Senate Fails LGBT Youth: One Educator's Reaction

As a teacher in an urban public school system, I am used to being disappointed by politicians. They have failed our children time and time again, from the overwhelming gaps in resources between wealthy and impoverished districts to the failed promises and policies of No Child Left Behind. Although it's easy to feel powerless in my position on the front lines of education, I've learned to let go of things I can't control and focus on what I can: my classroom, where all students thrive and my LGBT students are protected, not just by my own classroom rules, but also by district measures that extend anti-bullying policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

On Tuesday, July 14th, the United States Senate failed our children yet again, voting against the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA), a policy that would prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on their sexual or gender orientation. When I first learned of the Senate's ruling, I was floored. I think I'm still in a bit of shock and disarray; it's hard for me to imagine how or why this measure didn't pass. After all, don't all youth across our nation deserve to receive the same protections and benefits? When studies prove that our students are more at risk, don't our politicians have a social and moral responsibility to protect them?

As an educator, as a GSA advisory, as someone who works directly with LGBT youth on a daily basis, I am simply at a loss for words as to how 100 individuals in a room could not reach a majority consensus on the importance of all students' safety in schools, especially students who are -- according to numerous studies -- at large risk for depression, suicide and homelessness as a result of bullying. In my search to make some sense of this decision, I have discovered two possible explanations, both of which can be summed up in one sentence: politicians are so far removed from our education system that they have no idea what is actually happening in it.

Some politicians believe that "these matters" are best handled at the local level. The problem with that rationale is that many states in our country are simply not doing anything to support our LBGT youth at all. Administrators and local districts are ignoring their LGBT populations and sweeping instances of violence in schools under the rug. Many acts of bullying go unreported, not just by youth who are intimidated by their oppressors, but also by administrators who handle things "in house."

Leaving anti-bullying policies up to the localities -- many of which are still largely anti-LGBT in general -- opens our youth to an unimaginable vulnerability. According to the HRC's "Growing Up Gay In America" survey, 42 percent of LGBT youth report that their community is not accepting of LGBT persons. How can anyone expect communities who cling to conservative values to stand up for their LGBT youth? Many administrators are not able to leave their Bibles and their personal biases at the door; therefore, our youth are attacked, neglected, and ignored. Without national legislation to hold them accountable, we simply can not trust administrators, counselors, teachers, and local school districts to be unbiased in their approach to the bullying of LGBT youth.

Some politicians believe that Title IX already provides protections for LGBT youth, interpreting the word "sex" to extend to sexual orientation and gender identity. The flaw in this argument is that an overwhelming majority of our states are not operating under this interpretation. According to GLSEN's recently released report, "From Statehouse to Schoolhouse: Anti-Bullying Policy Efforts in U.S. States and School Districts", only one in 10 school districts has a policy that explicitly includes protections for students based upon actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. What's even more alarming is that nearly 30 percent of school districts have no anti-bullying policy at all. Without explicit legal protection, these students are left feeling hopeless and powerless in the hands of their bullies, their school policies, and their communities. Taking into account urban students -- many of whom straddle economic and racial minority status in addition to sexual and gender minority status -- it's not hard to see that our education system is failing. Big time. Our students fight enough fights. They deserved this victory.

I am privileged to teach in the District of Columbia, where my LGBT students and their allies are protected under discrimination laws that extend to sexual orientation and gender identity; however, an overwhelming majority of states do not have these same protections in place for their LGBT youth population. Leaving our LGBT youth in the hands of their local governments, many of whom are biased against their own LGBT population, is not just irresponsible or ignorant: it's negligent.

In a country where marriage equality itself is a victory, this decision shines light on the fact that we are far from the mark of LGBT equality. Our youth need and deserve our movement's attention. Parents and community members must advocate on behalf of their youth. LGBT students, families, teachers, and their allies must link in arms and take up this cause. We must, as a movement, come together and demand our state and local districts to include explicit policies for our youth since our national policymakers will not. To do otherwise is a great injustice to the very students who need it most.