A Tribute to Resilience and Progress: Pride 2021

This month, we celebrate Pride Month — honoring the history, struggles, achievements, and continuing contributions of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community in the United States.

It’s been more than 50 years since the first Pride March, held a year after the June 28, 1969 Stonewall Uprising, a multi-day protest in New York City against unconscionable patterns of police violence, criminalization, and hostility toward LGBTQ+ people. Now, as then, pride marches and parades, and Pride Month, are tributes to resilience and progress, serving to educate, embrace diversity, and build community.

For decades, brave LGBTQ+ Americans have fought for and gained ground for equality and justice. They have fought to be treated fairly, to live their lives without fear of harassment, exclusion, and discrimination, and to love whom they love and be who they are — without exception, and with understanding and appreciation. Yet in 2021, the fight continues, including in education. It’s not enough to work toward schools that are free of harassment: We should deliberately and actively promote positive learning climates, where all students are respected, celebrated, and embraced. It’s not enough to outlaw discriminatory practices: We should uplift schools and communities that are actively celebrating students’ differences, including differences in sexual orientation and gender identity.

No individual’s differences render them less than anyone else. In fact, whatever our similarities may be, every individual is also distinct, vibrant, and precious. Our differences expand our insights. Our varied life lessons and experiences increase our compassion and strength. Our unique qualities deepen our curiosity about the identities and perspectives of others.

As we celebrate Pride, we reaffirm our commitment to all LGBTQ+ students. Tolerance is not, and cannot be, our goal. Instead, we strive for inclusive school environments that value and take pride in LGBTQ+ youth.

But to get there, we must take honest stock of where we are now, and where we need to be.

Recent surveys tell us that nearly 60 percent of LGBTQ+ youth feel unsafe at school because of either their sexual orientation or gender, and nearly one-third of students missed at least one day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable in their classrooms.

In many ways, the pandemic has brought the longstanding struggles of LGBTQ+ students front and center. For example, we know that — even before the pandemic — LGBTQ+ youth were more likely to report experiences of bullying, and to struggle with depression and drug and alcohol abuse as a result of these stresses.

When just one-third of LGBTQ+ youth report parental acceptance, losing access during the pandemic to positive, supportive environments, resources (like LGBTQ+-straight alliances and other supportive school-based organizations and counselors), and likeminded peers only exacerbated feelings of loneliness and isolation. For example, a recent study on student mental health during the pandemic found that 30% of LGBTQ+ students saw “a decline in relationships with other kids,” compared to just 19% of heterosexual students who said the same.

Homelessness is also a disproportionate risk and reality for LGTBQ+ youth, with Black and Native American LGBTQ+ youth among those most affected. Addressing these needs is one of so many urgent reasons to reopen schools for in-person learning, and seize this unprecedented opportunity to reimagine education.

Yet, as we assess how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to travel, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because I know that, with focused effort and strong leadership, we can continue making progress. That progress starts with respecting and uplifting the voices of students and educators who’ve been historically marginalized. It starts with recognizing our diversity as an asset to our school communities.

On his first day in office, President Biden issued an Executive Order on preventing and combating discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, making clear that it is the policy of the Biden-Harris administration “to fully enforce laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.” This order directed all agencies, including the Department of Education (ED) to review current policies on sex discrimination and take action where they fail to live up to this promise.

With the establishment of the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, the President is working to specifically address disparities among populations disproportionately affected by the pandemic, including sexual and gender minority groups.

And, in March, President Biden established the White House Gender Policy Council, which will coordinate federal efforts to advance gender equity and equality. The executive order that established the council affirms the Administration’s commitment to advancing equal rights and opportunities, regardless of gender or gender identity.

In April, ED’s Office for Civil Rights launched a comprehensive review of Title IX regulations, guidance, and policies to ensure all students, including LGBTQ+ students, are offered an educational environment free from discrimination based on sex, including based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as President Biden has directed. As part of that effort, OCR will hold a virtual public hearing from June 7 to June 11, and is looking forward to the important insights that students, parents, educators, and administrators will share on several different issues, including sexual harassment in school environments and extracurricular settings, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and how ED can support students in accessing an equitable and nondiscriminatory education more broadly. I encourage everyone interested in Title IX to register to provide a live comment, submit a written comment, and to attend the hearing.

As I said during my confirmation hearing, our learning environments must be free from discrimination and harassment for all learners, including LGBTQ+ students. This is non-negotiable — and we at ED commit to upholding laws that protect our students, including Title IX. = Our Office of Civil Rights has a range of resources for LGBTQ+ students, which can be found here.

As Barbara Gittings — a civil rights pioneer and an organizer of the first New York City Pride Parade — famously said, “Equality means more than passing laws.” It means embracing the Golden Rule, which is still the spirit that animates social justice: it means treating our neighbors with the respect and dignity they deserve — no matter how they identify, whom they love, or who they are — just as we want to be treated.

As we celebrate Pride Month, let’s affirm our collective commitment to sharing the stories and experiences of our LGBTQ+ students and educators. Let’s all be allies in this important work. When we honor and uplift our differences, our schools, our communities, and our nation can heal, grow, and thrive.

Dr. Miguel A. Cardona

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