October is LGBT History Month, founded by a Missouri high school history teacher in 1994 to increase awareness of LGBT issues and the historic contributions of LGBT people. According to recent surveys, an estimated 2.5% of secondary students identify as gay or lesbian, 8.7% identify as bisexual and 4.5% were unsure about their sexual identity. Overall, an estimated 1.3 million high schoolers across the country identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. In recent years, many states have enacted a number of policies that impact the LGBTQIA+ student community.
As we reflect on policies that impact LGBTQIA+ issues, it is important to remember the overall impact on students. Studies find that LGBTQIA+ students experience more bullying, depression and risks of homelessness than their non-LGBTQIA+ peers. The Centers for Disease Control encourages schools to promote evidence-based policies and practices to develop healthy environments where students feel safe from violence and can attend school without feeling unsafe. These safe environments support all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, as studies show the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ students help all students thrive.
The dominant issue in 2021 concerned primary and secondary school athletic policies and restricting transgender athletes. At least six states enacted legislation on this issue: Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia. Legislation in Louisiana was vetoed.
Other 2021 enacted legislative topics varied. For example, Hawaii convened a working group to create a model statewide school policy on student suicide prevention, intervention and postvention in grades K-12 with policies that address the needs of student groups at risk of mental health emergencies, including LGBTQIA+ youth. Maine added gender identity to individuals who have the right to freedom from discrimination in education and related activities.
Oregon enacted two bills. S.B. 52 directs the department of education to develop and implement a statewide education plan for LGBTQIA+ students at all levels that experience disproportionate results in education because of historic practices. H.B. 2590 requires the state to develop a task force on student success for underrepresented students in higher education, including those identifying as LGBTQIA+.
One of the biggest trends in recent years is state policies on curriculum and the inclusion or exclusion of LGBTQIA+ history, individuals and issues.
In 2011, California (S.B. 48) was the first state to require changes to the statewide curriculum to include LGBT matters. The state board of education did not approve the curriculum framework until 2016. Nevada’s A.B. 261 (2021) requires school districts to offer instruction on the history and contributions of certain groups, including people who are marginalized because of their sexual or gender identities. Colorado (2019), Illinois (2020), New Jersey (2021) and Oregon (2019) enacted legislation concerning the inclusion of LGBT-related matters in curricula. Recently, some Colorado school districts are questioning these policies, putting LGBTQIA+ representation in curriculum into jeopardy.
A few states have laws prohibiting the inclusion of homosexual-related topics from education curricula. For example, Louisiana prohibits sex education courses in public schools from using materials that depict homosexual activity. Texas requires that education materials for students under 18 years old must state that homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense.
Some states recently removed similar language. For example, Alabama’s H.B. 385 (2021) repealed a requirement for sex education to emphasize that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense. Arizona’s S.B. 1346 (2019) repealed the prohibition on instructions that promote a homosexual lifestyle, portray homosexuality as a positive alternative lifestyle and suggest safe methods of homosexual sex.
We continue to track legislation as states respond to the issues that impact LGBTQIA+ students: Click on the “LGBT Students” sub-issue in our State Education Policy Tracking tool to find out more.
*For this blog post, we are using the acronym LGBTQIA+ to represent the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual community. This acronym does not intend to exclude any other groups or individuals who identify themselves as part of this community.