I have been teaching sex ed for nearly 15 years, and keeping pace with an ever-changing world has meant regularly adjusting the topics I cover in class. But this year, I realized a lesson that I had stopped using not too long ago had once again become sadly relevant.
The lesson was on the phrase, “That’s so gay,” which for a long time was a middle school staple. However, a few years back, after students told me more than once that “No one says that anymore,” I cycled it out. But this year, it became clear that the phrase was back, and as a result, so too was the period dedicated to addressing it.
It’s impossible to say whether this reappearance was directly related to the current political climate or not. But with numerous infringements on LGBTQ rights, many of which directly affect youth, I would hazard a guess that the two aren’t completely unrelated.
Not only have today’s teens seen the Trump administration roll back Obama-era guidance clarifying that schools protect and accommodate transgender students, but they are also living under an administration that includes a vice president who has championed so-called conversion therapy, and with an education secretary committed to the notoriously homophobic abstinence-only education.
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There are real-world consequences to all of this. As Kevin Wong—head of communications at The Trevor Project, an organization focused on suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ youth—said, “In a 48-hour period following the presidential election in 2016, The Trevor Project’s call volume more than doubled as LGBTQ youth in crisis felt unsure about their place in this country.”
Or take a report published in January by New York’s Anti-Violence Project. This found a significant increase in transphobic and homophobic hate crimes over the past year. Then there were the results of a Human Rights Council survey of 12,000 LGBTQ teens released this month, revealing incredibly high levels of fear and anxiety.
Among the specific findings were that 73 percent of respondents reported experiencing verbal harassment and threats related to their gender identity or sexual orientation, 77 percent reported feeling sad or depressed in the prior week, 85 percent reported high levels of stress, and 95 percent reported having trouble sleeping.
Conversely, only 27 percent of respondents said they felt they could “definitely” be themselves at school, only 12 percent said they had sex ed or health classes relevant to LGBTQ needs, and just 5 percent said they felt all their teachers and school staff were supportive of LGBTQ people.
For trans and gender nonconforming students, the situation was particularly dire. Fifty percent of trans girls reported that they have been physically threatened because of their identity, and two-thirds of trans teens said they avoided using the bathroom at school.
It is clear that a lot of LGBTQ youth are at risk or suffering.
This is something James van Kuilenburg, a transgender student from Maryland and a National Student Council leader with GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network), is experiencing. Indeed, what were already complicated issues (for example, changing his IDs to reflect his name and gender identity, and experiencing bullying from both peers and adults) are now even more fraught. As he said to me via email, “It’s a scary time to be a young queer person with multiple marginalized identities. It’s life and death for me and my friends right now.”
Although plenty of LGBTQ adults are feeling the same unease, things are simply different when you are a politically disenfranchised minor. That’s why adult allies need to step into the arena, help support young people, and fight for their rights.
Here are five ways to begin:
1. Strive to create a welcoming environment in schools, both for kids who are out as well as for those who are not. GLSEN reports that for people who work with youth, there are a few key ways to demonstrate support. These include having visible supportive educators, inclusive and affirming policies, and inclusive curriculum and resources. Additionally, GLSEN has found that schools with genders and sexualities alliances (GSAs) not only make schools safer for LGBTQ kids, but they also have a positive academic impact.
2. Don’t stand for religiously motivated hate-speech. Religious intolerance often gets a pass not afforded secular intolerance. But championing religious freedom doesn’t mean allowing it to be used as a cover for hate.
If you belong to an anti-LGBTQ religious group, consider leaving. If that doesn’t feel like an option, do your own research regarding what your religion really says about sexual orientation and gender identity (if anything) and consider addressing the issue with your congregation. The fact is, most transphobic and homophobic religious beliefs come from interpretations of religious texts, not from the root of a religion’s core tenets.
3. Educate teens about their legal rights. Public schools can’t single out LGBTQ students for negative treatment, according to the civil rights organization Lambda Legal, and students have the right to voice support for LGBTQ issues at school. Plus, Lambda reports that even if a student’s state hasn’t specifically included sexual orientation or gender identity in its anti-bullying protections (only 20 states and Washington, D.C., explicitly have) schools are generally required to apply anti-bullying protections equally to all public school students.
Teens should also know that the American Civil Liberties Union collects reports about harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as about public schools that use anti-LGBTQ internet filters, allow hostile environments, or prevent teens from bringing same gender dates to school events where opposite gender dates are allowed.
4. Actively fight to ensure teens’ rights. As minors, youth are typically politically disenfranchised, so adults need to do things they can’t. One of these is to vote for LGBTQ-supportive candidates. It is also helpful to attend school board meetings; to speak up if your local schools allow hostile environments; and to voice support for things like GSAs, inclusive bathroom policies, and comprehensive sex education.
5. Remind teens there is hope. For example, Maryland just became the 11th state to ban conversion therapy, last November eight transgender candidates won elections to political office, and just this week two federal courts ruled against discriminatory bathroom and locker room policies.
It is rarely helpful for a young person to hear how much better they have it than you did back in the day, but it can be hard for teens to see that progress isn’t always linear. So helping them understand that the current climate is not necessarily the permanent one can be crucial to their mental health.
The fact that so many LGBTQ young people are living in fear is unacceptable. But given the continuing attacks on their rights, it is unlikely that this unease is going to disappear anytime soon. This is why it is so important for adults to figure out how they can help youth.
But as van Kuilenburg emphasized, support isn’t any one thing. “Supporting may mean sharing financial resources, or it may mean becoming an emotional outlet for a young person’s issues. In a more general sense, adults must be aware of legislation, policy, and public statements made by the current administration.”
We also need to be aware of the privilege and power we carry simply by virtue of our age, and then we need to strategize how best to use our adult standing to help sustain young people in today’s increasingly hostile climate.