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The Single Most Important Step Congress Could Take to Improve the Lives of LGBT Students

By Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 10:48am

For those who work each and every day to secure basic fairness and equality under the law for LGBT Americans, the pace of positive momentum over the past several years has been dizzying.  Particularly in the area of relationship recognition and the freedom to marry, forward movement – from state-level wins to public pronouncements of support from prominent elected leaders, including President Obama – occurs on a nearly daily basis.

Given that, it can be very difficult to understand how there are still only nine states (in addition to the District of Columbia) that have extended the freedom to marry to committed and loving same-sex couples.  Or that only 16 states affirmatively protect LGBT Americans from workplace discrimination.  Or that there still is no federal law that explicitly protects LGBT students from discrimination and harassment in our nation's public schools.

On Thursday, Representatives Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) re-introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act, vitally important legislation that is modeled on Title IX that would create a comprehensive prohibition against discrimination of LGBT students in our nation's public schools.  Joining Representatives Polis and Ros-Lehtinen on a press briefing to announce the introduction of the legislation were Bayli Silberstein, an 8th grade student in Florida, and Becky Collins, the mother of an openly gay high school student in Ohio.  Bayli made national headlines this year in response to her efforts to create a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), a student-led club to combat the name-calling and harassment she and her friends experience at school.  In the fall of 2011, the brutal, unprovoked beating of Becky's son Zach made national headlines when a video of the incident went viral online.

The Student Non-Discrimination Act, which is among the ACLU's highest LGBT legislative priorities in Congress, would require schools to take LGBT harassment and bullying seriously when parents or students tell them about it, and provides LGBT students and their families with appropriate legal remedies against discriminatory treatment (e.g. refusing to allow a student to bring a same-sex date to prom).

The need for this legislation remains as vital as ever.  A 2011 nationwide survey of more than 8,500 students between the ages of 13-20 found that eight out of ten LGBT students reported experiencing harassment at their school within the past year based on their sexual orientation.  Transgender students experienced even more hostile school climates than their non-transgender peers, with 80% of transgender students reporting feeling unsafe at school because of their gender expression.  These statistics are representative of intakes the ACLU's LGBT Project has received in the past year, including the following:

  • A 16-year-old gay student in Jasper, Ind. reported that one of his teachers muttered "faggot" under his breath every time the boy passed him in the hallway between classes.  The student was too afraid of the teacher to report it to administrators.
  • When students began spreading a rumor that a 14-year-old girl in Queen City, Texas was a lesbian, two teachers confronted the girl, asking her if the rumors were true and warned her that "the Bible forbids it."

Nearly fifty years of civil rights history clearly demonstrate that laws similar to the Student Non-Discrimination Act are effective in preventing discrimination and harassment from occurring in the first place by prompting schools to take proactive steps to ensure a safe and supportive learning environment for all students. 

The Student Non-Discrimination Act would have a profound impact in improving the lives of LGBT students across the nation by ensuring that discrimination and harassment of students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity has no place in our public schools.  It would do so in a way that preserves the right of all students to speak freely and the right of all students to benefit equally from a quality public education.

The Student Non-Discrimination Act represents the single most important step that Congress could and should take to improve the lives of LGBT students in our nation's public schools.  The time for action is now.

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