On March 23, 2009, a GLSEN delegation met with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan – the first time a sitting Secretary of Education had ever taken a meeting on LGBTQ issues in education. Our team of students, educators and parents told Secretary Duncan their stories, laid out an agenda for improving the lives and experiences of LGBTQ students in U.S. schools, and provided the evidence of how our issues could help him in his quest to make our schools better for everyone.
A GLSEN delegation meets with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2009
The seven years since that meeting have marked one of the most remarkable periods of progress in GLSEN’s history. Our many victories since 1990 mean we start this new school year with an amazing foundation for continued progress, and inspiring proof of the power of personal stories to move mountains.
In 2009, we were still trying to convince the world that bullying was a serious issue requiring a serious response, not just an issue of “kids will be kids.” We brought the education world together to combat bullying as a public health crisis – with LGBTQ youth and bias-based bullying at the center of the discussion – and our collective efforts have turned the tide.
In 2009 – less than two weeks before our meeting – a U.S. District Court had to compel a Florida school district to respect the right of Yulee High School students to form a GSA. In 2011, Secretary Duncan sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to every school district in the country affirming the right of students to form GSAs and praising the work of GSAs across the country. Today, just over half of LGBTQ students have access to a GSA in their school.
In 2009, bathroom access for transgender students was an afterthought when it was considered at all. Both nationally and through our chapters, GLSEN kept moving the issues forward locally, providing guidance to districts ready to start the work and building a body of experience and learning that demonstrates how seamlessly a school community can provide the support a trans student needs and is due. That track record informed the guidance issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice on how to meet their obligations to transgender students under Title IX, the federal law that prevents discrimination in education on the basis of sex.
Adrien Arnao was one of the students who told their stories to Secretary Duncan in 2009. Right after the meeting, Adrien told other GLSEN student leaders over dinner how much it had meant to him to see the Secretary really listening, and grappling with the reality of their daily lives in school. Adrien witnessed how their stories made the issues and the humans facing them real for a person in power. Thanks to the power of their stories, Adrien said, “Secretary Duncan is going to do something about it. It might not happen tomorrow or in the next year, but it is going to happen, and that gives me so much faith and hope. One day, we’re not going to have to fight for these rights because these rights are going to be real.”
Dr. Eliza Byard at the Department of Education’s 2016 LGBT Pride event, recognizing the progress on LGBTQ issues in K-12 education
Since that meeting in 2009, many of those rights are becoming real, but not without consistent struggle and vigilance. Today, some students are still being prevented from starting GSAs, even though they have the right to do so under the Equal Access Act. Nearly half of the states are suing to stop the Department of Education from protecting transgender students so that they can continue to discriminate against them. Clearly, we still have work to do – work that hopefully will be continued by the next President.
Right now we need your help. Whoever becomes our next President needs to know how important our progress has been for the lives of millions of people, and hear from you about what must happen next. Now you can tell them by signing GLSEN’s Letter to the Next President. We’ll deliver the signed letter to the candidates before the first Presidential debate of the general election, in time for them to make their support for LGBTQ students a part of their campaign platforms.
After you sign the letter, you’ll also be able to share your story with GLSEN, so we can reach those in power with the power of your experience. Leaders at all levels need to hear the stories of the people affected by their decisions – they need to know that progress is possible, that it matters to millions of people’s lives, and that we all will be better off when they act to support LGBTQ youth.
As we go back to school in 2016, help sustain the momentum and protect the progress we’ve made – sign GLSEN’s Letter to the Next President, and share your story with us. Join GLSEN in our efforts to bring these issues to life in ways that will continue to change the world.
Dr. Eliza Byard is GLSEN’s Executive Director.