Supporting & Affirming Gay, Transgender and Non-Binary Students

Pride flag and tiles on a table that spell out "Gay Say Gay"

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What We Believe

We believe for students to learn and thrive, schools must be safe places where all students are valued, their individual learning needs are met, and they are given the room to grow into adulthood. LGBTQ and gender-expansive students have the right to be their full selves in school, and schools must provide equitable opportunities. 

This past year we have seen unprecedented attacks against LGBTQ youth and transgender students, who have been targeted by conservative elected officials and used as political fodder to win elections. Across the country and here in Pennsylvania, extremist forces are working to divide and inflame parents through discriminatory legislation and school board actions.

Read our fact sheet about the rights of LGBTQ, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary students here.

What We’re Fighting: Banning Pride Flags, Don’t Say Gay Laws, Sports Discrimination

Too often, our schools are still hostile environments for LGBTQ youth, who face higher rates of bullying and harassment and are at increased risk for depression and self-harm. Educators hang pride (rainbow) flags in school classrooms, libraries, and counselor offices as a sign that LGBTQ students are safe to be themselves and can come to that staff for support, if needed. It is a message that hateful or discriminatory comments from other students will not be tolerated. Banning the display of gay pride flags tells LGBTQ students they are not safe or supported and is antithetical to the mission of public schools to provide safe, equitable opportunities for all students. Schools must acknowledge and welcome ALL families including LGBTQ and gender-expansive students and families.

  • Read ELC’s Letters to Central Bucks and Hempfield school districts highlighting the discrimination and harm in their hostile environments and urging these district to uphold the clear legal rights of LBGTQ students.

The Pennsylvania Senate passed SB 1278 on June 28, 2022, on a party-line vote. The bill is more restrictive than Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It would ban classroom discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity until the sixth grade, prohibiting teachers from answering students’ questions and silencing children from talking about their LGBTQ family members. The legislation would remove teachers and counselors as sources of support for students by forcing teachers to report conversations about mental health issues to their parents or face legal action. More than 300 organizations and individuals signed ELC’s letter against this bill.

  • Read our open letter to Central Buck’s School district opposing Policy 321 for it discriminatory nature and its intent to quell educators’ support for LGBTQ+ students.
  • Read an op-ed by a recent high school graduate and ELC intern on SB 1278.
  • Read Gov. Wolf’s LGBTQ Affairs Commission statement denouncing the Don’t Say Gay Bill.

School districts are also trying to prohibit the acknowledgment of transgender students and parents and censor the discussion of current events.

For example, proposed policies at Pennridge School District would stifle normal classroom discussion about political issues that are integral to student learning and would have a chilling effect on issues related to race, gender and sexual orientation. The proposed policies were exceptionally overbroad and violated the First Amendment rights of students and teachers. Read ELC’s letter opposing proposed Pennridge School District policies to censor educators and restrict student expression.

Pennridge School Board members are wrongly using a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to claim that Pride flags may not be permitted in schools. Read a letter from the ACLU and ELC which describes how Shurtleff vs. City of Boston does not control what schools may display in classrooms.

Parents in Mt. Lebanon School District sued their district and an educator who read a storybook to children that included a transgender character, arguing their child must be excused from any mention of gender identity, and only books and lessons describing the lives of straight cisgender people are acceptable in public schools. The school district defended the educator but settled the case in a manner that perpetuates discrimination against transgender students. Read news coverage of the complaint and the district’s initial response citing their mission and equity statement, and a student-organized petition to protect discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools.

Transgender sports discrimination

HB 972 and SB 1191 are bills in the Pennsylvania legislature that would single out transgender athletes for discrimination by denying them the ability to play on teams that align with their gender identity. Federal courts have found that discrimination based on gender identity and expression violates Title IX and similar bans have already been struck down by federal courts. HB 972 was approved by the General Assembly in June and vetoed by Gov. Wolf on July 8, 2022.

School districts are also taking up policies targeting transgender youth. On July 14, the Hempfield School District approved a transgender sports ban over vigorous parent and community opposition, and other districts are considering similar bans.

School districts are also trying to prohibit the acknowledgment of transgender students. Parents in Mt. Lebanon School District sued their district and an educator who read a storybook to children that included a transgender character, arguing their child must be excused from any mention of gender identity, and only books and lessons describing the lives of straight cisgender people are acceptable in public schools. The school district defended the educator but settled the case in a manner that perpetuates discrimination against transgender students. Read news coverage of the complaint and the district’s initial response citing their mission and equity statement. School districts are also taking up policies targeting transgender youth. On July 14, 2022, the Hempfield School District approved a transgender sports ban over vigorous parent and community opposition, and other districts are considering similar bans.

A Small, but Mighty Victory (NEW!)

The Education Law Center recently joined with parents, students, and community members to successfully persuade the Manheim Township School District to table an alarming proposal to move toward excluding transgender students from participating in sports aligned with their gender identity. ELC crafted an open letter to the school board, outlining how such a policy would illegally discriminate against transgender students in violation of federal Title IX law. 

We warned that a trans-exclusion policy would create a hostile environment at the school. Students also gave powerful testimony to the school board against the proposed polic

While we are energized by this win, our work is far from over. Similar policies targeting transgender youth are appearing in school districts across the state.