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?
Can students play on school sports teams that align with their gender identity?
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)?
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
Safe Spaces for LGBTQ+ Students, from CDE
Counseling Services, 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?
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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