Clarification: This article has been clarified to better reflect the views of Elana Redfield of the Williams Institute about the federal review of Title IX regulations and policies.
President Joe Biden’s latest executive order takes aim at what the administration considers state laws that discriminate against LGBTQ people, and it seeks to advance equality for them, but it remains to be seen how impactful the order will be for schools.
“My message to all the young people: Just be you. You are heard. You are understood. You do belong,” Biden said at a White House reception announcing the executive order Wednesday. “I want you to know that, as your president, all of us on this stage, we have your back.”
While the order takes a strong stance on LGBTQ equality, there are limits to its scope and details have yet to be spelled out in key areas. Here are some essentials educators need to know.
1. What does the new executive order tell federal education officials to do?
The order directs U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to use the Education Department’s authority to support LGBTQ students, educators, families, and other personnel who are targeted by “harmful State and local laws and practices.” It also orders Cardona to promote the adoption of policies and practices that will support the “safety, well-being, and rights of LGBTQI+ students” with a Jan. 1, 2023, deadline to release sample policies.
Under the order, the Education Department must establish a “Working Group on LGBTQI+ Students and Families” tasked with leading an initiative to address discrimination.
The working group must develop training, best practices, and sample policies for educational institutions to promote safe and inclusive learning environments. The group is also required to identify practices that ensure LGBTQ students have access to school-based health services and support and to seek funding opportunities so schools can improve education and health outcomes for LGBTQ students. The working group must also work to bolster supportive services for homeless LGBTQ students and families.
The order places a strong emphasis on mental health services. LGBTQ youth have higher rates of suicide and are more likely to suffer from mental illness than their non-LGBTQ peers, according to research from the Williams Institute, a University of California, Los Angeles research center dedicated to sexual orientation and gender identity law and policy.
2. Why did Biden sign this order now?
The order is the latest action in Biden’s efforts to support the LGBTQ community, a priority he has made clear since his campaign for president in 2020.
On his first day in office last year, the president directed federal agencies to include sexual orientation in regulations prohibiting sexual discrimination. He also reversed a Trump-era rule that placed a ban on transgender people serving in the military.
Despite those efforts, local and state lawmakers have proposed 300 “discriminatory bills” targeted at LGBTQ Americans, Biden said in his speech. Some of those efforts have garnered extensive media attention, like Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law banning educators from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation in the classroom, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive to call for child abuse investigations into the use of gender-affirming care for transgender children. Both are the subject of court challenges.
The laws come amid an already harmful societal environment for many LGBTQ youths. One-third of LGBTQ people at four-year colleges were bullied, harassed, or assaulted compared to 19 percent of non-LGBTQ people, according to a May study from the Williams Institute. The organization’s research also shows that LGBTQ children make up high proportions of the foster care, juvenile detention, and homeless youth populations.
“Right now there are young people sitting in their bedrooms, doors closed, silent, scrolling through social media, staring at the ceiling, wondering if they’ll ever be loved,” Biden said.
3. How would the order combat these state and local laws?
While the executive order targets what it calls “harmful state and local laws and practices,” it doesn’t mention how officials will work to combat them. It only directs the Education Department to support students who are affected by them. The order also doesn’t address state and local efforts to limit transgender students’ abilities to participate in sports that align with their identity.
Elana Redfield, federal policy director for the Williams Institute, said that while she has no details about what the department’s upcoming review of Title IX regulations and policies will do, she would expect changes to be much more aggressive in confronting discriminatory state and local policies and practices.
The department has indicated it plans to include sexual orientation and gender in its definition of sex-based discrimination in the revised rules. Redfield said she’s eager to hear how the department plans to enforce Title IX. It may be able to withhold federal funding in response to Title IX violations, establishing a clear stance against LGBTQ discrimination, Redfield said.
Neither the department nor Biden has the power to revoke state laws. But LGBTQ activists welcome the president’s commitment to supporting LGBTQ Americans.
“It’s an example of the Biden administration signaling support for LGBTQ communities, as well as intersex people,” Redfield said. “This is definitely the most, at least explicitly supportive and affirming administration in history.”
4. What else does the order do to support LGBTQ youth?
In addition to its directives for the Education Department, the order takes a strong stance against conversion therapy, a practice discredited by the medical community that aims to change the sexual orientation and gender identity of young LGBTQ people.
The order also works to address the overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth in the child welfare system and foster care; promote therapy to prevent family rejection of such youth; improve data collection that would inform LGBTQ-related policies; and safeguard access to health care and health supports for LGBTQ Americans.
While those initiatives don’t directly impact education, they will ultimately lead to better outcomes for LGBTQ students, said Aaron Ridings, chief of staff at GLSEN, an organization dedicated to protecting LGBTQ rights in K-12 schools.
“There have been so many bills targeting LGBTQ+ youth, particularly trans and nonbinary youth, that negatively impact their life, both in terms of what happens in school and what happens outside of school,” Ridings said.