What drives the backlash against LGBTQ students?
There’s a list of proposed bills in state houses across the country this year that target LGBTQ students and, more broadly, how teachers engage with students on issues related to gender and sexuality.
Lawmakers in more than 24 states have proposed dozens of bills that will require greater parental involvement in teachers’ lessons on human sexuality and gender.
In 2021, Republican lawmakers introduced dozens of anti-trans and non-binary bills targeting students’ right to use restrooms and compete on sports teams that match their gender identity.
At least in five states—Alabama, ArkansasMississippiMontana and Tennessee— Laws prohibit trans athletes from competing on school sports teams that match their identity. An Arkansas law also prohibits all gender transition procedures for minors.
Late last month, GLSEN, an LGBTQ advocacy group, hired Melanie Willingham-Jaggers to become its new executive director.
Willingham-Jaggers spoke to Education Week about what they perceive to be the reasons for recent legislative attacks on trans and non-binary youth, why it’s important to affirm LGBTQ student identities, and how GLSEN plans to address effects of these laws.
What do you think of the recent surge in legislation targeting sex education and gender identity? Do you think it has increased over the last few months and if so, why is this happening?
I absolutely think it has increased. There is a good side and a bad side. The downside is obvious, right? Trans people, non-binary people, gender broad people and children in this group are the most vulnerable subset of the LGBTQ community.
In the 90s and before, you could reveal someone’s lesbian, gay or bisexual identity, and that was enough to get them rejected, to denigrate them, to ruin their credibility. And this is no longer the case. But I think the same political strategy that was in effect back then – in the 90s and before – is what this side is trying again with transgender people, gender-broad people, non-binary people, and they target children as the most vulnerable subset of this community. This is the first part. That’s the bad news.
Here’s where I think it offers promising evidence of victory: We’ve come so far as a community… (that) extremists are afraid, feel attacked, or feel threatened of losing the culture war… So they move on on the attack and it becomes virulent, it becomes violent and it becomes even more aggressive.
I think what we’re seeing is a backlash; a terrifying, horrific, violent and senseless reaction to the real progress that is being made for our community and how the rest of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer community refuses to be ripped away from the trans and gender-expanding community. So I’m proud that our community is firmly in favor of transgender and expansive people. But it makes me sad and angry how children in particular, and our trans brothers and sisters are being targeted in this way.
Q. Trans students are not a large population in terms of the percentage of students in a school. So why do you think they are specifically – of the whole LGBTQ plus community – the newest target?
One of the reasons is because there are so few of them. It’s like a myth, “Oh my God, they’re everywhere, or they’re dangerous, or they could be right next to you.” It’s like the idea of a boogeyman.
So there’s a bit of that, but there’s also a deep motivation around control and marginalization. The thing is, trans people and gender-wide people have always existed. But the binary gender is what tells us that there are only two genders. And so I think the desire to target trans kids is absolutely a desire to prevent the next generation of trans people from existing, to kind of go back into the shadows, to silence and erase and invalidate these young people and their experiences. And frankly, that’s a white supremacist tactic. It is a tactic of authoritarianism.
Could you explain how this might be a white supremacist tactic?
The rich history and experiences of trans and non-binary people only add to the spectrum of identities in human life. White supremacy tactics put people in a box based on identity when in reality, trans and non-binary people are intersectional. They’re black, they’re neurodiverse, they’re immigrants, they’re indigenous, etc. Denying their identities flattens the idea of diversity. Their goal is not to promote the idea that we are diverse, that we come in all shapes, sizes and colors. It gives them the right not to celebrate everyone and every person.
So how do you think GLSEN can combat this? What strategies do you think would be effective?
We understand that it is essential to oppose discriminatory curricula and bans and call them what they are: bans on teaching the truth about our country’s history. When we think about how we fight this, we know that fighting for an accurate and true curriculum is incredibly necessary and important.
Our strategies are really to fight upstream and at the base. So when I say upstream, I mean at the policy and rule-making level at the federal level and with state education officials. Thus, both pushing back against policies that we consider harmful and promoting policies that we consider useful and valuing
And we know that it is also important for us to fight at school level to guarantee this. It’s also about making sure people are connected to the support and communities they need, because what’s most helpful is when people understand they’re not alone.
You talked about fighting at the school level. How do you plan to do this exactly?
What I think is most important academically is that students can go to school safely and be assertive while they are there. The presence of a gay-straight alliance or other affirming peer groups, where young people can be with others who look like them and together create a safe space leads to more positive educational outcomes for young people.
When I say leading the fight in schools, I mean working to make sure that teachers are able to teach real things, but also creating a supportive student experience where these young people can have supportive spaces that they create themselves and that teachers and administrators allow to happen.
These laws have included a focus on banning books containing LGBTQ characters or themes. Why should a teacher want to assert a student’s identity and are books a good way to do this?
Yes, it is important for a teacher to affirm a student’s identity. Here is a thinking exercise. Let’s use another identity instead of the LGBTQ identity type. Is it important for a student who comes from an immigration experience to be educated about the immigration experience, to read about the experiences of people like him? I would say yes. Now why is that? So they can understand what they are going through in a larger context, of what others have been through. They see they are not alone.
It’s the same with transgender, non-binary, and other queer students. It is extremely important that learners see themselves reflected in their communities. These are children who are new to this thing called life. They know what they are taught and what they are told.
We have a responsibility to help young people understand themselves and the world around them. It is true that homosexuals exist and have always existed. And it’s important for us to help these young people understand that. Thus, they can see themselves as connected to others, but also and above all, that there is nothing wrong with them.
It is therefore important because it is vital for young people to see themselves reflected in what they learn and to be affirmed by the people who are in charge of educating them.