Norah Laughter is a 2022 NHS scholarship finalist.

I am a queer student from Kentucky. I am not out to my family, though I will be soon. I have yet to tell them not because I am afraid of their reaction, and for that reason I am incredibly grateful, but rather because I want to come out on my own terms.

Throughout high school, I was very fortunate to have teachers who I was out to and could confide in while I waited for the time to tell my family. They meant the world to me, and many LGBTQ+ students across the country find themselves in similar situations, where school staff serve as points of understanding and comfort. After all, we spend most of our formative years in school, and in loco parentis rings true.

However, LGBTQ+ students are under attack. “Concerned” parents are laying siege to school boards because their children are choosing to come out or express their preferred pronouns/gender identities to teachers and not their parents, which the parents see as disobedience, liberal indoctrination, and a whole host of other misconceptions. Frankly, parents are not always the safest people for their children to be themselves around, but sometimes, as in my case, the student simply wants control over who they are out to. It is imperative that schools and administrators come to highlight and center student voices, the most valuable stakeholders in education.

Across the country, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs have made their way into K–12 education, often in the form of training for teachers and staff to be more culturally responsive to the needs of students. Having students learn about diversity in the classroom offers a variety of benefits, including better equipping them for the global economy and fostering interpersonal skills with people of different backgrounds. DEI curriculum encourages discussion around racial and ethnic diversity, sexual and gender diversity, and religious diversity, as well as disability diversity. DEI specifically benefits students in the LGBTQ+ community, and a host of curricula are readily available for LGBTQ+ DEI training (see, for example,

However, many students will not necessarily benefit from this training because red states are actively pushing for transgender sports bans, certain words to be banned in classrooms, and a host of other measures meant to restrict LGBTQ+ rights and discussions in schools. Children who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity no longer necessarily have a safe place to do so in schools, as a major Republican talking point is that there is a lack of transparency between schools and parents that harms the family. Students may tell school officials their pronoun preference and their preferred name without telling their parents, which has incited angry reactions across the country.

The Power of Youth Civic Participation

Given that I attended high school in a red state, I am no stranger to the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric used by parents, and some educators and school administrators. But I am also no stranger to the struggles that LGBTQ+ students face in schools. As a queer student myself and as a friend of many LGBTQ+ students, I know firsthand what it is like to live in a culture that doesn’t respect a fundamental piece of you, and to live in a community that may refuse to recognize your identity. Within my circle, I know what pronouns to use around some of my friends’ parents, but otherwise, I use the ones they identify with. Where I’m from, what some adults don’t understand is that people don’t choose pronouns out of defiance or some desire to rebel against the culture; they do it because it’s part of their identity. Sadly, identity has been warped into a point of political difference, and hatred has become a mechanism for ensuring cultural homogeneity, which is horribly unfair to students who share different sexual orientations or gender identities.

A major point of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric implies or directly states that students are “naive” or “aren’t mature enough” to understand what they are saying and should instead rely on what their family values. Apart from the fact that children have been forming different perspectives from their parents for centuries, this notion also strips autonomy away from students, who themselves have a stake in their education.

Young people know what’s going on, and many of us have organized to prove it. In Arizona, one student-led group, Support Equality Arizona Schools, organized protests against anti-transgender policies in their state. In Ohio, students participated in national walkouts. And in Kentucky, students from the Kentucky Student Voice Team (KSVT), to which I belong, conducted research on race, ethnicity, and school climate by disseminating a survey that garnered over 10,000 responses statewide, and we published a report about our findings ( Many students chose to share that they identify as LGBTQ+ on a survey that was primarily aimed at understanding racial and ethnic demographics—and how that did or did not shape student experiences in school. Students shared that they also feel left out and not served by their schools because they are LGBTQ+. I share these examples from the past year to show that students in red states can and will continue to organize against anti-LGBTQ+ politics.

In one of our school climate surveys, KSVT found that 23% of 1,939 students felt that their schools were unsupportive of queer students and another 32% were unsure of whether they were supportive. The important part of these findings is that students do not feel overtly supported in schools, and as a result, they have shown solidarity with their peers by setting out to do the work of supporting each other. Students want to know how other students feel, and we realize that by banding together we can organize and fight for change. Ultimately, this work shows us all that youth civic participation is an incredibly valuable tool.

A Seat at the Table

Within schools, students must have a seat at the table. Creating positions for students on financial decision committees, school boards, and other entities with decision-making power is an excellent way to promote student engagement and learn about the experiences of your student body from students themselves. Having students, especially a diverse collection of students, speak about their experiences can help ensure that decision-makers hear the voices of LGBTQ+ students.

Additionally, I encourage students, teachers, and school administrators across the nation to take a closer look at the incredible efforts of students in red states to organize against anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Pay attention to them, support them, and encourage them. Email the organizing coordinator of a youth coalition that you read about and offer your support and a few kind words. Be sure to post information about an organization’s latest protest on your social media, and make sure you stay in the loop on youth organizing.

It is vital that school administrators in red states remain neutral as their students organize. Allow the students, who are the primary stakeholders in their own education, to make decisions about how they want to push for better circumstances. What students want will come to the forefront, regardless of what measures politicians may take to block students’ efforts. Bills that limit what can be discussed in a classroom won’t stop students from having those conversations outside of the classroom, and they will use their energy and collective power to mobilize. Students are proud to say “gay” and will continue to fight against LGBTQ+-restrictive policies. We are the next generation, and we will continue building our power.

Norah Laughter is a freshman at Yale University in New Haven, CT, and a 2022 NHS scholarship finalist.


Cervantes, N.O. (2022, November 20). Transgender community, parents fear fallout of Florida’s ban on gender-affirming care. The Orlando Sentinel.

Chen, D.W. (2022, May 4). Transgender athletes face bans from girls’ sports in 10 U.S. states. The New York Times.

Glueck, K, & Mazzei, P. (2022, April 14). Red states push L.G.B.T.Q. restrictions as education battles intensify. The New York Times.

Wamsley, L. (2022, October 21). What’s in the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill that could impact the whole country. NPR.