When it comes to challenges facing LGBTQ students in our nation’s schools, much of the attention is on bullying and harassment. But those problems are only a part of a much larger story. At their core, bullying and harassment are pieces of a bigger, discriminatory whole.
The arrival of spring, and with it prom season and graduation ceremonies, can be a particularly fraught part of the school year for LGBTQ students. And while many high-schoolers fret about final grades and finding the perfect prom attire, LGBTQ students too often have to deal with discrimination by their schools.
Last April, Issak Wolfe, a transgender high school student at Red Lion Area High School in Pennsylvania, was denied the opportunity to run for prom king by his school’s principal. His fellow classmates and most of his teachers supported and respected his male gender identity, and he had received repeated assurances that his name would appear on the prom king side of the ballot. But when the ballot was released, Issak was dismayed and embarrassed to discover that he was listed as a candidate for prom queen and was referred to by the female name he was assigned at birth instead of his male name. Issak later learned from administrators that the decision was made by his principal, because he “didn’t feel comfortable” with Issak running for prom king.
This refusal to respect Issak’s gender identity caused him needless pain and embarrassment in front of his classmates. While he was later allowed to wear a black cap and gown at his graduation ceremony, like the other boys, the school continued to disrespect Issak by refusing to allow him to use his male name in the ceremony.
Fortunately for students like Isaak, the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education took an incredibly important step forward earlier this week when it declared that discrimination against transgender students is prohibited under existing bans on sex discrimination, specifically Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. While this is tremendous news, OCR must now follow up with comprehensive guidance on Title IX and transgender students to schools nationwide.
And Congress cannot be allowed to do nothing. Most Americans would be shocked to learn that there are still no explicit federal protections for LGBTQ students in our nation’s public elementary and secondary schools. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would create this long overdue explicit prohibition on discrimination against students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
If SNDA were law, schools could not simply ignore the plight of students who experience harassment because of who they are. Nor could schools discriminate against LGBTQ students by, for example, refusing to allow a gay or lesbian couple to attend prom together or, in the case of a student like Issak, refusing to respect his or her gender identity at graduation.
LGBTQ youth are among the most vulnerable members of our community. When they are experiencing discrimination at school, they rarely have the luxury of being able to pack up and go somewhere else. It is critically important that they, and their families, have the law firmly on their side. Every student deserves the opportunity to attend school and learn—and yes, to attend their prom and graduation, as well—free from discrimination because of who they are.