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Teaching and Affirming LGBTQ Youth after the ‘Bostock’ Decision

This summer’s landmark Supreme Court case made it illegal to fire someone based on their gender or sexuality. But ‘Bostock’ is a baseline, not a ceiling.

I often tell my colleagues that summer doesn’t officially begin for me until after the Supreme Court decisions have been announced. Waiting by on my computer and refreshing Supreme Court watcher websites is a June ritual. And once the decisions have been announced and I have processed them (for good and for bad), I can then begin my summer break. 

This summer, in the midst of a pandemic and global protest against anti-Black racism, the Supreme Court handed down one decision that expands upon the civil rights litigation and laws that are narrated in history books. It’s a decision that will resonate throughout the lives of public educators, and one we should all keep in mind as we return to school this fall.

On June 15, in the landmark case Bostock v. Clayton County, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that employment discrimination due to someone’s sexual orientation or their gender identity is unconstitutional. Like many politically engaged observers, I was pleasantly surprised by the 6-3 outcome. Last year, I outlined some actionable steps to create more LGBTQ-affirming schools regardless of how the Supreme Court ultimately ruled. 

With Bostock now settled and LGBTQ employment discrimination secured in constitutional law, it’s important to note that Bostock’s outcome is a minimal bar to be met. Being protected from being fired is not the same thing as being affirmed. And Bostock does not guarantee our classrooms will be safe and affirming spaces. Educators, not jurisprudence, will ultimately decide that outcome. We must do more than the requirement of the law. That’s why, in addition to the steps I outlined last year, I invite educators to consider the following recommendations. 

Place as much emphasis on local elections as federal ones. 

Understandably, our attention as a nation often finds itself on federal elections and policy decisions. But while the Supreme Court’s Bostock decision is pivotal, it is also important students understand how local and state elections, judiciaries, and policy-making apparatuses work—especially given the localized nature of education policy in the United States.

We are in the midst of a presidential election year. The race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump will understandably be at the forefront of many students’ discussions, minds, and concerns. But students should understand that policy happens in many ways, and local and state elections matter just as much as federal ones when it comes to fighting for more just and equitable futures. It’s telling that some cities and states acted on protecting LGBTQ people before the Supreme Court stepped in.

Educators can help students pay attention to local elections for school boards as well as state legislator races. These more local positions often get less attention but hold unreported amounts of power in the education policy realm. For a small but meaningful example, students can look at book bans, which almost always happen at the local level, and overwhelmingly discriminate against LGBTQ texts

Teaching about local and state issues offers opportunities for excellent civics lessons. Federal elections can often feel removed from the daily realities of school life. Local and state-level elections are closer to voters, and candidates may be easier to contact and meet. Educators can remind students that local elections have a tremendous impact on the daily happenings of people’s lives while also connecting the topics in local elections to broader happenings in federal electoral politics.  

Understand that all political issues are LGBTQ issues and can be taught as such.

From Black Lives Matter protests to fights for healthcare access, LGBTQ activists, especially LGBTQ activists of color, have spearheaded movements to demand justice in this country. From this foundation, educators can teach how LGBTQ rights permeate all political issues. 

For example, a few days after the Bostock decision, the Supreme Court ruled in the case Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California. They found that the Trump administration’s attempt to rescind the DACA program was unconstitutional. This decision impacted thousands of undocumented LGBTQ Americans

The DACA decision is one example of teaching a political issue through the lens of LGBTQ rights. But it’s not difficult to do. When discussing DACA and immigration policy, which will be prominent topics in this year’s election, for example, social studies teachers can include the UndocuQueer Movement as part of their curriculum

English teachers can incorporate the narratives of undocumented LGBTQ people in their curriculum. The young adult adaptation of DREAMer activist Jose Antonio Vargas’ Dear America: The Story of an Undocumented Citizen is a powerful book to include in considering the dimensions of the DACA case. 

And any educators can pair the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards focusing on Identity and Justice with any of the texts above to teach how draconian immigration policies uniquely harm LGBTQ undocumented people. 

Expand definitions of literacy to include more types of LGBTQ-authored texts. 

The growing number of LGBTQ young adult literature titles is exciting, especially for an English educator like myself. However, print texts are not the only form of knowledge. And LGBTQ texts should not be siloed to English classrooms. 

Non-print literacies and digital literacies are important in all classrooms, and they can be especially powerful when addressing LGBTQ topics in classrooms. Incorporating a broad range of literacies can add more LGBTQ voices into the curriculum, highlight LGBTQ activism across contexts and connect contemporary protests with civil rights movements of the past.

For instance, the Instagram account @lgbtq_history is dedicated to documenting LGBTQ history that is often neglected in textbooks. This example speaks to the powerful ways LGBTQ youth are looking outside the limited, marginalizing narratives in history books to claim the historical space LGBTQ people deserve. 

Drag queen and activist Shea Couleé recently gave a powerful speech at the Drag March for Change. This speech, accessible via YouTube, could be used as a text in many types of classes. Social studies teachers, for example, could pair this text with speeches from other social movements to consider how Couleé’s activism builds upon and disrupts activist legacies of previous generations. English teachers could conduct a rhetorical analysis of the speech and place the speech in conversation with other texts to consider how people make change in their communities.

As we move beyond this summer and into the fall semester, we must keep trans rights lawyer and Bostock litigator Chase Strangio’s words at the center of our teaching:

This week, the work of millions, in the streets, in the legislatures, in the courts, allowed us to hold the line. Title VII and DACA are still here. Now, we push past that line. We build more and better. We grieve and fight.

Like many teachers, I am grieving the passing of legal icon Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I am scared about what her replacement on the Supreme Court means for LGBTQ students, educators and families. I also know that our work and our fight continue. Educators, we are vital in pushing that line; in building a better world; and in grieving and fighting. 

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