Education is the cornerstone of democracy, and right now, it’s under attack.
In September, the Center for Democracy and Technology released a new report exposing public schools in the U.S. for filtering and blocking LGBTQ+ and race-related content at higher rates than other texts. From limiting lessons on Black history to banning books with LGBTQ+ characters, it comes as no surprise that LGBTQ+ and Black students are feeling less safe at school.
According to GLSEN’s National School Climate survey, 82% of LGBTQ+ youth reported feeling unsafe in school — and these censorship laws only cause more harm to Black queer students, who are already some of the most marginalized and excluded youth in our nation.
For example, school officials in Metro Atlanta’s Forsyth County canceled two talks by a children’s book author last month after he used the word “gay” in a presentation to elementary school students about the history of a superhero character. Fear of parental backlash is now so severe that administrators would rather cancel literary discussions than subject students to the word “gay.”
This came one year after the same county removed eight books from its school libraries, including Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” a novel depicting the ways in which internalized white beauty standards have impacted and distorted the lives of Black girls and women.
These book bans overlap with the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” laws and the anti-critical race theory attacks on Black students and other students who come from communities who experience marginalization. History often repeats itself, and removing opportunities for these students to learn from our past only sets them further behind their peers who are not fearful of the pages in front of them.
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So what can we do when school districts are signaling to LGBTQ+ and Black students that they don’t belong and are refusing them equal representation in a facility that is meant to foster a nurturing learning environment?
As a collective, we must rise up and educate our youth about the diverse and complex life experiences of the citizens of our world so that our next generation of leaders can live and act powerfully within that world.
When school districts first started banning LGBTQ+ books, GLSEN responded and launched the Rainbow Library. Since 2019, GLSEN has provided more than 56,000 LGBTQ+ affirming books to 5,800 schools in over 30 states, reaching over 5.3 million students.
When Florida passed its “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, GLSEN partnered with local organizations to ensure that over 70 million people saw LGBTQ+ supportive billboards across the state encouraging residents to “say gay.”
When the College Board sided with white supremacy, GLSEN joined the Freedom to Learn coalition, an organization promoting universal access to books and educational resources for all communities regardless of race, economic status, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or political affiliation. Through our collaboration, we were able to petition with thousands of signatures opposing censorship of Black history.
And now, in response to the over 650 bills that have been proposed to turn hateful anti-LGBTQ+ ideology into law, GLSEN is Rising Up to support LGBTQ+ youth.
As our most vulnerable demographic faces unimaginable battles, we simply cannot afford to give in and become complacent.
As adults, it is our job to model the future for the next generation — and it should be a world that is more accepting and understanding than the one we grew up in. Our youth deserve to grow up in a society free from prejudice, that celebrates diversity rather than punishes them.
We know that an inclusive school curriculum acts as a window for young people into the diverse world around them, as well as a mirror to reflect their own experiences and identities. By removing diverse texts from schools, students are no longer privy to the multitude of different perspectives that literature provides.
Politicians have chosen to withhold students’ access to education and history; limit their rights; and stifle their opportunities to participate in our multiracial democracy. We as a country have done a great disservice to our future leaders.
Learning to understand and respect different people of different backgrounds prepares students to be active and participatory members of our society and to be stronger leaders for equity and progress.
As we continue to face anti-democratic attacks on learning and truth, we must empower supportive school leaders, educators, and staff to act as guardians of our democracy, and we must ensure that school communities are sites of safety, connection, power and ultimately, liberation.
Melanie Willingham-Jaggers (they/she) is the Executive Director at GLSEN, a national nonprofit that works to ensure K-12 education is safe and affirming for all students, including LGBTQ+ youth.
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