: 2021 is already the worst year for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in US history.
“Hundreds of bills have been introduced in state legislatures around the country that attempt to erase transgender people [and] make LGBTQ people second class citizens” according to Alphonso David, Human Rights Campaign President (hrc.org). Here are some of the things these new bills do:
Forbid discussion of LGBTQ people, or sexuality or gender generally, in the classroom
Allow for discrimination against LGBTQ people, women, and people of faith based on religious beliefs
Make it illegal to update a person’s birth certificate
Impose anti-trans sports bans
Prohibit transgender students from using the school restroom or locker room consistent with their gender identity
Prohibit transgender youth from being able to access best-practice, age-appropriate, gender-affirming medical care
Prior to the current plague of state laws against LGBTQ+ youth (many of them targeting trans or nonbinary youth in particular), there was already a widespread problem. Now it’s an epidemic.
I’ve been working on a blog for some time on a narrower topic: a safe space LGBTQ+ students with appropriate reading materials and supportive staff in every school. It could simply be a reading nook. I know space is at a premium in schools, but somewhere safe and private, no matter how small, is definitely needed when the broader school environment is unfriendly, hurtful and often dangerous.
As an author of middle grade through young adult books and a parent, I wanted to combine two topics: Safe spaces in schools, and reading that affirms identity instead of negating it.
According to Zewditu Demissie, Supervisory Epidemiologist/Team Leader at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Evidence suggests that school-based practices such as identification of ‘safe spaces’ have the potential to prevent victimization and related health consequences among LGBTQ youth.” (Source: More U.S. schools offering safe spaces for LGBTQ youth, Reuters, March 8, 2018)
However, Demissie and her associates found (American Journal of Public Health, Feb. 22, 2018) that, “Of 8 examined practices to support LGBTQ youths, only 1—identifying safe spaces for LGBTQ youths—increased in most states (72%) from 2010 to 2014.” This minor gain in safe spaces was from two years before Trump’s tenure in the White House began. The survey has not been repeated since, but we can guess that there has been significant snap-back.
What is school like now for LGBTQ+ students? The most recent source is the 2019 GLSEN School Climate Survey, which concludes, “The vast majority (86.3%) of LGBTQ students experienced harassment or assault based on personal characteristics, including sexual orientation, gender expression, gender, actual or perceived religion, actual or perceived race and ethnicity, and actual or perceived disability.”
Words do hurt, and most of our LGBTQ+ students are constantly bullied and ostracized.
In addition, a quarter of LGBTQ students (25.7%) “were physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved)” and 11% of LGBTQ students “were physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked, injured with a weapon) in the past year based on sexual orientation, 9.5% based on gender expression, and 9.3% based on gender.” I think these stats are additive, so in all, 29.8% were physically assaulted during their school year. And that’s just one year. How few can run that gauntlet through their whole school career without being harassed and assaulted?
Then there’s the 44.9% of LGBTQ students who experienced cyberbullying and the 58.3% who were sexually harassed (defined as unwanted touching or sexual remarks) in the past year at school.
GLSEN (glsen.org) is currently conducting the 2021 school climate survey and I hope it shows declines in some of these numbers, but I doubt it will. The national climate is moving strongly in the opposite direction, with The Southern Poverty Law Center reporting that anti-LGBTQ hate groups are “the fastest-growing sector among hate groups.”
A report in Elle magazine from last spring recounts an attack on 21 year old Iyanna Dior as she tried to purchase gas in Minnesota:
“…a large group begins beating Dior and yelling transphobic slurs. There are anywhere from 15 to 30 assailants, who are reportedly mostly cisgender males. A crowd around Dior and her attackers forms, with no one stepping in to aide her. Eventually Dior breaks from the crowd of onlookers to duck behind the register while a store employee tries to de-escalate the crowd.”
She survived the attack, and I see she recently posted this message on Facebook: “Dark times will teach you a lot. This is why you can’t regret what you went through but rather be thankful for all the lessons it taught you.” That’s an amazing example of resiliency, but she shouldn’t have been attacked in the first place, and schools are where we can break this cycle of harassment and violence.
Unfortunately, new hate-based regulations are going to make it considerably harder for LGBTQ+ students next fall.
Were schools to educate students openly and accurately, and were they to consistently educate or as needed discipline those who harass LGBTQ+ youth, things could begin to get better in the coming year. And for educators in states with hate-based new laws, there is the possibility of standing up for what’s right and challenging those laws—instead of spinelessly following them. There is always a choice, and schools are making theirs right now as they prepare for the fall semester.
I hope they’ll at least plan to make LGBTQ+ literature available to all students, and to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ students to read about others like them. It’s a small start, but it is a start—and maybe, just maybe, cisgender administrators and teachers will expand their personal summer reading lists and try to become better supporters and advocates for their students as well.
It’s going to be a long, hot summer of hate-based legislation and conservative media frenzy. Across much of the US, hate will be spilling from the pulpit every Sunday too. When LGBTQ+ students go back to school in the fall, the national climate will be significantly worse than it was last semester.
Oxford Languages defines nook as “a corner or recess, especially one offering seclusion or security.” Is it too much to ask schools to simply provide LGBTQ+ students safe passage through the coming school year, or barring that, at least one small place on campus where they might feel safe and secure?
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure available at Amazon.