LGBTQ+ community rights may now be threatened
By Lisa Brody
Once upon a time, in what seems like another era, “gay” was a term meaning “cheerful,” “carefree,” or “bright and showy.” By the 1960s, the word “gay” was being adopted by homosexual men to describe their sexual orientation, and by the end of the 20th century, according to the GLAAD Media Reference Guide, the word was recommended by major LGBT groups and style guides to describe people attracted to members of the same sex.
In 2022, for most members of the LGBTQ+ community, they would likely tell you there is nothing cheerful or carefree about the term “gay,” nor about the assaults, both literally and critically, on those in their community. From increased attacks and killings of transgender women to “Don't Say Gay” laws being introduced and signed into law across the country, beginning in Florida, those questioning and identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ are finding their place in society less sure and secure. And the most vulnerable, adolescents and those who teach them, are discovering that schools are not the safe haven they had envisioned it to be, precipitating a greater mental health crisis.
“If people tell you enough times you need to fix yourself, you're either going to believe you can, or that you are the only one who can't and that you are uniquely extra broken,” said Blake Bonkowski, coordinator, Oakland University's Gender and Sexuality Center. “The reality is that LGBTQ+ people have always existed.
“We're fighting this coalition of hate with a coalition of knowledge.”
Oakland University's Gender and Sexuality Center is a haven on the OU campus. “We are still often the first affirming place a student has,” Bonkowski said, who originally discovered the center as a questioning student several years ago, ultimately becoming its coordinator. “I am often the first adult who has affirmed their identity, and in the case of trans or non-binary students, where they can use their authentic name and pronoun.
“A huge part of what we do is offer the place to meet others that share their identities,” he said. “The importance of that is when you see others who identify as your community, when things are challenging, you can get advice from people who have experienced it and you can see from others that your identity is real and valid, and that our community is one of the only ones where people tell us that our identity is not real or we could change it – so where you have a community you can share and see it with others – when you experience it, it makes it harder to internalize the negativity that you hear outside the community and harder for people to gaslight you.”
“That's part of the struggle of being gay – that push and pull of being who I am because I don't know if society will accept me,” said Noah Arbit, a Democratic candidate for the 20th state House seat, to represent West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Township and Commerce Township, who came out publicly as gay in his mid-20s. “When you talk to people, is it safe to come out – is it safe to be me – and you have the Republican Party telling them it's not. I cannot think of anything more destructive to a young person's psyche than that.
“This is a road map to trauma, that would institutionalize trauma for gay teens,” Arbit said, expanding, “It's hypocritical to talk about mental health and mental health services when this (Don't Say Gay bills) would create more mental health challenges for young gay kids and teens. It's very scary. We are definitely moving backwards.”
According to a 2017 National School Climate Survey done by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), almost 90 percent of LGBTQ students experienced harassment or assault based on “personal characteristics, including sexual orientation, gender expression, gender, religion, actual or perceived race and ethnicity, and actual or perceived disability. Nearly two-thirds reported experiencing LGBTQ-related discriminatory policies or practices at school.”
The report notes that while every student's experience is different, “queer students face a number of challenges when interacting with their peers, teachers, administrators, parents of their peers, and overall community. Even seemingly small actions like hearing the word 'gay' used in a negative way can build up. More than 90 percent of LGBTQ students said they felt distressed because of this language.
“These kinds of challenges pull focus away from learning, which should be the number one priority of every student when they enter school.”
For many students, the conversation has changed as gay students – or those who are questioning their sexuality and gender – have had the laser of the nation's culture wars turned on them after a decade or so of progress, including with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in June 2015, making gay marriage a Constitutional right nationwide. While the 5-4 decision in Obergefell v Hodges was a fountain of jubilation for those in the gay community and their friends, families and colleagues, for those in religious or right wing groups, it appeared as a betrayal of all they stood for and believed in.
“I think it's partly about people who are intolerant about society and values that are not ordered consistent with their values and beliefs, so they demand change,” Noah Arbit hypothesized. “People are just asking for tolerance.”
In 2021, Gallup noted that a record high of 70 percent of all people in the United States support same-sex marriage – including 55 percent of Republicans. Eighty-three percent of Democrats support same-sex marriage, with Independents at 73 percent supporting.
A movement has been underfoot to undermine the legitimacy of those affiliated – no matter if they are a son, a daughter, a parent, a nephew or niece, a friend or acquaintance. Its culmination was The Parental Rights in Education Act enacted by the Florida legislature, and signed into law on March 28, 2022, by Governor Ron DeSantis. A part of the act reads: “It is the natural, fundamental right of parents and legal guardians to determine and direct the care, teaching, and education of their children.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon has proposed her own version of the “Don't Say Gay” bill for Michigan which she said she would bar discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, and has said she would support a statewide ban on “pornographic” books in schools.
“This movement to ban books is deeply undemocratic, in that it often seeks to impose restrictions on all students and families based on the preferences of those calling for the bans,” Pen America said in a recent report.
But Dixon defines it as leadership. “Leadership is being unafraid to say that if an adult is caught showing pornographic materials to children and talking to them about sex in school without their parents’ consent, that adult will be prosecuted just as they would be if they did it at the school bus,” Dixon said. When asked by other publications what “pornographic” books were in school, she declined to name any specific titles.
“A lot of this is a political calculation by certain politicians that they think will be beneficial for their base, even if it will harm a very vulnerable group of people,” said Jay Kaplan, ACLU staff attorney for the LGBT Project. “They don't care if it will hurt if it will solidify their support at the expense of these students.”
Florida is the first state to codify new statutes into legislation for primary education, notably “for prohibiting classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to grade 3 in Florida's public school districts, or instruction or sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner that is not 'age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students' in any grade, and prohibiting schools from restricting parental access to their student's education and health records,” according to Florida House Bill 1557.
While some who are challenging the legislation cite First Amendment right violations, others support it, calling it the “anti-grooming bill,” although there is no documentation that gay teachers “groom” or encourage students to become gay. According to an online poll conducted by Ipsos, more than six in 10 Americans oppose laws like the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act.
But Florida is not the only state with this proposed legislation. Indiana, Utah, Texas, and other states have enacted similar legislation, including Texas' Parents Bill of Rights; Utah's bill which centers on “sensitive material in schools;” In alliance with Dixon, Michigan already has similar proposed legislation, by state Sen. Lana Theis (R-Plymouth), chair of the Senate's education committee. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has repeatedly stated she would veto the bill if it came to her desk. Legislators or governors in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Iowa, Wyoming and South Dakota have killed or vetoed similar bills.
Other Republican candidates in Michigan have said if elected in 2022 they would introduce similar legislation, including Jon Rocha of Hastings, running in the 78th District, who said his proposal would ban “discussion, or dissemination of materials that involves sexual orientation, gender identity, or any sexually explicit content, in kindergarten through fourth grade. Elementary kids should be learning math, science, history and how to read and write.”
“Some of the politicians are cynics, and don't even believe in it,” Kaplan said. “We're very fortunate we live in a state where our governor has said she will veto all these kinds of bills.”
Educators are mobilizing against these kinds of bills, which have been filed or introduced in at least 35 states in the past year. Teachers and teacher unions say the legislation would place an undue burden on educators who have been overextended during the coronavirus pandemic, yet parents infiltrating school boards, such as Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, which supports curriculum oversight bills and are supporting several local school board candidates, said “that the weakening of legislation like Utah’s HB 234, which would require a local educational agency to include parents who are reflective of a school's community when determining whether instructional material is sensitive material, stems from lawmakers compromising away parental rights in education.”
Kaplan said Theis first introduced a bill regarding transgender youth not playing sports, which so far has only had one hearing in 2021. “It was not based on experts, but on misinformation and fear,” he said.
Now, he said, “Some right wing activists have turned their focus to school boards, which is why we're seeing school boards taking stances in things they didn't even agree with, or wouldn't have before.”
Richard Friedman, professor at University of Michigan Law School, said these laws are open-ended, and leaves it open to doubt and for parents to sue, “so it would leave it to teachers to be very nervous about any discussion. It would chill activity because teachers would have reasonable fear that this would be within the statute and they could be found liable – and everyone want to avoid being sued.”
Kaplan pointed out that individuals are coming before boards of education “and they may not even be from the local community, and so school boards may decide to go along with things for political reasons, fear, or because it's easier – even if school district attorneys tell them not to.
“Kids get harmed by this… There are certain parents who want to control what values or what is taught in schools.”
Justice said, “Parental rights bills make it clear that the boundary between home and school should be respected and that families should be part of all discussions regarding the mental and physical health of their children.”
Justice's, and Moms for Liberty's, stance is different, educators note, than advocating by a parent for an individual child, but making determinations for an entire community or school district by their personal values.
Catherine Archibald, law professor at University of Detroit Mercy Law School, said just having the legislation introduced is harmful, even if it has not been passed and signed into law in Michigan.
“They're very harmful, even if they're just proposed, because it shows a lack of acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, and them as a group,” Archibald said. “We know schools that have a lack of acceptance of individuals have more bullying, have greater harassment as well as bullying towards other groups, like disabled individuals. Whereas, when there is a welcoming environment, whether rainbow flags or a show of acceptance, the whole school is more accepting to all differences, not just to the LGBTQ community. It's a more welcoming environment.”
Archibald pointed out that gay teens have a higher rate of depression, mental health issues and suicide.
“They don't have a choice – they have to go to school,” she noted. “And they spend so much time there. This is their peer group and the adults they are with.”
Some schools have gay/straight alliances, usually an after school club, that is a student-led organization in high schools, middle schools and universities.
Local schools contacted did not want to weigh in on pending legislation, but noted they were open and welcoming to their student population.
“At Birmingham Public Schools, we are committed to providing a safe, healthy and welcoming environment for all our students and staff so they can succeed. We work hard to promote a culture of compassion, respect and understanding,” said Dr. Embekka Roberson, superintendent, Birmingham Public Schools. “As a National District of Character, we embrace all students and we are committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion as a foundational element of our recently approved strategic plan. The mental health of our students is paramount to their success, and ensuring they feel safe and supported is crucial to this end. We do not tolerate discrimination, harassment, bullying or inappropriate behavior in words, actions or on social media.”
Bloomfield Hills Schools Superintendent Pat Watson said, “Bloomfield Hills Schools is proud to support all of our students. Currently, we have Gender and Sexuality Alliances at the middle school and high school level. We continue to work in partnership with our families. We always encourage any parents who have concerns to reach out to their building principals.”
At Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Director of Cranbrook Schools Jeff Suzik, PhD, stated, “Cranbrook's founders envisioned our community as a center of learning that welcomed the world and embraced people from all backgrounds. That commitment is as applicable as ever today and we strive, in all that we do, to ensure that all members of our community feel welcomed, included, and valued.”
According to the Williams Institute of UCLA, there are about 61,000 teens aged 13 to 17 in Michigan that are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender as of 2020. Many are looking for a place to go, for camaraderie and friendship, a balm after the isolation of the pandemic. Some are out to friends, others to family as well – but as the U.S. Department of Education says, revealing a students' transgender status to classmates, teachers or parents without their permission is a violation of federal education privacy law, known as FERPA, despite conservatives' demands for parents to be informed as soon as a trusted teacher knows.
“Schools must make every effort to keep that information private unless the student has given them permission to share it,” reads a June 2021 fact sheet from the Department of Education's police letter on transgender students.
A school which has a gay/straight alliance must permit it to meet, if members want it, regardless of what parents or administrators desire, noted Sarah Kiperman, assistant professor of education, Wayne State University, who noted there is a law that says schools cannot deny school groups forming or meeting, “so denying it is illegal.”
She said it falls under the Equal Access Act, which prohibits discrimination against students who want to form and participate in extracurricular groups. To deny the school group means all school groups, including after school athletics, must also be canceled. A recent example is Yeshiva University, a Modern Orthodox Jewish institution in New York City, which in September placed all of its undergraduate club activities on hold after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the university to recognize and reinstate an LGBTQ student group it had halted.
“Schools’ best approach is to talk to the students about how they best feel safe and comfortable,” Kiperman said. “Knowing that students are protected by rights – what does that mean? And to them? If schools, meaning teachers and administrators, can have transparent communication about specifics and remove assumptions so both sides can appreciate the limits with the intent of accessing and gaining rights while recognizing the political limits and working around it, or at least working towards affirmation for the student and the family.
“Support from others acts as a buffer, as a shield against adversity,” she noted. “But without this shield, we expose our youth to the full brunt of the disaffirmed, practices, discrimination which, for LGBT youth, it's not not being part of the community that cause them the challenges, it's the stressors from discrimination that cause mental health challenges. We're just causing greater divisions and greater stressors,” when they are isolated and castigated.
“Gay/straight alliances provide support for young people to improve socially, physically and emotionally in the LGBTQ+ community,” said Truman Hudson, EdD, Instructor of Multiculturalism in the college of education at Wayne State University. “They're vital for students to thrive academically and socially. They build a bridge with straight students. They also help build a safety net for all students. It creates a greater sense of belonging for all students.”
Affirmations, the LGBTQ+ community center for southeast Michigan for the last 30 years, located in Ferndale, is seeing the impact of the proposed “Don't Say Gay” laws on more and more teens dropping in, said executive director Dave Garcia.
“We have virtual programming, so we're seeing a lot of youths dropping into our youth groups from all over the state,” Garcia said, noting both the proposed bills and “Tudor Dixon, who has repeatedly been tremendously homophobic and transphobic – she has gone after the trans community and it's going to get a lot worse for the trans community – it sends the message to our youth that they're 'other,' that they're second class citizens.”
Garcia noted that suicide rates are higher among the LGBTQ community than the straight community. Affirmations has embarked on a new coalition with Equality MI and ACLU with a campaign stating, “Hate Won't Win.”
“It's a very complex issue. We know mental health is skyrocketing, and among gay teens, mental health is in a dangerous arena,” said Grace Huizinga, RN, MSN, EDD, Grand Rapids LGBTQ+ Health Consortium. “The suicide rates are increasing among LGBTQ+, both in attempts and succeeding.”
She said while there are higher number of kids in high school who identify as heterosexual, there are more and more who are gender fluid, “and more and more are saying I am not going to identify as binary (choosing male or female). I am not going to buy into that. I think that is healthy for all of us. The youth are our predictor of our future, and many of our youth aren't buying into female and male stereotypes.
“We have to embrace how we look at health care, housing and education, and we're not going to go to an institution where we do not feel safe,” Huizinga said. “If you're a politician – Republican or Democrat – who understands that, they will have the pulse of the youth, and politicians of the future must understand that adolescents will not be in this binary constraint. Policies and laws will have to start reflecting that. They care about health care, the environment, discrimination – it's huge, and if politicians aren't listening, they're going to miss what's important about the future.”
“We have a responsibility to help educate people,” Garcia said. “Just as George W. Bush and Karl Rove did against same-sex marriage with their base, attacking the trans community is the new conservative way to get their base out to vote. But they're attacking some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. And when someone commits suicide, they say, 'It wasn't us, it wasn't our fault.'”
There is another side to “Don't Say Gay” legislation that many, including conservative lawmakers, do not always consider, and that is how it can affect teachers, both in how they can approach educating their charges, as well as those who may be gay and want to display family photos, which can include legal same-sex partners and children.
Roland Sintos-Coloma, professor of education at Wayne State University, noted “this is an ongoing issue for us in teacher education programs, but one that has become more pronounced with proposed legislation.
“For those in the LGBTQ community that want to be teachers – can they even be out, in their classrooms, in their schools, with parents, with colleagues and with students?”
Sintos-Coloma said that often they're not considered “real” teachers “because they're not considered role models, because students might be encouraged to explore 'alternative lifestyles' and 'identities' rather than those students seeking a safe haven. I have been asked those questions by those in our teacher programs as well as teachers who are not completely out.”
He noted there are teachers who choose the profession because “they want to create a safe and inclusive space in their classrooms and schools for students. This could be in the form of gay/straight alliances or groups, or integrating reading assignments and discussions about gender identity as well as sexual orientation, even making sure that parents and guardians who are in same-sex relationships – creating those welcoming and safe environments. These are just some of the many layers to be considered, not just for the students but for their families. If a child has two moms or two dads – will the schools welcome and accept the families and create a safe and inviting space?”
Truman Hudson at Wayne State University, said, “The issues of politics, policies, class, gender, race, faith and gender identification are all things we're trying to balance. They're all important because they all must be taken into account as what we're training our students for as they go forward.”
Sintos-Coloma said that teachers are not scared by the need to grapple with what they can and cannot do, noting the uncertainty is what is the most unsettling.
“It continues the perception that teachers are not professionals that can create curriculums and classrooms that are really laboratories for democracy,” he pointed out. “Don't we want classrooms that are a reflection of society at large?
“We prepare teachers so they welcome students and their families to the fullest extent, wherever they are.”
Hudson said there is a “big time fear on the part of educators, especially on social studies curriculums. If you look at social studies based on current civic discourse – censorship limits the discourse, and you can't have public discourse of decision making through a narrow lens of fear,” noting that in June of this year, there were more than 111 bills introduced across the country “that wanted to limit discussions around race and gender in our classrooms. They also want to limit our discussions about what is history and what is discussed in our classrooms.
“Our teachers want to ensure students have the ability to hear the information at the PK-12 grade level at appropriate age levels,” he continued. “We're a diverse country. Whether it's race or gender identity – one conversation does not negate the other. What I'm hearing from teachers is they're trying to balance standards in general with the cultural wars and censorship, because there are state standards of what can be taught and what should be taught – and that's a tough place to be in.
“For the educator who wants to lift up the voice for diverse standards and identities, they're saying their academic freedom is being stripped away,” Hudson said. “For those teachers under stress, they're fearful they're going to lose their jobs, and do not feel they can teach what is necessary for students to learn.”
Hudson made a significant point. “For LGBTQ students, if you follow the research, they feel their voices are not being heard or represented. For cisgender (heterosexual) students – that some parents feel that their child learning about LGBTQ will make them gay – as if my learning about a woman will make me a woman, or learning about a White male will make me a White male – that's how farfetched it is – and I'm a cisgender Black male.
“If students are told the hero is always a White cisgender male, there's no room for anyone else to participate in not just the conversation, but in the American experience.”