One of public schools’ responsibilities is to provide a safe and nondiscriminatory education experience for all students. NASSP’s Policy & Advocacy Center maintains it is the principal’s responsibility to provide an affirming school environment in which each student is treated fairly, respectfully, and with an understanding of their individual culture and context. School administrators are faced with navigating the needs of the LGBTQ+ community, including best practices for supporting transgender and nonbinary students. As the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) adviser at a large urban school, I have firsthand experience supporting LGBTQ+ students and working with administrators. As a lesbian in public education, I have spent the last 10 years building a career centered around supporting urban LGBTQ+ students.

Cultural Competency: What You Need to Know First

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual—LGBTQ+ or LGBTQQIA+—people have existed in society for all of recorded time. Many cultures outside of the Western world accepted and embraced the community until colonialism impacted their cultural norms and justice systems. For example, “two-spirit” people is an American Indian term frequently cited as proof that indigenous cultures supported people in the LGBTQ+ community before they were forced to conform to European values.

Understanding LGBTQ+ history is a crucial part of being an effective ally. At the root of many oppositions to equality is the false assumption that any part of being LGBTQ+ is a choice or a lifestyle. When I came out, there were many well-intentioned people who said they supported my “lifestyle.” I know they were trying to be supportive, but they missed the point. Gender identity and sexuality aren’t a choice—they are inherent qualities to who we are as people.

Part of the misconceptions around LGBTQ+ people is the blending of terms around gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation. All four are distinctly different, function on a spectrum, and are innate qualities that people may understand differently throughout their lifetimes. Gender identity refers to an individual’s feelings of being male, female, a blend of both, or neither. Gender identity can be different from biological sex assigned at birth and can function as a fluid movement. For example, someone may feel more female on a given day and choose to present that way. Gender expression is an external appearance of one’s gender identity and can be communicated through accessories, clothing, haircut, or voice, which may or may not adhere to societal standards for outward appearance. We can’t assume we know someone’s gender based on the way they dress or present themselves. That’s why I encourage all teachers to ask all students their pronouns. It feels awkward at first, but is helpful in making sure no one is being misgendered. Biological sex is assigned at birth and relies on the identification of outward genitalia. Finally, sexual orientation is an inherent and immutable emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to other people. For more terms and in-depth definitions, find the glossary from Human Rights Campaign’s Coming Out Center.

Concerns in Public Education

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) is the leader in researching public education concerns for the LGBTQ+ community. Their National School Climate Survey is the most frequently cited source for information about how K–12 public education students feel about whether or not their school has protections in place for them and their perceived level of safety. GLSEN surveys 7,000 students across the nation and releases their report along with recommendations for public education employees.

The 2017 survey showed a plateau in progress for protections at school for LGBTQ+ students. Those surveyed reported a lack of interventions from staff in regard to homophobic comments. Students reported feeling most unsafe in public spaces such as bathrooms, locker rooms, and the cafeteria. They cited instances of hearing staff and students making disparaging remarks about gender expression and transgender people. The impact of hearing comments from students with no staff intervention or hearing staff making negative comments can be devastating to students. Sometimes the comments are well-meaning but fail to demonstrate that the person has adequate knowledge of LGBTQ+ terminology and issues. That’s why districts need professional development opportunities and policies in place so that all students can trust the adults in their schools to support them.

Current Laws

As a nation, we are at a crossroads when it comes to comprehensive protections for LGBTQ+ people. The uncertainty that goes along with issues such as employment—discussed in the Supreme Court cases heard in October—are impacting our students in tangible ways. There are laws in place to help protect the civil rights of LGBTQ+ students, but they are not definitive. For example, Title IX protects people from discrimination based on gender but has no mention specifically of gender expression or gender identity. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects students’ privacy in education but does not protect transgender or nonbinary students from parents who don’t support them. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) can help students struggling with a lack of support at home to get appropriate medical services, but it protects only students older than 14 and may not help students in rural areas who don’t have access to affirming doctors. There are holes in the systems that should protect LGBTQ+ students, and it’s the responsibility of adults to make sure they are protected.

In my district, we worked to write guidelines for name changes for trans and nonbinary students. We use FERPA as support that students’ dead names should not be used on their IDs or in the school grading system. Neither an ID nor a school grading system is an official document, and using a dead name effectively outs a student as trans or nonbinary to everyone in their building. HIPAA allows our policies to affirm students’ trans or nonbinary status even if their parents aren’t supportive. The teachers and principals in a building are sometimes the only affirming adults in a child’s life. It’s imperative that we get it right to support them.

Recommendations for School Administrators

NASSP offers specific recommendations for school administrators as well as state and federal policy­makers. You’ll find this important reference in the Policy & Advocacy Center under NASSP Position Statements.

One of the single most important factors in a school to prevent LGBTQ+ harassment and bullying is the presence of a GSA or allies group. Studies show that GSAs prevent bullying for all students, not just LGBTQ+ children. The presence of a GSA decreases incidents of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations. Identifying and supporting a GSA at school is an easy first step for administrators to change the culture and climate of their buildings. At my school, the GSA runs events for all students and advertises across our campus. Even if LGBTQ+ students never attend a GSA—and plenty choose not to—they know we exist. That in and of itself is helpful.

Administrators can examine their building and district policies to make sure they address the needs of all students and staff members. A large part of building school climate and culture is being consistent and transparent. Administrators can write guidelines and policies, as well as deliver professional development to staff around LGBTQ+ issues. Frankly, there are experts in your building already—adults and students in the LGBTQ+ community are a great place to start. Relying on those individuals with lived experience has two benefits: You get professional development from a place of expertise, and you are affirming that those people—staff and students—belong and are a valued part of your school community.

It is the responsibility of school communities to support LGBTQ+ students and staff. One of the first steps we can take as an education community is to examine the policies we have in place and determine whether they are supportive of all students. Providing professional development for principals, teachers, and other school staff to increase awareness of LGBTQ+ issues creates a school climate that avoids gender stereotyping and affirms the gender identity of all children. As a leading member of the Coalition for Teaching Quality, NASSP supports its mission to ensure a diverse, talented, and sustainable teaching force that can prepare all students for a variety of postsecondary options. Diversity in hiring teachers like me increases representation in schools and supports LGBTQ+ students, as well as provides a community of educators well versed in the issues schools face today.

Sherri Castillo is an English teacher and GSA adviser at McCaskey High School in Lancaster, PA.