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How do schools deal with LGBTQ students?

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) students are often treated badly and harassed at school. Unfortunately, a lot of school officials don’t know much about how the law says they should protect LGBT students. And sometimes they do know they are breaking the law, but they don’t think students will question them because they think students won’t notice. So, you need to know what your rights are and what you can do if your school doesn’t treat you fairly.

HARASSMENT

Anti-LGBT bullying is one of the most common, scary, and possibly harmful problems that LGBT students face in our public schools. You don’t have to put up with being bullied, called names, threatened, or hurt physically at school because of your sexual orientation.

Under the U.S. Constitution, public schools must deal with harassment of LGBT students the same way they deal with harassment of any other student. Title IX, a federal law about education, says that public schools can’t ignore harassment based on sexist ideas about men and women. All of this means that public schools can’t ignore bullying because of how you look or act that doesn’t “fit” your gender. This includes boys who wear makeup, girls who dress “like a boy,” and transgender students. Also, school officials can’t tell you to change who you are or that the bullying is your fault because of how you dress or act.

If someone at school is bothering you or making threats, you must tell a teacher or counselor right away. The school has then been warned and could be held legally responsible for keeping you safe. And write down every time someone bothers you and every time you talk to the school about it. At the end of this handout, there are tips on how to do this well.

If you told your school about harassment and they didn’t do much or anything to stop it, contact your local ACLU affiliate or the ACLU LGBT Project.

PRIVACY

Even if you’re out to other people at school, your school can’t tell anyone else about it without your permission.

This can be very bad for a young person, like when police officers in Pennsylvania told a young man in 1997 that they were going to tell his family that he was gay. He killed himself because he didn’t want to deal with what he thought would be rejection from his family. His mother sued, and a federal appeals court said that threatening to tell other people about private information broke the teenager’s right to privacy under the Constitution. This is also true for schools.

If a teacher, counselor, or other school official threatens to tell your parents or anyone else that you’re gay and you don’t want them to, make it clear that this is not what you want. If they still do it or threaten to, you should contact the ACLU LGBT Project or your local ACLU affiliate.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH

When students are open about being gay, schools sometimes try to shut them up. But the Constitution says that if you want to, you can come out of the closet at school. When students talk about being gay in school, they may get in trouble. Schools sometimes tell students they can’t wear t-shirts with gay themes, even if the shirts aren’t offensive and other students can wear t-shirts with political or cultural messages.

In Tinker v. Des Moines, which happened more than 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said that students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.” A school can only legally stop a student from talking when it causes a lot of trouble in the classroom. And even though schools often use “disruption” as an excuse to shut down student speech, the law is very clear about what “disruption” is. It’s not just when a school official says something is bothersome. For example, it’s not okay to yell “I’m gay!” in the middle of English class, but it is okay to talk to other students about being gay between classes or at lunch. Even if someone else doesn’t like what you say, that doesn’t make it rude. And if your school’s dress code lets other students wear T-shirts that show their beliefs, it’s against the law for them to tell you to take off your T-shirt just because it has a rainbow on it or says something about gay pride.

If your school is trying to stop you from talking about your sexual orientation or saying what you think about it, you should contact your local ACLU affiliate or the ACLU LGBT Project.

TRANSGENDER AND GENDER NONCONFORMING STUDENTS

You have the right to be yourself at school, just like everyone else. The U.S. Constitution, Title IX, and any state or local law that bans discrimination based on gender identity protect your gender expression. Your choice of clothes is part of your right to freedom of speech. As long as what you want to wear is appropriate for other students to wear, like a skirt or tuxedo, you should be able to wear it, even if it doesn’t fit with your gender stereotype.

You have the right to be transgender or change your gender at school. This is part of your right to be yourself at school. Most places don’t have clear rules yet about how schools should help students when they are transitioning. There are usually a lot of things to deal with, like being able to use the bathroom and locker room, your name and what pronouns to use when talking about you, and how official records put you in a category. If you want help making sure your school treats you with respect and keeps you safe, you can call your local ACLU affiliate or the ACLU LGBT Project.

GAY STRAIGHT ALLIANCES

Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) are student clubs, like Drama Club or Key Club, where students with similar interests can meet up and talk about or do things related to that interest. GSAs include students of any sexual orientation or gender identity, not just gay students. They can be support groups, social groups, activist groups that work to make school safer for all students, or a mix of all of these things.

The federal Equal Access Act says that if a public school allows any extracurricular clubs, it must also let students form a GSA if they want to. The school can’t treat it any differently than other extracurricular clubs. Clubs that don’t have anything to do with classes are called “extracurricular clubs.” Math Club is part of the curriculum, but Chess Club isn’t.

It’s just like starting any other club to start a GSA! Find out what your school’s rules are for making a student group official (like if you need a faculty sponsor, etc.) and then be sure to follow them. And keep track of everything in case your school gives you trouble about your GSA. At the end of this handout, there are suggestions for how to do this.

We’ve found that school officials often don’t know much about the law or think they can find a way to get around it. It is against the law for a school to stop a GSA from forming or to treat it differently than other after-school clubs. If your school does this, you should contact your local ACLU affiliate or the ACLU LGBT Project.

PROM, HOMECOMING, AND OTHER SCHOOL EVENTS

Can you go to homecoming with another girl if you’re a girl? Can you run for Prom Queen if you’re a boy? Yes! You have the right to bring a same-sex date to the prom or homecoming because of the First Amendment and your right to equal protection. If you are a boy and want to run for Prom Queen or if you are a girl and want to run for Prom King, you should have the same rights.

If you go to a public school and school officials try to tell you that you can’t bring a same-sex date to prom, you can call your local ACLU affiliate or the ACLU LGBT Project.

TIPS IN GENERAL

If you ever think that your school is treating you unfairly because of who you are or how you identify as a person:

Be polite and obey the rules.

Don’t make it easy for your school to treat you badly by acting badly or losing your temper.

Record everything.

Keep detailed notes about everything: the dates, the places, the people who were there, what they said or did, and any other information that could be useful. Keep copies of anything written that the school gives you or that you write yourself. If you have to fill out forms or send something in writing, make sure you keep a copy of it. The more you write down what you’re going through, the more likely it is that it will be fixed.

Get support

There are groups for LGBT youth all over the country, and if you don’t live near one, you can probably find an online discussion forum where you can be yourself and know you’re not alone.

Don’t just listen to what the school tells you.

Most of the time, school officials either don’t know what the law says or just hope you won’t question what they tell you. Don’t believe what they say!

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