“It’s not so much the individual bias I face almost daily as a trans-man,” begins Ash, a recent college graduate with a dual degree in finance and public policy. “What really frustrates me is how state laws against trans persons have shrunk the number of states I can thrive in. I grew up in the south and that’s where my family is. But now I’m applying for jobs in states that have legislative protections for trans persons. The only way for me to ensure I have the same job and housing protections as other Americans as well as access to the healthcare I need, is to move far away from my family and to be cut off from my culture. It’s hard to feel fully American when half the country is hostile to your very existence.”
“I can’t afford to move to another state for college,” says Maxi, who identifies as non-binary and prefers to date women. “I almost dropped out last year because of the constant stress of law after law being passed in my state to bully the LGBTQ community and no one at my university acknowledged it. No faculty, no student groups outside of those that support LGBTQ students, and no administrator made a statement telling us we belong here or that they’ll stand with us against these laws. It’s depressing how our university talks about the campus community being a family while they ignore us.”
Ash and Maxi are not alone. According to the LGBTQ+ Students in Higher Education Factsheet, “In a 2020 survey from the Association of American Universities (AAU) that sampled more than 180,000 undergraduate and graduate students, nearly 17% identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, queer, or questioning. In the same AAU survey, 1.7% of undergraduate and graduate students identified their gender as transgender, nonbinary, or questioning.” According to WordsRated research from May 2023, approximately 6,350,000 students are enrolled in higher education programs in red states. Based on the AAU polling, that is well over 1,000,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, queer, or questioning students and over 100,000 transgender, nonbinary, or questioning students. What exactly are these students facing?
What is the scope of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in the U.S.?
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently tracking 494 state bills that target LGBTQ+ rights in one or more of these categories:
- Schools and Education (230 bills)
- Healthcare (130 bills)
- Free Speech and Expression (43 bills)
- Accurate Identification Documents (16 bills)
- Public Accomodations, such as bathrooms and locker rooms (8 bills)
- Other Anti-LGBTQ+ Bills that target Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) practices and more (76 bills)
Of the 50 states, 47 have introduced at least one bill that causes harm to the LGBTQ+ community, and 17 states have introduced ten or more (ACLU 2023).
In the field of education specifically, the quantity of these types of bills has more than doubled since 2022, and an additional subcategory of bills called “forced outing” in K-12 school settings has been introduced this year (ACLU). It mandates that teachers must report any change, whether accurate or simply perceived, in name, pronouns, or gender presentation of a student to their guardian(s), regardless of the danger it may put the student in (ACLU 2023).
It is not just Florida or Texas proposing these detrimental bills. Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and many more have all introduced bills that limit or ban discussion and/or resources that include LGBTQ+ topics in schools. Moreover, many states including Arizona, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia have introduced bills that prohibit professional development training on DEI topics, including gender and sexuality diversity for institutions that receive federal funding. Of these bills, most are advancing while others have already been passed.
Additionally, Trans Legislation Tracker (TLT) is currently tracking 31 specifically national anti-transgender bills. One of these bills–the “Productivity Over Pronouns Act”–prohibits any use of “Federal funding for gender neutral or inclusive language or inclusive communication principles to help inform an inclusive approach…” (H.B. 985, Section 2). Plainly, this bill seeks to severely limit advocacy efforts of any kind that use proper terminology and pronouns for transgender and nonbinary individuals, on the basis that it is distracting from other responsibilities to do so.
This legislation represents a tirade against the perceived “indoctrination” that anti-LGBTQ+ advocates believe the LGBTQ+ community and allies force onto learners. It is not unreasonable to say that all of these bills come from a place of hatred, fear of difference and the unknown, and above all, ignorance. The exponential rate at which anti-LGBTQ+ legislation has been introduced illustrates exactly why it is so important to be able to discuss LGBTQ+ topics in school: ignorance has devastating repercussions.
What impact does this legislation have?
Social support is a powerful protective factor for LGBTQ+ youth, while a lack of support is a detrimental risk factor. On a genetic level, LGBTQ+ individuals who are unable to live freely as themselves (due to being situated in unsafe environments, experiences of bullying, harassment, and discrimination from their peers, school administration and state/federal government officials) have a greater risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, renal disease, and neurocognitive disorders (Ghanooni et al. 2022). Additionally, “45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year…and LGBTQ youth of color reported higher rates than their white peers. LGBTQ youth who found their school to be LGBTQ-affirming reported lower rates of attempting suicide” (Trevor Project 2022). These findings are supported by a study from Snapp et al. (2015): LGBTQ+ students in supportive schooling environments feel safer and experience less bullying and harassment. “Don’t Say Gay” and anti-DEI bills strip that safety away.
Supporting Students in Restrictive Environments
In the face of this legislation, what can we as educators, administrators, faculty, staff, and/or concerned citizens actually do to help?
- Speak up and speak often–your active allyship matters.
- If you are able to safely advocate against anti-LGBTQ+ policies at your institution, do so.
- Consult resources such as aclu.org; lgbtmap.org; translegislation.com as a first step toward keeping up with the legislation in your state. Bill texts are easily accessible through government websites.
- Continue to push for the availability of professional development trainings.
- Many states have not gone as far as to entirely ban DEI offices and trainings, rather they prohibit making them mandatory.
- If an LGBTQ+ student comes to you looking for support in a highly restrictive state, converse in hypotheticals to mitigate liability.
- For example, ask “is your friend going through something?” rather than “are you going through something?”
- If you are situated in a state that is not currently impacted by this legislation:
- Remain committed to admitting and supporting a diverse population of students
- Have difficult conversations with students and faculty who do not support the LGBTQ+ community
- Facilitate the creation or growth of an LGBTQ+ affinity group or a regular virtual coffee hour
- Utilize representative resources and build flexibility into the curriculum
- Ensure that students are aware of supportive resources (both affiliated and not affiliated with the institution)