This has been an important few weeks in the fight for LGBT youth. And I’m not talking about the voting in New Hampshire.
A quick glance at what’s going on around the country gives a clear sense of the height of the pitched battle currently underway.
High school students in Franklin County, Tenn., are being forced to defend their Gay-Straight Alliance against public backlash despite the fact that the formation of a GSA is a federally protected right. Over a dozen states are considering bills that would prevent transgender students from using restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity — a violation of federal Title IX protections. In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage is stopping the Maine Human Rights Commission and the state Department of Education from creating rules for school districts on safety and equal treatment for LGBT students, despite federal law and a recent Maine Supreme Court decision in favor of a transgender student.
In all of these cases, and in many more around the country, state and local officials are wielding their power in attempts to deny LGBT students safe and equal access to education and their rights under federal law. In each community, local advocates, including GLSEN chapters, student leaders and their allies and partners are fighting back to defend hard-won progress. It is astounding how far people will go to perpetuate discrimination, and how much energy and time we have to spend defending our gains. These examples all hinge on legal, policy, and court battles that have been fought and won. But as we know far too well, victories are events, and real change is a process.
This week, President Obama released a budget proposal that included critical funds for making sure that process continues to move forward — increased funding for the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. During the Obama administration, OCR has become the primary champion of all students’ civil rights and educational access, including pioneering work on behalf of LGBT youth. Perhaps you’ve heard about OCR’s settlements with districts over LGBT students’ rights, requiring action to address profoundly hostile school environments. Or maybe you saw that the assistant secretary for civil rights, Catherine Lhamon, will soon publish the full list of colleges and universities that have obtained religious exemptions from federal civil rights requirements in an easily searchable database, to make sure the public is fully informed.
Opponents of LGBT equality, who seek to roll back the current advances made by and for LGBT youth, have certainly taken note. And many have been quite clear that OCR is firmly on their list for elimination, along with the rest of the federal Department of Education. That battle will now play out in the budget and appropriations process, and we must be vigilant.
OCR has consistently been receiving more and more complaints each year, not only on LGBT issues, but also on race and ethnicity, disability, national origin and sex, all of the dimensions of discriminatory practice that affect LGBT youth and their peers. Over the last several years, OCR has received in excess of 10,000 complaints per year, with only 450 attorneys to investigate and follow up. The current backlash against newly empowered and visible LGBT youth is sure to ramp up the number of reports received in the coming months. Increased funding now is essential to bridging the gap between the promises of the law and the reality of students’ lives.
Legal victories are critical milestones. But they only mark the end of the beginning of the fight to transform people’s lives. Public investments in civil rights enforcement are as essential to the life chances of all marginalized and oppressed communities as water delivery infrastructure is to public health, or roads and bridges are to the national economy. And all of these public investments stand alongside national defense as among the core functions of government in a democracy.
The LGBT community faces numerous challenges and pressures in this chaotic and alarming election year. But we cannot allow the essential daily grind of making rights real — and the quiet political battles raging around that work — to be overshadowed by the high drama of high-level politics. Right now, the Senate’s approach to the budgeting process is of greater import to our daily lives than any comments made by presidential candidates today or over the next several months. We owe it to ourselves, all of our civil rights partners and, especially to LGBT youth, to keep our eyes on that prize.
DR. ELIZA BYARD is the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe and affirming schools for all students.