Credit: Zackary Drucker / The Gender Spectrum Collection

In many parts of the U.S., students returning to school will encounter a rash of new laws and regulations aimed at students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. At least six states have recently passed laws restricting rights and protections for LGBTQ+ students, including Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law that limits discussions of sexuality and gender in the classroom. 

LGBTQ+ students have far more protections in California, which has one of the highest percentages of gay people in the country at 9.1%, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. But amid the national debate, confusion persists about what laws protect LGBTQ+ students in California. Here are some common questions and answers about how schools can support LGBTQ+ students:

Who is considered LGBTQ+?

The term LGBTQ+ includes people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning their sexual orientation. Sometimes the term includes a plus sign, which refers to a broad range of other identities, including people who describe themselves as asexual, pansexual, intersex and gender-fluid. “Given the vast and diverse ways language is used to describe who we are and who we are attracted to, it is a very normal and human experience to question and explore one’s gender identity and sexual orientation,” said Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, which advocates for LGBTQ+ youth.

What rights and protections do LGBTQ+ students have? 

According to the ACLU of Northern California and GLSEN, an LGBTQ youth advocacy group, students have the right to choose when, how and whether to come out; to dress in a way that aligns with their gender identity; date whom they want; and form student groups such as a gay-straight alliance chapter. They have the right not to be harassed or bullied, and they have the right to report such abuse if it happens.

They — and all students — also have the right to learn about LGBTQ+ history and other issues. In California, Senate Bill 48, which went into effect in 2012, requires all public schools to include LGBTQ+ history in their history and social studies curriculum. This is important, Ames said, because LGBTQ+ youth who learn about LGBTQ+ issues at school have 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt. “It’s critical that LGBTQ students in California know they have a right to learn about their own history and heroes at school,” he said. 

Are schools in California required to provide gender-neutral bathrooms for students? 

No. However, some schools may allow students to use bathrooms reserved for staff. Those bathrooms are typically “single-user” — a toilet and a sink in one room — which under California Health and Safety Code Section 118600 must be labeled as gender-neutral. Otherwise, students must use the regular multi-stall bathrooms that are segregated for boys and girls. 

Can students use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity?

Yes.

Can students play on school sports teams that align with their gender identity?

Yes.

How are gender identity and sexuality addressed in sex ed and other curriculum? 

Under the California Healthy Youth Act, enacted in 2016, all instruction and materials in grades K-12 must be inclusive of LGBTQ+ students. “This means that schools must teach about all sexual orientations and what being LGBTQ means,” according to the Department of Education website

“Instruction shall affirmatively recognize that people have different sexual orientations and, when discussing or providing examples of relationships and couples, must be inclusive of same-sex relationships,” the Education Code states. “It must also teach students about gender, gender expression, gender identity, and explore the harm of negative gender stereotypes.” 

Are teachers required to respect a student’s gender identity (by using “they” pronouns, for example)?

Yes.

Do any of these issues vary by district?

No. All public schools are required to follow the law.

If a student feels bullied, harassed or discriminated against, what should they do? 

The Trevor Project urges students to report the abuse to a trusted adult on campus, such as a teacher or counselor. Schools should have policies on how they address bullying and other abusive behavior. If students are feeling depressed or overwhelmed, they can call the Trevor Project’s 24-hour support line at (866) 488-7386 or chat online at www.TrevorChat.org

Everyone deserves to feel safe and respected in school without fear of being bullied,” Ames said. “Remember, there is nothing wrong with how you choose to identify, express yourself, or who you love. While it may be hard, take a moment to recognize that what anyone says about you says a lot more about them, and you shouldn’t feel responsible for their hurtful actions.”

What can schools in California do to support LGBTQ+ students?

Schools can make LGBTQ+ students feel welcome and accepted by creating an atmosphere where students feel comfortable sharing their feelings and concerns, and not tolerating bullying or bias on campus. Adults on campus can also encourage students to form gay-straight alliance clubs, host workshops and seminars for parents on how to support their LGBTQ+ children, and offer free training for teachers and other staff on supporting LGBTQ+ students. Teachers and others on campus should treat LGBTQ+ youth with respect, using their chosen names and pronouns and educating themselves about LGBTQ+ topics.

“Schools have the ability to transform their environment to be an accepting and inclusive community for LGBTQ students — to share with students that they are loved, supported and accepted for who they are,” Ames said. “LGBTQ rights are not a political or social matter. They are a matter of life or death, and having access to a supportive environment can make all the difference.”

What resources are available for schools?

Curriculum Materials that are Inclusive of LGBTQ+ Youth, from the California Department of Education

Peer Support or Affinity Clubs and Organizations, from CDE

Safe Spaces for LGBTQ+ Students, from CDE

Counseling Services, from CDE

School Staff Anti-bias Training Aimed at Supporting LGBTQ+ Youth, from CDE

Model School District Policy on Sucide Prevention, includes information about supporting LGBTQ students, from the Trevor Project

Creating safer spaces in schools for LGBTQ youth, from the Trevor Project

What are some resources for families and students?

 Support groups for adults and youth around gender diversity

Behaviors of supportive parents and caregivers of LGBTQ youth, from the Trevor Project

Know your rights: LGBTQ students, from the ACLU of Northern California

Information on forming gay-straight alliance clubs, ways teachers can support LGBTQ students and other resources , from GLSEN.

More resources from the California Department of Education

Supporting LGBTQ+ students includes a list of nonprofits and other resources in 11 regions in California that support LGBTQ+ young people and families.

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  1. JudiAU 1 month ago1 month ago

    This is a thoughtful and well organized article that covers public schools. I would have appreciated an explanation of how charter schools must approach these issues. Is it the same? Or different based on district, school board, county, etc?

    This article does not discuss private schools. I am under the impression that none of these protections would necessarily apply. Is that the case?

  2. Brenda Lebsack - Teacher 1 month ago1 month ago

    Michael, So True! It's heart breaking. Here's a testimonial of a 17 year old sharing her sex change regrets due to expedited "gender affirming medical interventions" at a Sacramento Senate hearing this summer. https://interfaith4kids.com/index.php/our-media/videos-and-resources/17-year-old-describes-horrors-of-sex-change-6-2022 And the First Non-binary person who said, after years of med's and surgeries, "It was all a sham" https://www.dailysignal.com/2019/03/10/i-was-americas-first-non-binary-person-it-was-all-a-sham/ Puberty Blockers are not even FDA approved for the purpose of sex change. Kids are not social experiments. Read More

    Michael, So True! It’s heart breaking. Here’s a testimonial of a 17 year old sharing her sex change regrets due to expedited “gender affirming medical interventions” at a Sacramento Senate hearing this summer.
    https://interfaith4kids.com/index.php/our-media/videos-and-resources/17-year-old-describes-horrors-of-sex-change-6-2022
    And the First Non-binary person who said, after years of med’s and surgeries, “It was all a sham
    https://www.dailysignal.com/2019/03/10/i-was-americas-first-non-binary-person-it-was-all-a-sham/
    Puberty Blockers are not even FDA approved for the purpose of sex change. Kids are not social experiments.

  3. Brenda Lebsack 1 month ago1 month ago

    Who is considered LGBTQQIAA+ (this is the updated acronym provided in the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum)? The Trevor Project says there are over 100 sexualities according to their 2019 Mental Health Survey. Omnisexual, Skoliosexual, Abrosexual, etc. Since Trevor Project is considered the "expert" in this area, why doesn't EdSource provide a comprehensive list of these over 100 sexualities with a description of each? After all, doesn't the LCAP require districts to … Read More

    Who is considered LGBTQQIAA+ (this is the updated acronym provided in the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum)? The Trevor Project says there are over 100 sexualities according to their 2019 Mental Health Survey. Omnisexual, Skoliosexual, Abrosexual, etc. Since Trevor Project is considered the “expert” in this area, why doesn’t EdSource provide a comprehensive list of these over 100 sexualities with a description of each? After all, doesn’t the LCAP require districts to seek parent input in making decisions for district and school resources? Trevor Project is a resource in most or all school districts nationwide.

    As an American, I cannot be forced to pretend a person is both genders by using the plural pronoun “they” for a single person. And I cannot be forced to believe or affirm the ideology that “sex is assigned at birth” by some random doctor, when my religion teaches that sex is determined at conception by a Divine Creator. This is why I filed a discrimination / harassment claim through DFEH and EEOC because no employer or agency has the right to force this ideology on me or anyone else, especially when it contradicts my religious beliefs and strongly held convictions.

  4. Joanne Morrison 1 month ago1 month ago

    This is very helpful as a starting point for anyone who wants to know more. Good links to further information. Thank you!

  5. Michael Alan 1 month ago1 month ago

    Students also have a right to "informed consent" about the risks, dangers, and statistics of "trans care" medical treatment, in which a relatively high percentage of people who undergo puberty blockers, double mastectomties, hysterectomies, and castration feel more miserable and depressed afterwards about their permanent deformities. These people who are now de-transitioning are very angry for being encouraged to pursue trans medicalization without being fully informed. This issue is an important part of the discussion … Read More

    Students also have a right to “informed consent” about the risks, dangers, and statistics of “trans care” medical treatment, in which a relatively high percentage of people who undergo puberty blockers, double mastectomties, hysterectomies, and castration feel more miserable and depressed afterwards about their permanent deformities. These people who are now de-transitioning are very angry for being encouraged to pursue trans medicalization without being fully informed. This issue is an important part of the discussion and must also be included.