October is LGBT History Month – a month dedicated to highlighting and celebrating the history and achievements of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movements, historical figures, and legislative accomplishments. Across the United States, communities will be remembering the contributions of Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, John Maynard Keynes, and Langston Hughes to the impacts of the Stonewall Riots. Last Thursday, the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs (CIPA) held a colloquium with speaker Mario Guerrero, a CIPA ‘09 alum and current Legislative Affairs Director of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000 in California. Mr. Guerrero spoke about his experience as Government Affairs Director at Equality California, legislating for LGBT issues in the state, particularly, in support of youth empowerment and autonomy in schools.
Mr. Guerrero spoke about his proudest achievement, passing the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act, a law that requires California public schools to teach the accomplishments of LGBT individuals and movements and people with disabilities alongside the Civil Rights Movement, women’s liberation, Latin American history, and other under represented communities. Mr. Guerrero also highlighted other laws passed during the same legislative session that increased student protections around gender identity and expression such as the Gender Nondiscrimination Act and access to anti-bullying support through Seth’s Law.
When it came time for questions, one audience member noted that during her time as a teacher in Tennessee, she didn’t know what to do for students looking for LGBT resources due to the state’s attempts at passing bills that bar schools from offering support to LGBT students and most recently, attempts at requiring teachers, nurses, counselors, and other school officials to report students, who asked about such issues, to their parents. The official legislation states:
Section 2(b) At grade levels pre-K through eight (pre-K-8), any such classroom instruction, course materials or other informational resources that are inconsistent with natural human reproduction shall be classified as inappropriate for the intended student audience and, therefore, shall be prohibited.
Section 2(c)(2) A school counselor, nurse, principal or assistant principal from counseling a student who is engaging in, or who may be at risk of engaging in, behavior injurious to the physical or mental health and wellbeing of the student or another person; provided, that wherever possible such counseling shall be done in consultation with the student’s parents or legal guardians. Parents or legal guardians of students who receive such counseling shall be notified as soon as practicable that such counseling has occurred.
Legislation banning school staff from offering support and resources for students looking to learn more about their sexuality or gender identity create hostile environments in schools and legitimize anti-LGBT bullying. Researchers Hilary Burdge and Dr. Stephen T. Russell found that mentioning or including LGBT individuals or movements in curriculum increases a students overall feelings of safety in school. This positive feeling is increased with the presence of a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Club on campus, whether the student is LGBT-identified or not. According to a 2011 School Climate Survey, 63.5% of students felt unsafe at school due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation, compared to 43.9% of students due to their gender expression. Over 80% of students reported being verbally harassed about their sexual orientation, and almost 64% because of their gender expression. 40% of students reported experiencing physical harassment because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation and 27% because of their gender expression. Fear of violence in school leads to lower grades, increased absenteeism, and low campus morale. Sadly, almost 40% of students who reported incidents to their schools stated that the faculty did nothing to follow up in response to the issue. This is increased when policies are in place that don’t allow faculty, who would offer support to the students, to address the issues with the appropriate resources the students are requesting.
But what does one do when in a hostile environment that resists student support policies, the establishment of a GSA club, or the mere mention of ‘LGBT’ issues? They check the laws and policies on their side. According to the Federal Equal Access Act, any school that receives funding from the United States government and has one or more non-curricular campus group must also allow a GSA to be formed. The Act, Sec. 4071 Denial of equal access prohibited, states:
(a) It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.
(b) A public secondary school has a limited open forum whenever such school grants an offering to or opportunity for one or more noncurriculum related student groups to meet on school premises during noninstructional time.
While the policy was originally outlined to permit prayer groups to use campus buildings as meeting places, it has now been used to create additional support groups for students across the country. The Federal Equal Access Act also states that any policies put in place, such as steps to forming a club, or resources given to the club by the school, must be applied equally to all clubs on campus. This gives all students at institutions receiving government funding, the right to create safe, supportive, and empowering spaces at their schools. The creation of GSA clubs and other on campus safe spaces was recently endorsed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in his message to students on the first annual National Gay-Straight Alliance Day in 2012, stating “Our team at the Department of Education is committed to giving school districts guidance on providing all students, including LGBT, gender nonconforming students, and their allies, a safe place to learn, meet, share experiences, and discuss matters that are important to them. These are goals that our Administration takes very seriously.”
While the Tennessee bills have yet to become law, should they pass the legislative bodies, they would come in direct violation with the Federal Equal Access Act. Since most campus clubs require students to have a faculty member to advise the club, the proposed legislation would explicitly prohibit faculty from discussing LGBT issues with students. To avoid this, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) has introduced the Student Nondiscrimination Act, a bill that would prohibit all public schools from discriminating against a student based on their actual or perceived gender identity or sexual orientation, and those they associate with. This means that all public school students are protected – those who are LGBT identified, those who experience discrimination because someone else perceives them as LGBT, and those who are friends with LGBT students. This would set up a showdown between federal and state laws regarding education policy and enforcement.
The nation is divisively split in the directions that states are headed when it comes to the education of LGBT youth, and through legislation, states like California, are looking to create model policy to increase protections across the nation. We know this conversation won’t go away, and will probably ramp up as the Student Nondiscrimination Act moves from committee to committee. Hopefully, this will lead to a larger movement to protect student safety and ensure that every student has access to an education, no matter whom they love or how they identify their gender.