Op-ed: Why the White House Endorsement of SNDA Matters

BY Advocate Contributors

April 25 2012 4:00 AM ET

The White House took a significant step toward equality on
Friday announcing that President Obama fully supports the Student
Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act. The
administration said
the bills “will help ensure that all students are safe
and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying
and harassment.”

While these bills, as was evident by the co-endorsement by
the White House, are both important and have complementary goals, the
ACLU has long championed SNDA
because of the profound impact it would have
in improving the lives of LGBT students in the U.S. by ensuring that
discrimination and harassment of students on the basis of their sexual
orientation or gender identity has no place in our country’s public elementary
and secondary schools. And, critically important to an organization like the
ACLU, it would do so in a way that preserves the right of all students to speak
freely, while protecting the right of all
students to benefit equally from a public education. 

Prior to last week, the administration would say only that they
strongly supported SNDA’s goals
. With their endorsement, they have
elevated SNDA and protections for LGBT youth and students to the very center of
the LGBT community’s legislative priorities in Congress. 

Other LGBT-specific bills that have garnered an endorsement
from the Obama administration include the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and
the
Respect for Marriage Act
. To have protections for LGBT youth and
students now alongside bills addressing workplace fairness and a Defense of
Marriage Act repeal is a powerful statement about the importance of these
issues to the White House and President Obama. 

The need for SNDA’s protections is very important and very
real. In 2010, Mississippi student Constance
McMillen
, then in high school, simply wanted to attend her senior prom with
her girlfriend. Instead of allowing her to do so, the school blocked her at
every turn, initially cancelling the prom only to then stage a decoy, causing
Constance repeated humiliation and harassment. Also in 2010,
Wendy Walsh
tragically lost her son Seth to senseless antigay harassment
because his school would not intervene to protect him despite numerous
pleas. Yet, rather than take this lying down both McMillen and Walsh stood
up, tirelessly advocating on behalf of LGBT youth and students and the need for
SNDA to be law.

Friday’s White House endorsement
further strengthens SNDA’s position even as the current political make-up of
Capitol Hill suggests this won’t move in this Congress. It is important to
note, however, that when it does pass Congress, it will do so, like repeal of the
“don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, with
Republican votes
. Times are changing.

Writing in a “Room for Debate”
on the question of whether support for gay rights is still controversial on the
website of the New York Times recently, Andrew
Kohut of the Pew Research Center
said that while there remains a large
partisan gap on acceptance of homosexuality in general and marriage for
same-sex couples in particular, the politics around these issues are far
different than they were even two election cycles ago. The ground is
indeed shifting rapidly on these issues.

The White House endorsement of
SNDA comes
nearly 40 years after the enactment of Title IX
of the Education Amendments
of 1972, a landmark federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on
the basis of sex in education – and on which SNDA is modeled. Since its
enactment in 1972, Title IX has made an enormous difference in young people’s
lives, including those who are LGBT. 

Hopefully in another 40
years, we will be looking back to celebrate the passage of SNDA – a cornerstone
of federal civil rights law – and what it did to improve the ability of LGBT
students to obtain a quality public education in a welcoming and affirmative
school environment where discrimination and harassment of children based on
their sexual orientation or gender identity is a bygone aspect of the
past. That is this advocate’s hope. Friday’s endorsement of SNDA is a
critical milestone on the way toward ultimately realizing this vision. The
ball is now in Congress’s court.

  

IAN THOMPSON is a legislative representative in
the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative
Office. Thompson works to advance the organization’s civil liberties and
civil rights agenda in Congress and the executive branch, with a focus on LGBT
rights.

Tags: Commentary

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