Anti-LGBTQ education laws, including Don’t Say Gay, went into effect

For most US students, summer vacation is in full swing, ushering in days at camp, by the pool, or plowing through that summer reading list.

But starting July 1, queer and transgender students in six states could face dramatically different school environments than in the past.

Earlier this month, 10 anti-LGBTQ laws went into effect, all related to education. The laws include Florida’s novel restrictions banning classroom discussions about gender and sexuality, which have become a template for other states trying to limit what students learn about these topics and when.

Also going into effect in July: restrictions on the sports teams that transgender students can join in Indiana, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah, and a law in Alabama that mirrors Florida’s “don’t say gay” law, but also includes transgender students in it prevents using bathroom. Lockers and other facilities appropriate to their gender.

The Alabama legislature passes laws that restrict the rights of trans children

While school districts across the country are months away from realizing the full impact of these new guidelines, LGBTQ and civil rights activists are alarmed. These laws could have devastating effects on the mental health of LGBTQ students, a demographic already more likely to suffer from depression and suicide, and fuel a culture of fear and distrust among students and school staff, experts say.

Additionally, given the novelty of these types of laws, there is confusion among schools, community members and attorneys about how to enforce them.

These bills will have a lasting impact on LGBTQ students, said Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, which supports LGBTQ youth in mental health crises. And the organization’s polls suggest these policies may already be having an impact, as young people observe nationwide debates about their place in society.

Ames thinks it’s a coincidence that so many education-focused laws were enacted at the same time. And, he added, the different bills would impact different aspects of young people’s lives — whether it’s forcing a trans boy to use a girl’s locker room; forbidding a child to talk about how they identify or who they are attracted to; or the requirement that a girl deemed “too manly” must have her gender verified before she can play a team sport.

“The only thing these [laws] truly having in common is their goal,” Ames said.

Lawmakers who introduced these laws have argued that they should protect children, promote fairness and, in the words of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), roll back “awakened gender ideology.”

South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) said the state’s ban on trans women participating in women’s sports, the first such law signed this year, would ensure “that girls always have… an opportunity.” are for a level playing field, for fairness that gives them the chance to experience success.”

Ames and other proponents argue that in reality these bills will only hurt students who are already vulnerable to discrimination and a lack of institutional and family support.

Florida and Alabama laws that ban classroom discussions would also require school officials to report to parents when their children disclose that they may be gay or transgender. (This could also apply to college students seeking counseling about depression, drug use, or divorce, the New York Times reported.)

This would force teachers and counselors, who may be the only adults in LGBTQ children’s lives, to come out to their parents, Ames said, a result that could jeopardize their safety. Research has shown that queer and transgender young people are more likely to experience parental abuse and homelessness than their straight or cisgender peers.

“When we talk about forcibly outing transgender students to their classmates, parents and school staff, we are putting them at tremendous risk,” Ames said.

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Other experts point out that cisgender students may be affected by some of these policies, which could foster a climate of gender control and distrust in school communities.

That’s because of how vague and confusing some of those laws are, said Elizabeth Skarin, campaign director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

For example, South Dakota law, which applies to all K-12 public schools and public colleges, prohibits trans women from playing on women’s athletic teams, but says nothing about the teams that trans male youth can play on.

For Skarin, not only is the law “fundamentally unacceptable” as it codifies discrimination against trans women, but it’s also unclear how it will work. This applies to similar bills in other states, she said.

“The laws are either poorly written, or they’re unclear, or they leave the door open to questions, which isn’t usually what you expect from a law,” Skarin added.

Then there is enforcement.

The state of South Dakota itself will not ensure schools comply with the law. Instead, it allows individuals to sue schools or school districts they believe are not complying with the ban.

“It really takes government power and puts it in the hands of private actors to decide whether to sue,” Skarin said. (This structure reflects abortion bans in states like Texas, which allow individuals to sue abortion providers for abortion, and also to sue anyone who assists someone seeking an abortion.)

This type of law is also notable because it makes it harder for the state to be sued for potentially violating the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Skarin added. (The ACLU and the federal government argue that laws like South Dakota’s clearly violate both.) This state approach also makes it harder for courts to block a law directly.

The South Dakota governor’s office has insisted the law conforms with the Constitution and stands ready to defend the law in court.

Last year, Noem didn’t sign similar legislation out of concern that it could expose the state to litigation and trigger backlash from the NCAA. But the governor, who is running for re-election, lobbied for the law this year. Her office amended the 2022 bill so that the state would provide legal representation and pay the costs of any lawsuits filed against the law, the Associated Press reported.

It is currently unclear if and how parents and other community members will file such lawsuits.

A 2021 report by the Associated Press found that most of the two dozen state lawmakers who introduced bans on trans sports over the past year could not identify a single case where a trans girl’s participation caused problems. And Skarin said that because the number of transgender girls participating in sports is so small, those laws would potentially more often affect cisgender athletes: girls who dominate competition or who appear aggressive or masculine, a dynamic affecting black women and can affect girls more than their white counterparts.

The same issues are at play in Florida’s law, which prohibits teaching or classroom discussion of LGBTQ issues for kindergarten through third grade (and restricts these subjects to “age-appropriate” classes in subsequent grades) and gives parents the right to sue schools if they think the law has been broken. The law is broad enough that it could be interpreted in many ways, said Kara Gross, the Florida ACLU’s legislative director and senior policy adviser.

Not only could this empower fanatics, she said, but it will also create a “chilling effect” on educators and school officials who are concerned and confused about what might be considered inappropriate, and on school districts who would be forced to foot the bill wear court.

Gross believes the intent of these laws is to wipe out LGBTQ individuals and communities in as many ways as possible.

“[These bills] are all different pieces of the same puzzle, which is basically a nationwide attack on LGBTQ people,” she said.

But Ames of the Trevor Project said there is still much that concerned parents, educators and community members can do to support LGBTQ students in the face of these bills.

Validation and acceptance go a long way, and simply using a child’s preferred name and pronouns can help prevent social isolation, depression and suicidal thoughts, experts say. And at a time when millions of American children are being affected by a nationwide mental health crisis, schools can also adopt suicide prevention policies that include LGBTQ students.

“If you have a young transgender person in your life … tell them what is happening is wrong,” Ames said. “Tell them that while these politicians may be powerful, control is different from strength. And these youngsters have shown again and again that they are strong.” Anti-LGBTQ education laws, including Don’t Say Gay, went into effect

James Brien

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