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LGBTQ Rights on Campuses Through the Decades

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons / jglsongs

Every year since the 1969 Stonewall riots, the month of June has been dedicated to celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) culture and history. Fifty years ago, there was effectively no public support for LGBTQ rights, and today, marriage equality is the law of the land. Between these two ends of the spectrum lies a rich history of fighting for equality in virtually every area of public life. Yet all too often overlooked in the queer narrative is the fact that students of sexual and gender minorities are among the most underserved demographics, despite growing visibility in recent years. What’s more, these students’ safety and rights are constantly at risk. This June, as we celebrate how far we’ve come, it’s worth taking critical stock of the victories and challenges that shape the modern LGBTQ student experience.

The past 10 years have seen an effective push from advocates at the state and local levels for comprehensive, or enumerated, anti-bullying policies in K-12 schools. Eighteen states have enumerated policies, which protect students from harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have nondiscrimination laws, and more are following suit as state legislatures see a groundswell of support.

But some hurdles remain, of course, and they’re quite dizzying. Of the states that aren’t in the enumeration process, seven still have laws on the books that expressly forbid teachers from discussing gay and transgender issues. These types of laws—commonly, and derisively, known as “No Promo Homo” laws—sometimes prohibit teachers from even saying “LGBTQ” aloud in the classroom. Only Utah, a state where 64 percent of the population is considered “highly religious,” has repealed its No Promo Homo law, and only in March of this year.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, with some of the country’s most inclusive protections, is California, which recently became the first state to adopt an inclusive K-12 history and social science curriculum. What does this mean? History lessons there now cover key milestones in the fight for LGBTQ equality, as well as important historical figures and the evolution of LGBTQ identities over time. While inclusive curricula may be taught in other parts of the country, no other state requires them—and in No Promo Homo states, teachers could be fired for using them.

LGBTQ students have seen gains outside the classroom, too. More than 1,000 gay-straight alliances (GSAs) have been created over the past decade in public, private, and charter schools. GSAs are student-led clubs that provide a supportive environment for LGBTQ students and their allies. And this matters because students who have a GSA in their school are more likely to feel safe in and connected to their community, less likely to miss school, and less likely to commit or attempt suicide. Crucially, the majority of these wins have been achieved by and for lesbian, gay, and bi students and advocates.

That said, the rights of students of gender minorities, as opposed to sexual minorities, remain hotly contested, as states cope with ever-changing federal rules regarding transgender students’ status. Most infamously, some states have tried to regulate transgender students’ right to use school facilities with “bathroom bills,” which force students to use the restroom corresponding to the biological sex they were assigned at birth. In 2016, the Obama administration issued guidance overruling districts who enforced such policies. Early this year, however, the Trump administration rescinded this guidance, allowing districts—once again—to force transgender students to use the incorrect bathroom. Research shows that forcing students to use certain facilities doesn't reduce violence, as some suggest, but rather victimizes transgender students and makes them more susceptible to health problems that result from not using the bathroom. 

But the transgender student experience is shaped by more than just misinformed bathroom rules. Last month, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network released a report detailing issues that plague transgender students in K-12 schools. Specifically, 75 percent of transgender students reported feeling unsafe at school, 50 percent couldn’t use the name or pronouns that match their identity, and 28 percent couldn’t wear clothing of their choice. These numbers are even higher for transgender students of color. Particularly for students in rural and religious communities, the outlook isn’t likely to improve unless explicit federal protections are put in place.

Fortunately, for transgender students—and LGBTQ students more broadly—who attend college, campuses are generally considered safe spaces. According to Campus Explorer, 38 colleges offer gender-neutral housing options for LGBTQ students, and many colleges have gender-neutral bathrooms on campuses. Gender-neutral housing is a system that allows students to select roommates without regard to their sex or gender. Many universities are also allowing students to use gender-neutral pronouns in their registries and are making it easier for students to adjust their names and pronouns in university databases and official documents, such as diplomas. LGBTQ, Gender, and Women’s Studies departments have also cropped up at many institutions, including the University of Arizona’s inaugural program for Transgender Studies.

College Associations are also working to ensure protections and support for LGBTQ students. Last spring, for example, the NCAA stipulated that campuses who want to host NCAA events must prove they have protections in place for the rights of LGBTQ athletes and event attendees. The policy made waves when the NCAA banned NC State from hosting the NCAA March Madness tournament in response to the state’s HB2 law.

So where are the next battle lines for LGBTQ equality on campuses?

Well, despite all the programs, policies, and systems that have been created to protect LGBTQ students in higher education, there is still a lot of work to be done. The NCAA has been inconsistent in enforcing its initially-celebrated policy, and Campus Explorer reports that one in five LGBTQ college students “fear for their physical safety due to their gender identity or their perceived sexual orientation.” LGBTQ students are also more likely than their straight counterparts to be the victims of harassment or sexual assault on college campuses—an alarming trend given the already-high rates of sexual assault for the general college population.

The potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act could also put LGBTQ students at risk, as they already face higher rates of health concerns and discrimination in obtaining healthcare. Many traditional college students may receive care under their parents, if their parents are covered and if there is a nearby facility that will serve them—something that isn’t typically hard for most straight people to find. LGBTQ students, on the other hand, must be out to their families, must be accepted by their families, must have families who are covered, and must live near a facility that will serve them. Outside of liberal urban areas, this isn't the norm for most LGBTQ students.

Unsurprisingly, student health coverage, official university policies, and inclusive curricula aren’t usually the focus of Pride month. At least in part, this is because the mythical notion of a post-marriage equality world has permeated even progressive circles, giving the impression that we’ve achieved true equality. But a quick lesson in public education or any area affecting it, such as healthcare, shows that this isn’t the case. LGBTQ students’ experiences are nuanced and complex, affected by individual circumstances and intersectional social identities, and include new challenges every day. While fair treatment has, on the whole, increased for these students over the past 20 years, continuing this momentum during the Trump administration will take fierce public support and a belief that all students deserve to be safe and accepted.

So while we continue to celebrate the victories of the movement this Pride Month, keep in mind how far we’ve come—and how far we have left to go.

Authors:

Sabia Prescott is an administrative assistant with the Education Policy program at New America.

Kristyn Lue was a Spring 2017 Intern with the New America's Education Policy Program.