Ask Lambda Legal – When You’re New at School

Q: My family and I just moved, and I just started at a new school. I’m hoping that I can be open about being gay there, but I’m not sure how to find out. What should I do?    
           
A: Starting at a new school isn’t easy for anybody, especially if you have concerns about how your teachers and fellow students will react to your being gay. The good news is that LGBT students across the country in grades K-12 have many rights that protect them from bullying, harassment and discrimination while in school. So while you are meeting new people and settling in, you can rest a little easier knowing that the law is on your side.

Did you know that more and more jurisdictions are adopting laws that prohibit and penalize bullying, and almost every state has anti-bullying laws on the books? These laws are important because, unfortunately, more than 60 percent of LGBTQ students report feeling unsafe at school, and nearly 40 percent have been physically harassed and 18 percent assaulted. Thankfully, you don’t need to be “out” or even LGBTQ to be protected under the law. By guaranteeing “equal protection of the laws” to all people, the Constitution also protects students who are perceived to be LGBTQ, as well as students who associate with LGBTQ people.

In public schools, LGBTQ students have the right to voice their support for LGBTQ equality and wear T-shirts or distribute leaflets expressing LGBTQ-positive statements without censorship and hold meetings for LGBTQ-related groups on the same terms as other student organizations. The rules can be different for private schools, but you still have certain federal and state laws on your side.

If you’d like to get specific information on where your school stands on LGBTQ issues, look in its student handbook. Check for written policies regarding LGBTQ students and a clear policy about how students and staff should report and respond to incidents of harassment or discrimination. You can also try to find teachers or other school employees who openly show support. They might have an “LGBTQ Safe Zone” sticker in their office or classroom, or participation in student-sponsored events like GLSEN’s Day of Silence. Chances are, there are friendly and supportive teachers at your school.

Does your school already have a gay-straight alliance (GSA)? There are more than 4,000 GSAs in schools nationwide, and it’s good to know that GSAs can’t be discriminated against or held to different standards than other student clubs — it’s the law. The Gay-Straight Alliance Network offers a national directory of statewide organizations that work with GSAs and other resources for starting a GSA: www.gsanetwork.org/national-directory.

Students have the right to be safe and supported at school! Our Know Your Rights Toolkit for LGBT teens and young adults can be found here: www.lambdalegal.org/know-your-rights/youth.

If you have questions about your rights at school, contact our Legal Help Desk at www.lambdalegal.org/help/ or by calling 866-542-8336.

Hayley Gorenberg is deputy legal director for Lambda Legal, the national organization that works to secure full civil rights for LGBT people.

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