Most straight and cisgender students will be starting school this fall as usual with only a new backpack, fresh notebooks and maybe a new “look” with their hair and clothes. But for LGBTQ+ students in at least 17 states, the new school year means new laws governing — and restricting — how LGBTQ+ students can be in their schools and classrooms.
As the ACLU has been detailing throughout 2023 and earlier, state GOP lawmakers have made LGBTQ+ youth a focal point of legislation — and GOP presidential candidates have used these same laws as a pivot to their MAGA base as they campaign. Of the nearly 500 state bills introduced this year targeting the rights of LGBTQ+ people, 228 involved the rights of students, according to the ACLU.
In addition to those newly enacted laws, book bans have made accessing LGBTQ-friendly texts less and less possible. Aided by groups like Moms for Liberty and BookLooks, even in blue and purple states, access to books by queer and trans authors on LGBTQ+ themes has become endangered.
All of this makes for a much more fraught and unwelcoming beginning to the 2023-2024 academic year at all levels of education, from elementary schools to colleges. As one out lesbian professor at a Philadelphia university, who requested anonymity, told PGN, “I used to be more open in my classrooms about being gay, and students felt safe coming out to me as queer, trans and nonbinary. But now, I have to consider that while Philly is a thoroughly blue and pro-LGBTQ+ town, a lot of these kids are coming from Trump families and the blowback on them and me could be catastrophic.”
She told PGN that she felt all the new laws in other states and the fights in local suburban school districts like Bucks County mean that all students are “feeling the heat” of these laws and “it’s having a chilling effect, even on colleagues who aren’t gay. We’re all really nervous about how to address these issues in ways that are both beneficial to and supportive of the students but that also won’t harm the university, which is still recovering from the impact of the pandemic on enrollments.”
That chilling effect is being felt by teachers in elementary and secondary schools. Being openly gay has always been complex for teachers, but never more so than now. For years, lesbian teachers have borne the brunt of firings at private and parochial schools with conduct codes in place stipulating that teachers can’t reveal their sexual orientation. Lesbian teachers who have married or become pregnant have been fired for violating these conduct codes.
In February 2023, Maggie Barton was fired from a Denver Catholic school after being confronted about a photo of her kissing her girlfriend, which had surfaced on social media. The Denver Archdiocese called the photo proof she is “violating the standards” of the church and fired her a day after the photo — which Barton says she doesn’t know how they obtained — was brought to her attention.
Barton spoke to a range of media outlets about the firing and how devastating it has been for her, both as a teacher and as a devout Catholic. Barton told the Denver Post that the justification by the Denver Archdiocese, which released a lengthy statement supporting their action and demonizing Barton, appeared at odds with Pope Francis’ recent messaging that “being homosexual isn’t a crime, even if it’s still a sin.”
These issues all coalesce to make the atmosphere for LGBTQ+ students fraught. If a student transitioned over the summer and returns to school with a different gender identity and new pronouns, will the school’s teachers and administrators be welcoming or not? If a student is trying to come out as gay or trans, can they feel safe talking to their guidance counselor about their feelings and experience, or will that person be forced by law or possibly their own politics, to report these changes to the student’s family? This is the new — and ever-expanding — landscape that students have to navigate.
The Denver case is indicative of how even in blue states, there are attacks on gay teachers — and LGBTQ+ students. While many of these anti-LGBTQ+ laws are in red states, last week the California attorney general filed a lawsuit against a local school district over its new policy requiring parents to be notified when a child tells a teacher they want to be recognized by a different gender identity or pronoun than the one listed on their birth certificate.
Democratic California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement, “The forced outing policy wrongfully endangers the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of non-conforming students who lack an accepting environment in the classroom and at home.”
The California policy also requires notification if a student requests to use facilities like a different bathroom or participate in “sex-segregated school programs and activities,” like a sports team that doesn’t align with their assigned sex on official records.
The California lawsuit states the district’s new policy violates the state Constitution’s guarantees of a right to privacy and to receive a public education without discrimination: “The District has no compelling interest for singling out transgender and gender nonconforming students to different and unfavorable treatment.”
Other states are also filing lawsuits against similar legislation. In June, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin, a Democrat, announced civil rights complaints against the Middletown Township, Marlboro Township and Manalapan-Englishtown Regional boards of education, all in Monmouth County.
Language in the California suit sums up what is happening to LGBTQ+ students across the country and what the impact could be on those kids who are already at higher risk for depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, according to numerous studies.
Bonta argued: “These students are currently under threat of being outed to their parents against their will, and many fear that the District’s policy will force them to make a choice: either ‘walk back’ their constitutionally and statutorily protected rights to gender identity and gender expression, or face the risk of emotional, physical, and psychological harm from non-affirming or unaccepting parents or guardian.”
It’s not a propitious beginning to a new school year that should be full of promise, but instead could be full of fear and trepidation.
Anti-LGBTQ+ Laws Directly Impacting Schools
Alabama: Bans trans student athletes in colleges from playing on sports teams that match their gender identities.
Arkansas: Prohibits instruction on LGBTQ+ topics below grade 5; restricts the use of pronouns and bathrooms that don’t align with sex assigned at birth.
Florida: Bars colleges from using federal funds for diversity, equity and inclusion; prohibits instruction on LGBTQ+ topics in grades K-8 and restricts health education in grades 6-12.
Idaho: Restricts the use of bathrooms that don’t align with sex assigned at birth. A lawsuit has been filed against this measure.
Indiana: Prohibits instruction on human sexuality to students in pre-kindergarten through third grade.
Iowa: Restricts the use of bathrooms that don’t align with sex assigned at birth; allows parents to opt students out of health/sex education.
Kansas: Bars trans student athletes in K-12 and college from playing on sports teams that match their gender identities.
Kentucky: Bars trans student athletes in K-12 and college from playing on sports teams that match their gender identities; restricts the use of pronouns that don’t align with sex assigned at birth; prohibits instruction on human sexuality through fifth grade; prohibits instruction or presentations on LGBTQ+ identities in all grades. A lawsuit has been filed against the restriction on instruction related to LGBTQ+ topics.
Missouri: Bars trans student athletes in K-12 schools and colleges from playing on school sports teams that match their gender identities.
Montana: Restricts the use of pronouns that don’t align with sex assigned at birth.
North Carolina: Bars trans student athletes in grades 6-12 and college from playing on sports teams that match their gender identities; prohibits instruction on LGBTQ+ topics in grades K-4.
North Dakota: Restricts the use of pronouns that don’t align with sex assigned at birth; bars trans student athletes in grades K-12 and college from playing on sports teams that match their gender identities; restricts the use of bathrooms that don’t align with sex assigned at birth.
Oklahoma: Restricts the use of bathrooms that don’t align with sex assigned at birth.
Tennessee: Restricts the use of pronouns that don’t align with sex assigned at birth; bars trans student athletes in grades 5-12 and college from playing on sports teams that match their gender identities.
Texas: Bars trans student athletes in college from playing on sports teams that match their gender identities.
Utah: Requires students to present a birth certificate to participate in school sports; requires schools to give parents access to any information related to their child’s gender identity.
Wyoming: Bars trans student athletes in grades 7-12 from playing on sports teams that match their gender identities.