There was a time not that long ago when it would have seemed far-fetched to suggest that the law should protect gay and lesbian students in public schools from bullying or discrimination. It wasn’t just that homosexuality was still regarded as undesirable, even pathological. There was also a reluctance to recognize that children and adolescents might identify themselves — and be identified by their tormentors — as gay. (The children knew better, of course.)
Today it’s obvious that gay, lesbian and transgender students exist and that they are often the victims of bullying and harassment. A 2011 study by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found that 81.9% of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students reported being verbally harassed, 38.3% reported being physically harassed and 18.3% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. Recognizing that reality, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions sent a revision of the federal No Child Left Behind law to the Senate floor last week that includes a prohibition of discrimination by public schools “on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.” The provision was initially proposed by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).
The vote was along party lines — but it was on the overall extension and revision of No Child Left Behind, so it isn’t clear that all of the Republicans who voted no are implacably opposed to the proposed protections. But social conservatives long have portrayed legislation designed to deal with anti-gay bullying as a Trojan horse for a radical “homosexual agenda.” Rational Republicans must reject that canard.
Some critics of the anti-discrimination provisions argue that restrictions on “verbal harassment” of gay students would infringe on the free speech rights of students who have moral or religious objections to homosexuality. And it is true that the Supreme Court has ruled that schools may not suppress speech by students unless that speech “materially disrupts class work or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.” But this proposal wouldn’t alter existing legal protections for freedom of speech and religion. A high school student who opposed gay marriage wouldn’t be prevented from expressing that opinion; but he couldn’t bully or berate a gay classmate.
The renewal of No Child Left Behind involves a multitude of issues and is likely to undergo considerable change before it is enacted. But the final version must include protection for gay, lesbian and transgender students — not in order to advance a “homosexual agenda,” but to ensure that all students can study in a safe environment.