Ian Thompson (Washington, D.C.)
Each day, I have the great privilege of working to secure basic fairness and equality under the law for LGBT people all across the country. The ACLU has a long and proud history of fighting for the rights of LGBT people. We brought our first LGBT rights case in 1936 – in defense of “The Children’s Hour,” a play written by Lillian Hellman that was banned by Boston’s public censor due to its “lesbian content.”
An important area of the ACLU’s LGBT rights work today is focused on issues related to youth and schools. We regularly work with – and sometimes represent as clients – students fighting to establish gay-straight alliances (GSAs) or to attend school dances with same-sex dates and dressed in gender non-conforming ways if they choose. We firmly believe that all young people should be taught in an environment respectful of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Without question, my single biggest source of inspiration in motivating me to do the work of advocating for LGBT rights in the halls of Congress are the stories of incredibly courageous young people who are willing to stand up and fight for their rights. Young people like 14-year-old Bayli Silberstein in Ocala, Florida who sued her school for the right to establish a GSA to help create a safer and more welcoming environment for all students. Or 18-year-old Issak Wolfe, a transgender high school senior in Red Lion, Pennsylvania, who was denied the chance to run for prom king when his principal placed his female birth name in the column for “prom queen” despite repeated requests to be listed under his correct gender identity. The ACLU is currently representing Issak to ensure that he will be able to attend his high school graduation wearing a black cap and gown for boys, as opposed to the yellow cap and gown mandated for girls, and to have his male name read at the ceremony.
Creating a safer school climate and wanting to be recognized by your school as the boy you are. These are such basic things that, in the year 2013, it seems almost baffling that students would have to be willing to stand up and challenge their schools for them. And yet they do it and it takes a lot of courage to do so.
Part of what I do in Washington, DC is actually quite simple – I tell stories. Yes, that’s right. Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools that advocates for civil and human rights have to move progress forward. By sharing the stories of young people like Bayli and Issak with members of Congress, for example, I can help build support for the Student Non-Discrimination Act. What is this and why is it important you ask?
The Student Non-Discrimination Act would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in every public school in the U.S. The need could not be clearer. A 2011 nationwide survey of more than 8,500 students between the ages of 13-20 by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that eight out of ten LGBT students reported experiencing harassment at their school within the past year based on their sexual orientation. Transgender students experienced even more hostile school climates than their non-transgender peers, with 80% of transgender students reporting feeling unsafe at school because of their gender expression.
The Student Non-Discrimination Act would give LGBT students and their families the right to take schools to court when they fail to take harassment and bullying seriously, or engage in discrimination (e.g. refusing to allow a student to bring a same-sex date to prom).
When members of Congress here about what LGBT students like Bayli and Issak have endured, it becomes quickly apparent that there is a need for action to prevent other students in the future from having to go through similar struggles. When LGBT students stand up and fight for their rights, they are not just standing up for themselves. They are standing up for all the young people who will follow in their footsteps in the future.
Young people are often asked what they will do to make the world better. Leaving your school a safer, more welcoming and affirming place is a wonderful legacy. It also gives daily inspiration to me. For being true to yourselves and living your lives with honesty and integrity, I say thank you.
I welcome any feedback or questions you may have. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @iantDC