Say More Than Gay: How LGBTQ-Inclusive Education Can Save Lives

Photographed by Laurence Philomene.
My high school textbooks didn’t say “gay.” I grew up in California during the early 2000s, at a time when my biology and psychology classes either stayed silent on topics of sexual orientation and gender identity or included a transparently anxious footnote on “anomalies.” I wasn’t old enough to know what my teachers were tiptoeing around, but I was sensible enough to get the message: Something about who I am was more than shameful — it was unspeakable.
Oddly enough, the best sex education I got was at church. I was lucky enough to be raised in a progressive congregation with a program called “Our Whole Lives,” which is essentially a genuinely comprehensive sex education class — but make it Sunday School. It was there that I learned about safer sex and physiology, but also healthy relationships, respectful communication, how to recognize abuse, and how to protect myself and others from bullying. 
On a day burned into my memory, the facilitators brought in a panel of people with a wide spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities, who graciously agreed to tell us their stories and answer our probing questions in safe and appropriate ways. Deeply closeted and terrified of what being transgender might subject me to, I had seen little evidence that a future for someone like me was possible. In them, I saw not only my reflection but my survival. 
They were proof of life.

I was sensible enough to get the message: Something about who I am was more than shameful — it was unspeakable.

Sam Ames
On July 1, a law took effect in Florida that has become commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Although, based on its nickname, the law sounds as though it’s specifically calling out gay people, even the text itself refuses to say “gay.” But the idea this only affects gay people is also an oversimplification — the impact is likely to fall hardest on bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, and queer youth. The law, first known as H.B. 1557, bans school districts from “encouraging classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels” or in a manner that is “not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” It did not specify who gets to decide what “appropriate” means, but it’s a safe bet they won’t look like me. 
In practice, what this bill and bills like it do is prohibit discussions of LGBTQ people and the issues we face at school — erasing not only entire chapters of history and literature, but LGBTQ students themselves. Even more concerning, these types of policies can encourage or even force our most trusted teachers to betray the confidence of students who feel safe enough to come out to them, and report it to their legal guardians, whether they are supportive or not.
In the past seven months, lawmakers around the country have introduced a record number of bills — over 300 and counting — targeting LGBTQ youth, particularly transgender and nonbinary youth. These laws attempt to regulate nearly every moment of a young person’s life, reaching the hand of government into exam rooms, living rooms, locker rooms, and — the place where young people spend the majority of their waking hours — classrooms. These spaces can and should be incubators of growth and learning, but they can also be breeding grounds for bullying and fear. Right now, they are also the preferred battlefields of career politicians, with queer students drafted to the front lines, into harm's way.
What makes this political strategy to target young LGBTQ people in classrooms notable isn’t just its cruelty, but its willful ignorance. We know what keeps our most marginalized kids safe and healthy, and it isn’t exclusion or erasure. It’s been 20 years since I met that first trans panelist at church, and I’m now fortunate enough to be one of those people for a new generation. I serve as the director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, where we fight every day to ensure LGBTQ youth know a future is possible. Among other things, our research consistently reinforces what years of evidence has been telling us: Supportive schools save lives.

Supportive schools save lives.

Sam AMes
LGBTQ youth who find their school to be affirming of their identity report a 37% lower rate of past-year suicide attempts. Learning about LGBTQ history and issues can also foster acceptance and contribute to an inclusive educational climate. In fact, LGBTQ youth who learned about their own history and issues at school had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year, according to the Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health. That’s a significant number, particularly when we’re talking about young lives.
We are living through a mental health crisis in America — especially for LGBTQ youth, and even more so for trans youth. The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than half of young transgender and nonbinary people have seriously considered suicide in the past year, and nearly 1 in 5 made an attempt. Amid this crisis, the vast majority of the hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced this year have specifically targeted trans students.
Despite these continued struggles, we are seeing glimmers of hope. In mid-July, the House of Representatives passed a bill codifying the right to same-sex and interracial marriage, and members of the Senate are lobbying to get the votes they need to send the bill to the President’s desk. The Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination in employment applies to sexual orientation and gender identity as well. This ruling has reinforced that LGBTQ people are also protected by other civil rights laws, including Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination in education.

Most people have come to understand that freedom and censorship just don’t mix. And history is on our side.

Sam Ames
The Biden Administration’s guidance on protections for LGBTQ youth has been clear and consistent — from the president’s day-one executive order making nondiscrimination policies inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity to the Pride Month executive order he signed just weeks ago addressing state laws that target LGBTQ students. Meanwhile, last month, the Department of Education proposed changes to the rules that implement Title IX that will codify rights for trans students for the first time ever. The rule is open for public comments. There’s reason to hope this will help provide these young people with a legal shield they so urgently need.
LGBTQ-inclusive policies are common-sense, data-driven, and more popular among voters than they were even a few years ago. More and more evidence is emerging that the politicians banking on trans youth as a winning wedge issue have miscalculated. Recent polling from Morning Consult indicates that a majority of adults oppose anti-LGBTQ education policies, including book bans on LGBTQ topics, blocking students from accessing LGBTQ resources at school, and prohibiting classroom discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity. Over time, most people have come to understand that freedom and censorship just don’t mix. And history is on our side.
Seven years after I graduated high school, my home state passed the opposite of a “Don’t Say Gay” law. The FAIR Education Act required schools across California to include LGBTQ history in their social studies classes. The data behind the policy was substantial, and the number of lives it has saved is incalculable. Some time this year, in some classroom at my old high school, a kid is learning about Pauli Murray for the first time. Deeply closeted and terrified of what coming out might subject them to, they get to study the evidence that a future for someone like them is possible. They get to see not only their reflection, but their survival. 
They don’t just get to say “gay.” They get proof of life.
This op-ed is by, Sam Ames the director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project.

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