How Can We Better Protect LGBTQ Students: Psychologists Take Action
Over the last year, we have witnessed regular news media headlines coming out of Washington, D.C. with a state of shock, horror, and anger. Specifically, we have been alarmed by the rollback of protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth and students.
We know from first-hand experience that LGBTQ students face many forms of discrimination which contribute to health disparities, such as increased rates of suicide and homelessness. Specifically:
I (Lou) have been gender non-conforming my whole life and I have faced harassment in educational institutions from elementary school through my doctoral studies.
I (Theresa) work with LGBTQ youth at an organization called OUTreach Utah. All too often, the youth I see are marginalized and bullied at home and at school. When they suffer at school, personnel frequently fail to protect these students. Even worse, faculty, staff, and administration often blame the youth for the fact that they are bullied.
I (Joshua) came out as gay at a faith-based college, Biola University, where I risked academic expulsion based on my sexual identity, and realized I did not have any legal protections.
Together, we have each dedicated our careers as clinical psychologists to helping support LGBTQ people in the face of discrimination, which we have done through research, clinical services, and volunteering.
LGBTQ children and youth face daily roadblocks to their education and threats to their safety. This is a systemic issue and requires a systemic response.
Like many Americans, we have at times felt powerless against what seems to be an overwhelming recent assault on many of the most marginalized groups of Americans, including (but certainly not limited to) LGBTQ students. Hence, we asked ourselves “what can we do to help”? We decided to visit Washington, D.C. to talk to Members of Congress, including some who may not share our views, about the importance of protecting LGBTQ students.
Our first step was to contact staff at the APA to help us get started. We felt particularly fortunate to receive wonderful assistance from staff in the Public Interest and Education Government Relations Offices.
Prior to meetings with congressional offices, we connected with leading LGBTQ advocacy groups in Washington to learn about their current federal priorities and strategies. We met with the Human Rights Campaign, GLSEN, and the Trevor Project, as well as APA staff from the Safe and Supportive Schools Project. As a result, we learned about several important priorities. These included:
re-instating Title IX protections for transgender youth;
the ‘Safe Schools Improvement Act’ which would require schools to create plans to combat bullying, specifically including LGBTQ students;
fully funding Title IV (school climate improvement grants) of ‘Every Student Succeeds Act’; and
ensuring that federal surveys and surveillance systems collect sexual orientation and gender identity data.
Further, we were alarmed to learn that the Trevor Project has seen a dramatic increase in the number of transgender youth calling their suicide prevention crisis hotline following the announcement of President Trump’s military ban for transgender service members. This provided a sobering reminder of how our government’s words and decisions affect those most vulnerable in our society.
Our meetings with these groups affirmed two clear messages:
(1) LGBTQ students need critical legal protections, and
(2) we need data to tell us how we can help.
We lobbied staff from the National Governors Association and the offices of Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), Sen. Orin Hatch (R-UT), and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on these important legal protections and data collection. Among the issues raised by the advocacy groups we met with the day before, we talked about:
the high rates of LGBTQ suicide attempts and homelessness, as well as
the lack of Title IX protections that could reduce bullying and victimization of transgender students
the need for greater legal protections and data collection to end these health disparities.
Each of us explained why these issues are important to us personally, how they impact our work as psychologists, and how they affect the Members’ constituents. Unsurprisingly, some offices did not agree on how to address the concerns. But others were eager to listen, and shared concerns about the high rates of suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth and other health disparities. All of the offices agreed that there should be ongoing Congressional oversight of the Department of Education to continue to protect students, and asked us to follow up and continue the conversation.
The experience reminded us that advocacy isn’t a one-time deal, and it’s not just happening in Washington. Advocacy can happen through a phone call or an email to our Members of Congress. Hence, we will follow up with the various offices we contacted to remind them about the critical protections that LGBTQ youth need.
We encourage you to get involved, too. Join the APA Federal Action Network or get involved at the local or community level. Psychologists have a lot to contribute to advocacy, and it’s vital to make your voice heard.
Joshua R. Wolff, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Adler University in Chicago, IL. Further, he was a contributor to the U.S. government’s (SAMHSA/HHS) report, “Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth”. His current research is directed at developing evidence-based public health strategies to reduce suicide rates and health risk behaviors for SGM people in non-affirming religious environments by building partnerships with clergy and faith leaders.
Theresa Stueland Kay, PhD, trained at Biola University, a faith-based institution, and is a licensed psychologist in Utah. She is also an Associate Professor of Psychology at Weber State University. Dr. Kay also serves as Board Chair at OUTreach Utah, a nonprofit organization that serves and supports LGBTQ youth.
H. L. “Lou” Himes, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and president at QuIPP, the Queer Identities Psychology Partnership—a group psychotherapy practice in Manhattan, NY that focuses on providing psychotherapy and transition-related support for trans/queer individuals. Dr. Himes uses they/them/theirs pronouns.
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