Supportive parent and caregivers of LGBTQ+ children often fear their kids will be bullied at school. But what if it’s not the classmates but school officials who are creating a hostile environment through policy-making and other behaviors?
It happens, as evidenced by a recent uptick in reports of anti-LGBTQ harassment and discrimination to Equality Michigan and the ACLU of Michigan by both students and their caregivers. Increasingly, it’s become important for guardians of LGBTQ+ kids to have an action plan in mind. Whether your kid’s chemistry teacher claims she can’t remember their preferred pronouns or a Grinch-like superintendent removes the Pride flags from every classroom, know that you have recourse. Pride Source reached out to the experts on the best ways to respond.
Take it seriously. To an adult, being misgendered or losing a symbol of inclusion like a Pride flag might not seem like the end of the world. But especially to a young person, it can literally be a matter of life and death. “The evidence is there,” said Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, “that LGBTQ youth have a higher propensity of depression, mental illness, skipping school, lower academic success — and at the far worst end of the continuum, our kids contemplate suicide at a higher rate than non-LGBTQ youth.” Here in Michigan, an alarming 45 percent of LGBTQ+ teens seriously considered suicide in the past year. The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health reveals that LGBTQ+ youth who found their school to be LGBTQ-affirming reported lower rates of attempting suicide.
Know the law. Title IX prohibits discrimination against students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Because of these protections, schools cannot discriminate in extracurricular activities, school sports, dress codes and bathrooms or other facilities. Students have free speech rights at school, which means they can wear or display Pride gear and openly discuss LGBTQ+ issues. Under the Equal Access Act, in secondary schools, students may initiate GSAs which may not be singled out for restrictions by the school. “A school district has a legal responsibility to provide a safe, supportive learning environment,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project. “And when they don’t do so, and when they allow LGBTQ kids to be harassed and use ineffective mechanisms to investigate and deal with the bullying and harassment, they can be viewed as being deliberately indifferent and they can be found legally liable.” He cited a case in which the Hudson Area School District was successfully sued for not addressing the appalling harassment and bullying suffered by one student over the course of many years.
Enlist help. Both Knott and Kaplan suggested contacting their organizations to report school-based anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. “I would encourage parents to reach out to our Department of Victim Services,” Knott said. They are skilled in determining when a school is rife with hostile policies or “it might be a one-off where you have a teacher that is being hostile and non-inclusive, and we can support that parent taking it up through the leadership, the appropriate channels,” she said. EQMI’s services also include coaching caregivers on speaking to school administrators and elected officials, when appropriate. Knott called Kaplan an “invaluable resource” as it relates to understanding some of the local policies. And depending on the circumstances, there might be recourse that he could help navigate should guardians file a complaint.
Be proactive. Kaplan commented on the Pride flag removal in Gwinn. “What’s interesting with Gwinn is there were several comments made by school board members that, ‘You know, we don’t need a Pride flag to show that we’re supportive of our LGBTQ students,’” Kaplan said. “And in essence that could be true. But if that is the case, what is Gwinn doing to show that they provide a safe and supportive learning environment for LGBTQ students?” Does the district have a history of complaints about anti-LGBTQ discrimination? What are they doing about it? Are teachers trained to intervene when they witness harassment? Does the school district have a policy that’s LGBTQ-inclusive? Parents/caregivers, and anyone who cares about students, should hold schools accountable. Among others, the CDC offers numerous resources for LGBTQ+ professional development that schools should be aware of. Knott suggests organizing and attending school board meetings — or running in the next election. “Make sure your voice is being heard at the table,” said Kaplan, who warned of the influence of Moms for Liberty, some of whose members won school board races in Michigan in the 2022 midterms.
Seek support. This applies to both caregivers and kids who are affected by the situation at school. “Our team also is very helpful as it relates to information and referrals,” Knott said. “There could be an opportunity for a youth to participate in some of the counseling services that we offer.” As well, many LGBTQ+ community centers hold regular support groups for the loved ones of queer kids. In addition, find your local PFLAG meeting or look into the parent groups held by Stand with Trans, a Michigan-based nonprofit supporting transgender youth and their families.
One size does not fit all. In some situations, a caregiver must intervene on behalf of a child, but in all other cases, back off if they say so. For example, a parent of two LGBTQ+ kids reported that one of them chose to pass imperceptibly through high school, while the other was outspoken in advocating on behalf of their peers.
“Every situation is unique,” Knott said. “There’s common denominators, but the solution isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all.” She said she’s been working with legislators on reintroducing bills that would amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include explicit protections for LGBTQ+ people (the incoming legislature announced these bills in both the Michigan House and Senate on its first day of the new legislative session Jan. 11). And while acknowledging it won’t fix all our problems, it starts by sending a strong message. “By modifying that discrimination law to include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, it gives us actual legal recourse to attacking some of these issues that are happening at the local level,” she added.