There’s a slate of bills proposed in statehouses across the country this year that target LGBTQ students and, more broadly, how teachers discuss with students issues associated with gender and sexuality.
Legislators in more than 24 states have proposed dozens of bills that will require more parental involvement in teachers’ lessons on human sexuality and gender.
In 2021, Republican lawmakers introduced dozens of anti-trans and nonbinary bills targeting students’ rights to use bathrooms and compete on sports teams that align with their gender identity.
At least in five states—Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, and Tennessee—laws ban trans athletes from competing on school sports teams that match their identities. A law in Arkansas also bans all gender-transition procedures for minors.
Late last month, GLSEN, an LGBTQ advocacy group, hired on Melanie Willingham-Jaggers to serve as its newest executive director.
Willingham-Jaggers spoke to Education Week about what they perceive to be the reasons behind the recent legislative attacks on trans and nonbinary youth, why it’s important to affirm the identities of LGBTQ students and how GLSEN plans to combat the effects of these laws.
What do you think about the recent surge in legislation targeting sex education and gender identity? Do you think that it has increased in the past few months and if yes, why is that happening?
I absolutely do think it has increased. There’s a good side and a bad side to it. The bad side is obvious, right? Trans people, nonbinary people, gender-expansive people, and children in that 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 have them cast out, denigrated, their credibility be ruined. And that’s no longer the case. But I think the same political strategy that was in effect then—in the 90s and before—is what that side is trying again with transgender people, gender-expansive people, nonbinary people, and they’re targeting children as the most vulnerable subset of that community. That’s part one. That’s the bad news.
Here’s where I think this is offering some promising evidence of victory: We have advanced as a community so much... (that) extremists are feeling scared, are feeling under attack or are feeling threatened of losing the culture war.... So they are going on the offense and it’s getting virulent, it’s getting violent and it’s getting even more aggressive.
I do think that what we are seeing is a backlash; a terrifying, horrible, violent, absurd backlash to real progress that’s being made for our community and for the way in which the rest of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer community is refusing to be torn away from the trans and gender-expansive community. So it makes me proud that our community is standing strongly with trans and gender-expansive people. But it makes me sad and angry the way that children in particular, and our trans siblings are being targeted 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 that they are specifically—out of the entire LGBTQ plus community—the newest target?
One reason is that because there are so few of them. It’s like a myth: “Oh my gosh, they’re everywhere, or they are dangerous, or they could be right near you.” It’s like the idea of a boogeyman.
So there’s a little bit of that, but there’s also a deep motivation around control and marginalization. The fact is that trans people and gender-expansive people have always existed. But the gender binary is what tells us that there are only two genders. And so I think that the desire to target trans kids is absolutely a desire to stop the next generation of trans people from existing, to kind of go back into the shadows, to silence and to erase and invalidate these young people and their experiences. And frankly, it is a tactic of white supremacy. It is a tactic of authoritarianism.
Could you elaborate on how it might be a tactic of white supremacy?
The rich history and experiences of trans and nonbinary folks only adds to the spectrum of identities in human life. White supremacy tactics place people in one box based on one identity when in reality, trans and nonbinary folks are intersectional. They are Black, they are neurodiverse, they are immigrants, they are Indigenous, and so on. Denying their identities flattens the idea of diversity. Their objective is not to promote the idea that we are diverse, that we come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. That gives them license to not celebrate everybody and every person.
So how do you think GLSEN can combat this? What are some strategies that you think would be effective?
We understand that it’s essential that we oppose discriminatory curriculum and the bans and call them what they are: prohibitions on truthful teaching about our country’s history. When we think about how we combat this, we know that fighting for a curriculum that is accurate and true is incredibly necessary and important.
Our strategies really are to fight upstream and at the grassroots. So when I say upstream, I mean at the policy and rule-making level federally and with state education leaders. So both beating back the policies that we see as harmful as well as promoting policies that we see as useful and life-affirming.
And we know it’s also important for us to be fighting at the school level to ensure that. It’s also about making sure that people are connected to the support and communities that they need because what is most helpful is when people understand that they are not alone.
You mentioned fighting at the school level. How exactly do you envision doing that?
What I think is most important at the school level is students being able to safely attend school and be affirmed while they’re there. The presence of a Gay-Straight Alliance or other affirming peer groups, where young people can be with other people who are like them and create together a safe space leads to more positive school outcomes for young people.
When I talk about taking the fight to the schools, I mean working to make sure that the teachers are able to teach true things but also creating a supportive student experience where these young people can have supportive spaces that they create themselves that teachers and administrators allow to happen.
Some of the focus of these laws has been on banning books that contain LGBTQ characters or themes. Why should a teacher want to affirm a student’s identity and are books a good way to do that?
Yes, it’s important for a teacher to affirm the identity of a student. Here’s a thought exercise. Let’s use another identity in place of the LGBTQ kind of identity. Is it important for a student who comes from an immigrant experience to be taught about the immigrant experience, to read about the experiences of people who are like them? I’d say yes. Now why is that? So they can understand what they are going through in a larger context, of what others have gone through. They see that they are not alone.
That’s the same with with transgender, nonbinary, and other queer students. It’s deeply 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 queer people exist and have always existed. And it’s important for us to help these young people understand this. So they can see themselves as connected to other people, but also and most fundamentally, that there is nothing wrong with them.
So it’s important because it’s life-affirming for young people to see themselves reflected in what they learn and to be affirmed by the people who are responsible for educating them.