Rights for LGBTQ students: The stakes couldn’t be higher

Last week, the Trump administration rescinded guidance issued last year from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice concerning protections for transgender students in public schools under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. Title IX prohibits recipients of federal funding – including schools – from discriminating against any person on the basis of sex unless expressly allowed by the statute.

The new administration’s action leaves Title IX protections for transgender students in a legal gray area. Specifically, it leaves states and school districts without a clear understanding of their legal obligations to transgender students, including the requirement to provide such students with access to sex-segregated facilities consistent with their gender identities. A new clarification of Title IX may be forthcoming: on March 28, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments as to whether a Virginia school district may prohibit a transgender student from using the boy’s restroom. In the meantime, 14 states and the District of Columbia have laws explicitly protecting transgender students; but 11 others are considering legislation that would restrict transgender students’ access to restrooms.

To some, the new federal stance, the growing divergence in state policies, and the coming Supreme Court case may seem like minor skirmishes between conflicting cultures, values, and beliefs. However, there’s good reason to believe these may have very serious repercussions.

Teenagers put up with innumerable insults and cruelties based on how they look, what they wear, their likes and dislikes, how well they “fit in.” But harassment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) youth goes further—to the core of their identity. We know that recognition and acceptance of one’s gender identity is a process that begins in childhood, though it may not be finished until adulthood. During their journey on this path, as on their other developmental journeys, young people benefit from the care and support of those closest to them—as well as their society.

Unfortunately, we know that when young people who identify as LGBTQ do not find such support, consequences can be tragic. Sexual-minority youth (which for most research encompasses only the “LGB” populations) are much more likely than their straight peers to be bullied, to experience physical violence, and to use drugs and alcohol. Among adolescents ages 15 to 19 overall, suicide is the second leading cause of death; youth who are members of sexual-minority groups attempt suicide at rates that are more than 4 times higher than their straight peers; though data are regrettably scarce, transgender students may also have a higher suicide risk.

Now, in research released earlier this month, we have compelling evidence of a direct line between society’s attitudes—as reflected in state-level policy—and the likelihood of suicidal behavior among young people. In this case, the policy is same-sex marriage. Legalizing of same-sex marriage carries weight beyond the couples immediately affected by such policies, because it conveys a more accepting, less stigmatizing, societal attitude toward sexual minorities. And young people are paying attention.

The researchers studied rates of suicide attempts among high school students in 32 states before and after they passed policies allowing same-sex marriage (prior to the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide), and compared those changes with changes in rates during the same years in 15 states without such policies. Students in states permitting same-sex marriage had rates that were 7 percent lower following implementation of the policies. Even more powerfully, the reduction was twice as great (14 percent) among sexual-minority students (a group that, in this study, only included lesbian, gay, and bisexual young people). By the researchers’ report, this translates into more than 134,000 fewer adolescents attempting suicide each year. Moreover, these positive policy effects persisted 2 years following the legislation.

Over the past 20 years, more societies throughout the world have come to realize that diversity extends to gender identity, and that to exclude LGBTQ people from full participation is to exclude large segments of our communities, not to mention the hurt and stigma that accompany these denials. Going further, younger people have largely rejected these prejudices of the past.

There are also a growing number of resources—for parents, youth, and others—helpful for understanding the experience of LGBTQ people, including these from Child Trends:

Public policies make a difference when it comes to individual well-being, just as families, schools, neighborhoods, and individual choices do. In coming months, there will be intense debate regarding the scope of federal Title IX’s requirements, and whether students’ access to sex-segregated facilities should be left to states. Regardless of this legal outcome, however, we need to be mindful of what research tells us will most benefit outcomes for transgender students.