Supporting & Affirming LGBTQ+ and Nonbinary Students

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

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What 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 for everyone.  

Recently we have seen unprecedented attacks against gay 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. 

ELC believes we can and must fight back against these attacks. We are providing information and support to local communities, engaging in policy advocacy, and pursuing legal strategies.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is rooted in sex stereotypes and prohibited by Title IX and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.   Students of color who identify as LGBTQ+ too often face both racism and sexism and receive the least intervention and support from school staff. 

What We’re Fighting: Discrimination in Students’ Access to Bathrooms and Sports Teams, Refusal to Respect Pronouns, Banning Pride Flags, Don’t Say Gay Laws 

Too often, our schools are hostile environments for LGBTQ+ youth, who face higher rates of bullying and harassment and as a result are at increased risk for depression and self-harm. Schools must acknowledge and welcome ALL families including LGBTQ+ and gender-expansive students and families. 

Students have the right to use school bathroom facilities and play on school sports teams aligned with their gender identity.

  • Read our statement urging all school districts to uphold their nondiscrimination obligations under the law and reject policies or practices that restrict students’ access to facilities based on sex or gender identity.
  • Read our policy analysis explaining how federal and state law mandate equitable access to sports for LGBTQ+ Students.

HB 972 and SB 1191 (2022) were 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 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. 

Schools have an obligation to support transgender students and work with children to safely share their gender identity with family 

School districts are 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.  

Don’t Say Gay or Transgender – Censoring Classroom Discussions and Pride Flags 

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. 

The Pennsylvania Senate passed SB 1278 on June 28, 2022, on a party-line vote. The bill was more restrictive than Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It aimed to 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 proposed to 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. Ultimately, SB 1278 did not come up for a vote in the House and the bill was defeated when the 2021-22 legislative session concluded. 

  • Read our open letter to Central Buck’s School district opposing Policy 321 for its discriminatory nature and its intent to quell educators’ support for LGBTQ+ students.
  • Read the coverage of student experiences in Pennridge School District after their school removed Pride flags and other symbols of support.
  • Read an op-ed by a recent high school graduate and ELC intern on SB 1278 (2022).
  • Read former 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.

A Small, but Mighty Victory 

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 policy.

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.