Parental rights bill could keep LGBTQ youth in the closet

The safety and well-being of LGBTQ youth would face significant risks under state Sen. Konni Burton’s recent bid to expand parental rights by mandating that teachers provide parents with certain information that students have confided in them.

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth trust and confide in their teachers about their sexual orientation or gender identity when they perceive that their families will not be accepting. In many cases, a teacher may be the only adult that an LGBTQ youth has come out to.

Some supporters of Burton’s proposal point out that school social workers and other licensed professionals would not have to adhere to these provisions and are given much more discretion when it comes to sharing information with parents. When asked whom they feel most comfortable talking to about issues related to their sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBTQ students report that they feel more comfortable talking with teachers than any other school officials, including counselors and social workers.

In addition to providing support and affirmation, teachers often play a critical role in preparing LGBTQ youth for coming out to their parents, peers and others. Teachers can help students prepare exactly what they want to convey when they do decide to come out and they are often the first people that students contact for support when parents don’t respond with acceptance or affirmation.

Eliminating protection of teacher-student communication will almost certainly place LGBTQ students in situations in which they are forced to choose between seeking out the support of a trusted teacher and running the risk of being outed to potentially rejecting parents, or to remain silent about an important part of who they are. Such a dilemma poses significant threats to the well-being, health, and safety of LGBTQ youth.

According to a recent study, LGBTQ youth whose families respond with hostility and rejection are nearly eight times more likely to attempt suicide and six times more likely to suffer from depression than those whose families are accepting. Furthermore, many LGBTQ youth are kicked out of their homes by their parents or run away from environments that are hostile or abusive. Nearly 40% of the nation’s homeless youth identify as LGBTQ and the majority of them indicate that family rejection and hostility are the major contributors to their homelessness.

The loneliness and silence of remaining in the closet is perhaps the only thing that poses more threats to the safety and well-being of LGBGTQ youth than family rejection. Those LGBTQ youth who have confided in their peers or teachers have higher rates of self-esteem and a greater sense of belonging than those who have not. Their friends and classmates can play a critical role in the lives of these youths; this bill’s requirement of teachers to report information regardless of how they became aware of it would certainly make many LGBTQ youth reluctant to come out to anyone at school.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of societal acceptance in recent years is the recent trend in which LGBTQ youth are coming out earlier than ever before. Affirming and empathetic teachers across the state have been instrumental in creating safer spaces for LGBTQ youth; efforts to intrude on those spaces are sure to reverse this trend. Instead of creating new obstacles for teachers to navigate, lawmakers should be focused on efforts to provide teachers with resources aimed at reducing bullying of LGBTQ youth and improving access to resources such as gay-straight alliance groups and other supports.

As the legislative session unfolds, we must encourage our officials to consider the adverse consequences that this legislation can have on some of Texas’s most vulnerable youth.

Adam McCormick

Assistant professor, St. Edward's University