Even after decades of navigating the public education system — as a student, as a public-school teacher married to a public college professor, and as a parent with children of my own who went to public schools and colleges — some of my most memorable interactions with students and their families came from my work with PFLAG.
I remember one family about 15 years ago; their gender-expansive child attended a progressive K-8 public school. They came to us not only looking for support but also wanting to teach us something in return about working with schools to ensure all children would have the same positive experience their own child was having. It was truly beautiful to see: a community made up of parents, colleagues, teachers, administrators and others, deeply committed to making a child feel comfortable, welcome and safe. All were fully invested in doing right by this family, and the school even had inclusive policies in place to mark its promise. The community embraced the family and welcomed the child’s mother into the schools to facilitate conversation around what it means to be gender-expansive.
The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network released its first School Climate Survey only a few years before I connected with this family, and it told of the scary reality of pervasive anti-LGBTQ harassment, bullying, discrimination, and harm; we heard the stories all the time. But somehow, this public school — in fact, an entire school district — was managing to get it right, with its enumerated policies and its community of caring people. My interactions with this family and hundreds more just like them crystallized for me the necessity and importance of a public-school education, with inclusive policies and anti-discrimination laws to protect the students, and a caring community to enforce them.
Leap forward to 2015. GLSEN’s School Climate Survey paints a picture of slow improvement, but one need only be reminded of high school valedictorian Evan Young to see how far we still have to go. Young was a gay student at a public charter school who was not only denied his right as valedictorian to speak at graduation by his school principal but was outed by that principal to his parents. That school district, unlike my own, had no inclusive policies in place to protect students, with little to no training provided to educators on working with LGBTQ youth. Years earlier, a group of high school students from this same district approached my PFLAG chapter for help with the harassment they were experiencing. We helped them form a coalition of concerned parents with and without LGBTQ children, school counselors, representatives from faith and other communities, and public health professionals. Sadly, they were "stonewalled" by the school board and administration in their efforts — that is, until the story of Evan Young brought a public outcry against the blatant discrimination, to which the district responded with professional training for staff.
Situations like this happen in thousands of public schools across the country, where a patchwork of different policies and state laws continue to make it difficult to ensure that all students are accessing public education fairly, and safely. Federal laws like Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 help significantly on this front and are critically important to the health and wellbeing of all students. But equally as critical is a community of caring and passionate people — and not just parents, but all people — to take up the cause of seeing that federal, state, and local laws and inclusive school policies are not only passed or instituted but appropriately enforced.
Now here’s the stark reality: In 2015 we had strong and committed support in leadership roles in the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, all the way up to the White House. Think about that, as we recall the confirmation hearings of our new secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and our new attorney general, Jeff Sessions. I believe Secretary DeVos must see that all students have safe and equal access to taxpayer-funded public education and all of the opportunities such an education provides and that Attorney General Sessions must see that all people in the U.S., including students, are treated equally, fairly, and with dignity. If they don’t, our students — particularly marginalized youth — will be at continued significant risk.
Sadly the writing is on the wall: As of Friday, it was announced that the Department of Justice, led by Sessions, will no longer pursue a halt on the nationwide injunction banning enforcement of the Obama administration’s Department of Education guidance on transgender student facility access in public schools.
With more than 85 percent of LGBTQ students experiencing harassment, “no promo homo” laws in states across the country dictating that being LGBTQ should not be taught as a valid or healthy identity, and Title IX enforcement and guidance in support of transgender youth likely to be unenforced or worse, what do we do? How do we all move forward, when those who are supposed to lead in keeping our students safe have demonstrated a lack of experience, knowledge, and commitment to doing so? We hold them accountable.
• We connect with school administrators and read district antibullying policies, and if we don’t see both sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in there — which only about 10 percent of LGBT students say they do — we work with our communities to change the policies.
• We remember the power of our zip codes and contact our U.S. senators and representatives —everyone has two of the former and one of the latter — to reintroduce The Student Non-Discrimination Act, which had bipartisan support in the previous Congress.
• We connect with local students and their families at all levels of education, K-12 and college, to see how we can be of help on the ground, whether that’s providing inclusive materials to classrooms and libraries, providing support and training to educators, or helping to found a gay-straight alliance.
• We attend school board meetings, listen to members' conversations, and ask the tough questions about how they are protecting and serving vulnerable students. We demand answers. We advocate for change. (And sometimes we run for school boards — it was the path to power by anti-LGBTQ activists, so we must claim it for ourselves.)
We all must practice the power of the people, using our collective voice to publicly demand for all students safety, equity, and informed educators. And all of us — those with children and without children, LGBTQ and ally, people of all ages, races, abilities, faith and nonfaith traditions — must do so. We must come together in service to our youth and the education promised them by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of our Constitution. I promise you, as president of PFLAG National, that I will be working not only in Colorado as I have for decades, but anywhere in our country where our LGBTQ and other marginalized youth need me, because my experience tells me that their lives depend on it.