California aims to uplift LGBTQ students amid damaging national climate

As states around the country — 15 at the time of this writing — sue the federal government over LGBTQ protections in its Title IX rule released in April, a new survey from The Trevor Project revealed that 39 percent of LGBTQ young people have seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

Pride Month can serve as a time to recognize and celebrate LGBTQ youth and examine how local educational agencies and schools are providing support and welcoming climates for this student population. From the results of the survey, it is clear that many LEAs are failing their LGBTQ students.

When proper supports and an inclusive school climate are in place, LGBTQ students feel safer and more valued. For example, more than half (54 percent) of transgender and nonbinary young people found their school to be gender-affirming, and those who did reported lower rates of attempting suicide. Nearly half (49 percent) of LGBTQ young people ages 13-17 experienced bullying in the past year, and those who did reported significantly higher rates attempting suicide in the past year than those who did not experience bullying. LGBTQ young people who reported living in very accepting communities attempted suicide at less than half the rate of those who reported living in very unaccepting communities.

Politics have been playing a role in the anxiety and stress being experienced by many LGBTQ youth, with 90 percent saying their well-being has been negatively impacted. In addition, 39 percent of LGBTQ youth reported that they or their family have considered moving to a different state because of LGBTQ-related politics and laws; that number climbs to 45 percent for transgender and nonbinary youth.

Schools as a safe place

LGBTQ youth who had access to affirming spaces reported lower rates of attempting suicide compared to those who did not. Transgender and nonbinary young people who had access to gender-affirming clothing, gender-neutral bathrooms at school, and had their pronouns respected by the people they live with had lower rates of attempting suicide compared to those who did not. Encouragingly, 78 percent of LGBTQ youth reported having at least one adult at school who is supportive and affirming of their identity, but just 52 percent reported having affirming spaces at school.

The Trevor Project guide “Is Your School LGBTQ-Affirming?” recommends policies and practices that help LGBTQ students to feel safe and ready to learn at school. Recommendations for LEAs include:

  • Having a policy specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and identity
  • Enforcing Title IX, protecting LGBTQ young people from discrimination, and ensuring equal access to school facilities, sports teams or student organizations and all other extracurricular activities
  • Following the Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention, including protocols for intervention and post-vention, and specialized services for marginalized groups of students like LGBTQ young people who are placed at elevated risk for suicide
  • Promoting LGBTQ-inclusive lesson plans and curricula, especially for classes involving health and wellness, social studies, history, literature and culture
  • Standardizing respecting correct names and pronouns across students and school staff, and allowing for this information to be updated within school systems without legal documentation
  • Encouraging LGBTQ student organizations and clubs to be active on campus
  • Encouraging visual cues of allyship across the school campus, such as “safe space” stickers or rainbow flags
  • Providing resources to families about how to support and affirm their LGBTQ children
  • Providing physical and mental health care services that are affirming and responsive to the unique needs of LGBTQ students
  • Provide teachers with regular training on LGBTQ competencies and how to create a safe and affirming learning environment
California law

Beyond being merely suggestions, many of the recommendations from The Trevor Project are enshrined in California law. The state’s FAIR (fair, accurate, inclusive and respectful) Act requires the inclusion of a study of the role and contributions of “both men and women, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups, to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.” Discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited by education code and LEAs are obligated to protect students from discriminatory harassment.

The California Healthy Youth Act requires school districts to provide students with integrated, comprehensive and accurate sexual health education and HIV prevention education, at least once in high school and once in middle school, and must be inclusive of LGBTQ students. Schools must teach about all sexual orientations and what being LGBTQ means. The act also prohibits sexual health education classes from promoting bias against anyone on the basis of any category protected by Education Code Section 220, which includes actual or perceived gender and sexual orientation.

Last year saw a host of legislation signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, including Assembly Bill 5, which requires the California Department of Education to develop of an online training curriculum on cultural competency in supporting LGBTQ students and online delivery platform by July 1, 2025, and requires LEAs to provide and require at least one hour of training annually to all certificated staff, beginning with the 2025–26 school year through the 2029–30 school year; Senate Bill 760, which requires all schools to provide at least one gender-neutral bathroom by July 1, 2026; and SB 857, which requires the state superintendent of public instruction (SSPI) to convene an advisory task force to identify the statewide needs of LGBTQ pupils By July 1, 2024, and report its findings to the Legislature, the SSPI and Governor by Jan. 1, 2026.