By Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
“I’m homosexual and I’m afraid about what my future will be and that people won’t like me.”
Sadly, this quote didn’t come from a gay person several decades ago, during a time before most people realized that they had gay people they knew and loved in their lives. It isn’t even from several years ago. The quote is from a young boy, captured in a haunting photograph from Humans of New York with a look of pained anguish on his face, as if he is holding back a well of tears.
In the days since the image was first posted, it has received more than 620,000 “Likes” on Facebook and has been shared nearly 60,000 times. Responses, overwhelmingly positive, have poured in from individuals from across the world, including Ellen DeGeneres and Hillary Clinton.
This week, the U.S. Senate will be presented with a rare opportunity to act to ensure that LGBT students across the country are able to obtain a quality public education that is free of discrimination. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) will be offering the Student Non-Discrimination Act, or SNDA, as an amendment on the Senate floor. The need for these protections could not be clearer.
As moving as the response to this photo has been, the fears voiced by this boy are reflective of a tragic reality impacting far too many LGBT young people in schools across the country. Discrimination, harassment, and even physical violence continue to play far too large a role in the lives of LGBT students. A nationwide 2013 survey of nearly 8,000 students found that more than 30 percent of LGBT students reported missing at least one entire school day in the past month because they felt unsafe.
Too often, it is the schools themselves that are the problem. The ACLU and the ACLU of Virginia have filed a lawsuit, on behalf of a transgender student, against the Gloucester County School Board for adopting a discriminatory bathroom policy that segregates transgender students from their peers. The policy effectively expels trans students from communal restrooms and requires them to use “alternative private” restroom facilities.
SNDA, which is modeled closely on Title IX, would provide critical, explicit nondiscrimination protections for LGBT students in federal law. When schools discriminate against LGBT students — such as denying trans students access to restrooms that reflect who they are or barring students from bringing a same-sex date to a school dance — or allow instances of serious harassment to go unaddressed, SNDA provides important legal remedies, including a private right of action, to hold schools accountable.
Schools found to be in violation of the law would also risk losing their federal funding. A half century of civil rights laws have demonstrated that these kinds of enforcement tools are most effective in preventing discrimination from occurring in the first place as well as getting schools to appropriately respond when students are being discriminated against or harassed. At the end of the day, the goal is to create a safe and supportive learning environment for all students, not lawsuits (important and necessary as they sometimes are).
While we continue to celebrate a landmark Supreme Court victory for the freedom to marry, we cannot lose sight of all the important work that remains. It is mindboggling to think that there is still no federal law that explicitly protects LGBT students in our nation’s public schools. By supporting SNDA, senators would make clear that LGBT students should be able to look forward to futures full of promise, not live in fear over whether they will be accepted and loved for who they are.