As Republicans continue their crusade against queer and transgender people in the U.S., one group of stakeholders is speaking out against policies that risk damaging kids.
A recent study by GLSEN, a nonprofit organization that works on LGBTQ+ matters in education, found that most LGBTQ+ students rarely see or hear references to their communities or people like them in class.
Despite what some conservatives claim, American students are rarely exposed to LGBTQ+ issues in school.
This lack of representation is unhelpful and harms LGBTQ+ students in general, and the 2021 School Climate Survey shows a significant decline in support for LGBTQ+ students.
The Advocate spoke with three high school seniors who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community from Kansas, California, and New Jersey. The students spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss topics freely without being targeted by anti-LGBTQ+ trolls.
"I have not been exposed to any LGBTQ+ topics from my teachers or from my school," a senior who serves as president of their GSA at a public school in California tells The Advocate.
"In a way, I'm almost the one who's bringing the education to my school because, through my initiatives at my school, I've held staff meetings where I've helped educate staff on pronouns and gender identity," she says.
"So it's kind of weird where I'm in this place where instead of school being a place for me to learn more about myself and learn more about different identities and different things about LGBTQ+ people, I'm in a place where I'm expected to [know and teach] that."
Not being exposed to essential topics in school is frustrating, the student says. In states across the country, more than 25 LGBTQ+ books have been banned in schools.
"While I do love educating other people, it's weird to be in an educational space where instead of having exposure through my curriculum, I'm expected [know] it," she says. "There's a lot of ways where in my school curriculum, the way LGBT people are talked about, it's very exclusive [and] there's not mentions of trans people."
In their experience, when discussions about the LGBTQ+ community come up, sometimes even teachers aren't educated on the topic beyond lesbians and gays.
"It's a lack of education," she says. "I feel like we should also open a space for teachers to learn more inclusive language and be more inclusive [of] all the identities under [in the] LGBTQ [community]."
This lack of inclusivity is familiar to another high school senior with whom The Advocate spoke.
"The rhetoric surrounding how the LGBTQ community is being talked about is honestly really disheartening [and] I see it, especially in my community in rural Kansas," she says.
Having formed her school's first GSA last year, she says she looked forward to celebrating Pride week last November.
"We ended up getting a shooting threat," she says. "We [had] some really awful things happening [including] the [school] administration saying that they never heard about what was going on with the Pride Week, even though I was in conversation with my principal the entire time."
She says it's hard to be a queer teen in a red state.
For example, Kansas City's Gardner Edgerton School District banned transgender students from participating in sports teams that align with their gender identities and from using their preferred restrooms in November.
"We do have a PFLAG chapter, which is great," she says. "We are definitely one of the communities that is more accepting. But regarding conversations with my peers, I surround myself with people who are accepting and open-minded. [And] because I surround myself with like-minded and open-minded people, I don't have to deal with many people attacking my identity."
For students exposed to topics relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, the experience is validating and valuable, a student from New Jersey whose school curriculum is inclusive tells The Advocate.
"LGBTQ history is included in the school curriculum and is mandated statewide, which is really important," he says. "And it is taught at my school, like about LGBTQ identities in health class. [I've had] a pretty good and really conducive and healthy learning environment."
He says that while laws targeting the LGBTQ+ community haven't made it to his state, he's worried about the possibility of the sentiment held in Florida and Texas could spread.
"I worry about what might happen should a Republican Congress or a Republican president be elected in the future and what that means for the shape of the nation regarding education," he says. "[Plus] what kinds of things will happen if we get a majority Republican Congress or president that wants to vote on the types of legislation that we're seeing in Texas and Florida?"
In Texas, the Keller Independent School District has banned the mention of gender fluidity in books but is considering arming teachers.
The student from New Jersey says that in the four years that they've been in high school, their school has instituted policies affirming students' gender identities.
For example, he says that trans and nonbinary students can use changing rooms and bathrooms in line with their gender identity.
In contrast, in Texas, a GOP lawmaker introduced a bill in January that critics say is worse than Florida's "don't say gay" law. It requires schools to disclose all information related to students' mental health information to parents, putting children at risk of being forced out of the closet by school officials and adding language to the state's education code restricting the instruction of topics on sexual orientation and gender identity.
"My school has a program that teaches all ninth graders about LGBTQ+ identities...which I think is really important," the New Jersey senior says.