Currently, educational institutions that receive federal funding are prohibited from discriminating against students on the basis of race, sex or religion. On Tuesday, the Senate voted on a bill that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list. Fifty-two senators voted in favor of the measure, just eight votes shy of the sixty needed to pass it.
The measure — which would have amended the Every Child Achieves Act — was introduced by Senator Al Franken of Minnesota (yes, that Al Franken—the Stuart Smalley guy). Franken has been trying to get Congress to pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act, a bill intended to prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in schools, since 2010. The bill reads, in part:
No student shall, on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of such individual or of a person with whom the student associates or has associated, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
The bill calls for school officials to take measures against anti-LGBT harassment and bullying between students. It also would have banned school administrations from treating LGBT kids differently. That means that a high school could not prevent a gay student from taking a same-sex date to the prom, or forbid a trans student from joining a sports team.
Section 2 of the bill discusses the motivation behind it:
(1) Public school students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (referred to in this Act as ‘‘LGBT’’), or are perceived to be LGBT, or who associate with LGBT people, have been and are subjected to pervasive discrimination, including harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence, and have been deprived of equal educational opportunities, in schools in every part of the Nation… [it represents] a distinct and severe problem that remains inadequately addressed by current Federal law… [contributing] to high rates of absenteeism, academic underachievement, dropping out, and adverse physical and mental health consequences among LGBT youth.
Senator Franken said, “More than 30 percent of LGBT kids report missing a day of school in the previous month because they felt unsafe. Nearly 75 percent of LGBT students say they’ve been verbally harassed at school. And more than 35 percent of LGBT kids report being physically attacked. This bullying cannot continue.”
A study by the Frances McClelland Institute found that LGBT adolescents who faced a high rate of bullying in schools were 2.6 times more likely to have clinical depression and twice as likely to develop a sexually-transmitted illness.
“When left unchecked,” Franken’s bill adds, “discrimination in schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity can lead, and has led, to life-threatening violence and to suicide.”
LGBT youths have a much higher rate of suicidal behavior than the general population. According to the Trevor Project, lesbian, gay and bisexual youths are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. That rate climbs even higher for trans youths and gender-nonconforming people who are nine times more likely to attempt suicide than the national average.
But tolerance, or even neutrality toward LGBT youths, can make a big, positive difference. LGBT youths who suffer less harassment are significantly less likely to develop these same problems. If it had passed, the Student Non-Discrimination Act could have saved lives. It could have prevented suicide attempts. It could have lowered rates of clinical depression.
Senator Franken expressed “tremendous disappointment” at Congress’s failure to pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act. In a statement to the press, he said:
The inability to put in place meaningful protections for some of our most vulnerable children is an enormous disservice to LGBT students all across the country who face terrible bullying every day… We have a responsibility here to protect all our kids. Not just as Senators, but as adults. And although I’m disappointed with the result today, I’m going to keep fighting to get this measure passed into law.
Although the measure’s failure to pass is saddening, the fact that it received a majority of votes, however slight, in a Republican-controlled Congress is an encouraging sign. Maybe a few members of the GOP have noticed that America — even corporate America — supports gays much more than it used to.