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Safe and supportive schools for LGBTQ-GNC students

Within its first month, the Trump administration revoked federal guidelines designed to promote protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or gender non-conforming youth (LGBTQ-GNC) public school students. This move received significant media attention, much of which focused on the challenges of growing up LGBTQ-GNC, and the unique role of schools as places that should be safe and supportive for all students. At issue is defining the rights of students to be protected based on LGBT-GNC identity or status. And yet these rights are regularly compromised through: harassment and victimization that is unchecked; unfair, punitive, and exclusionary discipline practices; and unequal access to supports, services, and curriculum that validate their identities and experiences.

The groundbreaking study, Hatred in the Hallways, documented pervasive human rights violations perpetrated against LGBT youth in US schools. More recently, through an international convening and report, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) firmly documented homophobic and transphobic violence as a global issue that has critical implications for positive development, health, and academic success of children and adolescence. The UNESCO report argued that bullying generally, and bullying related to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) specifically, comprise a threat to the universal right to education established in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. This groundbreaking report provided a comprehensive review of the international literature on SOGI-related bullying in schools and documented the disproportionate rates of bullying for LGBTQ-GNC youth in countries on every continent across the globe.

While these social and cultural norms and conventions impact the rights of all LGBTQ-GNC people, they are especially salient in relation to young people.

Although the landscape regarding human rights affordances, constraints, and abuses related to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) is constantly in flux, any discussion of the SOGI rights of young people must take into account this larger global context. The rights of LGBTQ-GNC youth in countries where the expression of same-sex sexuality is criminalized are virtually non-existent; further, human rights violations against LGBTQ-GNC youth occur within most countries across the globe and are often justified by cultural and social norms and conventions regarding “acceptable or normal” definitions of sexuality and gender. While these social and cultural norms and conventions impact the rights of all LGBTQ-GNC people, they are especially salient in relation to young people. While several advances have been made in the last decade to advance the rights of LGBTQ-GNC people across the globe (for example see the 2006 Yogykarta Principles and the 2011 Human Rights Council’s resolution on LGBTQ-GNC rights) these documents rarely attend to specific SOGI rights of young people or put forth any particular considerations regarding children and youth (a notable exception is in relation to access to education).

Understanding intersecting forms of oppression—such as the ways that structural oppression related to gender and sexuality and its intersections with race, ethnicity, class, and religion affect young people, their parents, and educators in schools—is essential for designing and implementing effective processes, strategies, programs, and advocacy aimed at creating positive change within school contexts. Many of the SOGI-related inequities evidenced in schools can be traced, in part, to narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity, rigid frameworks regarding gender and gender roles, and hegemonic structures in schools that mark heterosexuality as not only compulsory but also the sole valid expression of sexuality. Other forms of structural oppression rooted in racism, religious, or social class bias, are intertwined with SOGI issues in schools through inequitable discipline practices, religious control of public education, or economic disparities across schools.

Because SOGI issues in schools are embedded within larger systems of oppression, it is critical that research, practice, and policy engage with social justice and anti-oppressive education frameworks. Such approaches bring to the fore the ways that power, privilege, and bias structure schools in ways that tacitly sanction a range of educational inequities such as bullying, access to resources and services, and safety for young people in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. As we continue to do this work, it has become increasingly evident that the SOGI safe schools movement is “inextricably linked” to broader education justice concerns. It is critical for the safe schools movement to work with others through intersectional, multi-issue coalitions—at the nexus of research, policy and practice—to ensure that all students’ educational rights, regardless of social position, are upheld. This type of cross-issue organizing, advocacy, and research takes time and needs to be grounded in the principals of the worth and dignity of all people, and that ensuring the rights of specific groups expands the rights of everyone.

Featured image credit: Class by NeONBRAND. Public domain via Unsplash.

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