On Tuesday morning, the U.S. Department of Education issued a "Dear Colleague" letter to school districts across the country reminding them that students have the right under the federal Equal Access Act to form Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). GSAs are student-run extracurricular clubs that bring together lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and straight students to support each other and promote tolerance, and are common in public school districts throughout the nation. The announcement of the letter came on the closing day of the first-ever Federal LGBT Youth Summit last week.
While organizations like the ACLU have successfully used the Equal Access Act for years to challenge school districts that deny students the ability to form GSAs, having the federal government weigh in and remind schools of their legal obligations is a great step forward for LGBT youth, as well as their student and teacher allies.
A 2008 estimate put the number of GSAs nationwide at over 4,000. Providing all students with a safe space and mutual support is critically important, particularly in light of recent tragedies involving LGBT students who had experienced severe harassment on the basis of actual and/or perceived sexual orientation, as well as a general recognition that this is a uniquely vulnerable population in our schools.
A New York Times article earlier this year highlighted the growing number of GSAs in surprising places, like rural Utah. In January 2010, there were just nine active GSAs in Utah statewide, however, by year's end the number had climbed to 32.
Despite these positive developments, some school districts continue to vigorously resist efforts to form GSAs. Earlier this year, it took legal intervention by the ACLU to get Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi, Texas, to agree to allow students to form a GSA.
Students working to form GSAs and make their schools safe and supportive environments for all students now have a powerful ally in their efforts – the U.S. government.
There is also a critical role that Congress can play to provide young people who are or are thought to be LGBT with non-discrimination protections at school.
No federal law explicitly protects students on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) have sponsored legislation in Congress that could finally fill this gap in our civil rights laws — the Student Non-Discrimination Act. This legislation would establish a comprehensive federal prohibition against discrimination, including harassment, in K-12 public schools based on a student's actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, providing LGBT students with long overdue and much needed explicit federal protections. The legislation also protects students who associate with LGBT people, including students with LGBT parents and friends. Congress should pass this very important legislation to ensure that all of America's children have access to a safe and supportive learning environment.