Across the country this month, we celebrate Pride by honoring the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community’s contributions to our country, while recognizing the barriers that LGBTQ+ individuals have faced — and continue to face — in the struggle for acceptance and justice. Recently, I connected with my cousin, Alex, who is a senior in college and transgender. Alex is making my whole family proud by being authentically and unapologetically himself. Alex shared something with me that resonated deeply: one important reason why he’s thriving today is because of an educator at his high school who made him feel valued for exactly who he was … a teacher who truly saw him.
Every single student in America, just like Alex, has immeasurable worth and limitless potential, and every student has the right to be respected and supported in schools that are welcoming, affirming, and safe.
That’s why I’m proud that as we recognize the 49th anniversary of the landmark federal civil rights law, Title IX, this week, the U.S. Department of Education has affirmed that the law protects students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. With this announcement, the Biden-Harris administration makes clear a simple and powerful truth: every student, no matter who they are or whom they love, deserves equal access to educational opportunities in America’s schools.
This matters when as many as 1 in 6 young people in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ+. This matters when recent surveys show that approximately 60 percent of LGBTQ+ youth feel unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This matters when 65 percent of transgender, nonbinary, genderqueer, and gender questioning undergraduate students in our nation’s colleges report that they have been sexually harassed on campus. And this matters when the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated challenges that LGBTQ+ students face.
Amid COVID-19, as school buildings and campuses closed their doors, so many LGBTQ+ students haven’t had consistent access to school-based mental health services, affirming student organizations, or vital relationships with nurturing educators. One recent analysis revealed that 78 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth said that their mental health was “poor” either “most of the time” or “always” during COVID-19. That’s heartbreaking. Collectively, we can, and must, do more to support LGBTQ+ youth.
Full inclusion at school is a vital part of supporting the academic, mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing of LGBTQ+ young people, just as it is for all students. Discriminating against LGBTQ+ people or banning students from engaging in school activities on the basis of sex undermines their education and defies our nation’s values of inclusivity, equality, and freedom. With the Department of Education’s recent announcement, the federal government has reaffirmed that discrimination on the basis of sex — including sexual orientation and gender identity — isn’t just wrong, it’s prohibited in America’s schools.
But there’s more to do to support LGBTQ+ youth, and surely, there is work here for all of us.
As educators, we must protect the rights of LGBTQ+ students, who should be afforded every opportunity to participate fully in and experience the joy of school.
As communities, we must show LGBTQ+ young people that we see them, that they matter, and that we value the vibrant backgrounds and diverse perspectives they bring.
At the federal level, we commit to fully enforcing Title IX by working with states, districts, colleges and universities, and others both to prevent and actively combat discrimination against LGBTQ+ students in schools. And we’ll enforce, with fidelity, all our nation’s laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, color, national origin, disability, and sex.
Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California and famed LGBTQ+ activist once said, “Hope will never be silent.” Last week, I visited a school named for Harvey Milk in New York City, and I met with LGBTQ+ students, who, like my cousin Alex, gave me hope by raising their voices about what it means to be an LGBTQ+ learner and what they want to see in an education system that truly supports them.
The students spoke of fully realizing an education system that is oriented toward justice, where no student experiences bullying, harassment, or discrimination. They spoke about a system where all students have access to the resources that they need to succeed, including excellent teachers; caring school counselors; high-speed broadband; devices for learning; and rich, rigorous coursework.
Collectively, we owe the students at Harvey Milk High School, and every student across the country, exactly that — schools that promote equity and access in their DNA.
The time is now to affirm, in every way we can — including through our support of LGBTQ+ students — our nation’s highest ideals. Equality. Justice. Opportunity for all. Let’s get to work.
Miguel Cardona is the United States Secretary of Education.