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Standing Up for LGBT Students on the House Floor

By Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 4:22pm

On Thursday, during debate in the House of Representatives on a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), numerous members took to the floor to speak in support of LGBT students and the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA).

Unfortunately, the House leadership blocked a floor vote on this vitally important legislation that would create a comprehensive prohibition against discrimination of LGBT students in our nation's public schools. SNDA’s lead sponsor in the House of Representatives, Representative Jared Polis (D-Colo.), noted his disappointment, saying:

I am disappointed that we were unable to vote on my amendment, which would have provided protections for LGBT students to ensure that all students have access to public education in a safe environment. I would have hoped that every member in this body would agree that there is increasing bipartisan consensus schools should be a safe place for all students to learn.

This sentiment was echoed by other members of Congress who took to the House floor, including Representatives David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), SNDA’s lead Republican sponsor in the House, spoke in support of allowing the legislation to receive a floor vote at a meeting of the Rules Committee on Wednesday evening.

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."

It was heartening to see so many members of Congress come to the House floor to stand up for students like these young people. Every student deserves the opportunity to benefit equally from a quality public education that is free of discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. While the leadership of the House succeeded in blocking a floor vote on SNDA this week, time and momentum are on our side. We’ll definitely be back. LGBT students deserve nothing less.

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