Guest Opinion: Our LGBTQ students need a voice at the table

  • by John Laird
  • Wednesday June 28, 2023
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State Senator John Laird. Photo: Courtesy John Laird
State Senator John Laird. Photo: Courtesy John Laird

Last year, Paso Robles High School, located in my state Senate District 17, experienced a deeply disturbing incident. A Pride flag was ripped down and subjected to appalling and gruesome acts that I do not wish to detail here. These acts were then proudly shared on social media.

Unfortunately, the school administration and board failed to take immediate action in response. However, a group of courageous students, primarily representing the LGBTQ+ community, took matters into their own hands. They organized a town hall meeting, which saw an impressive turnout of over 350 attendees.

This gained significant attention from local media outlets, resulting in news coverage, commentary, and public discussion. This increased scrutiny prompted the administration and school board to finally take action. Furthermore, the mayor of Paso Robles hosted a forum to foster unity and collaboration within the community.

I had the privilege of inviting these high school students who organized the town hall meeting to dinner. As an older gay man who witnessed and participated in the organizing struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, who served as one of the first openly gay mayors in the country, and a founding member of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, I found their organizing and actions deeply moving. I could not help but reflect on my own youth and acknowledge that I most likely would not have possessed the same level of courage to do what they had done.

Witnessing these young individuals realize their own power was a truly inspiring experience. It was an important reminder for myself just as much as them on what a collective voice can accomplish in the face of what seems like daunting odds.

In recognition of their remarkable efforts, the students were recognized at last year's Legislative LGBTQ Caucus awards as my honorees. I proudly shared their accomplishments while on the Senate floor, in acknowledgment and recognition of their bravery and dedication to standing up against injustice. However, the work is not yet done.

It is startling that in California, to get a seat at the table in situations like this — the students had to construct the table and demand to sit in the very chairs they built.

So this year, when approached by the California Association of Student Councils to introduce legislation, I said yes and introduced Senate Bill 857.

In the California Association of Student Council's own words:

"Every student deserves a safe and supportive school environment where they can learn and succeed. Unfortunately, while California has passed several laws to protect LGBTQ+ students, many school districts lack the resources to implement these laws, face hostile local social climates that impede implementation, or lack awareness regarding existing legal requirements and the best ways to meet them. According to Equality California Institute's 2022 Safe and Supportive Schools Report Card, 30% of school districts that responded to the survey had not adopted an anti-bullying policy that explicitly prohibits bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Nearly half (48%) of respondents had not adopted LGBTQ+ inclusive educational materials that are compliant with the FAIR Education Act. SB 857 is an important opportunity to empower the growing community of LGBTQ+ students, ensure the enforcement and implementation of existing laws, and work to address the real needs of all California students."

The Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful, or FAIR, Act, signed into law by former governor Jerry Brown in 2011, states that a "teacher shall not give instruction and a school district shall not sponsor any activity that promotes a discriminatory bias on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, or sexual orientation." It was the first such law of its kind in the nation.

SB 857 will require the state superintendent of public instruction to convene an LGBTQ+ advisory task force to identify statewide needs and make recommendations to create a safe and supportive learning environment for LGBTQ+ students.

The goal is to have everyone at the table to make sure that there is a way to be prepared to deal with similar situations before they happen and to be proactive rather than reactive — without the students having to be the only ones to take the lead. This 11-member advisory task force would represent the diverse geographic, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, physical, and educational backgrounds of California's LGBTQ+ students and community.

The members of the advisory committee, appointed through a selection process overseen by the superintendent of public instruction, would include:

- Three LGBTQ+ students currently enrolled in a California high school;

- One school administrator employed by a local educational agency;

- Two certified school teachers employed by a local educational agency;

- One licensed physician and surgeon, with a preference for those practicing LGBTQ+ affirming care;

- Two mental health professionals, with a preference for those practicing LGBTQ+ affirming care;

- One community LGBTQ+ advocate, with a preference for those with programmatic expertise; and

- One representative from the Office of Health Equity established by the State Department of Public Health.

It is high time that we ensure California's students have a rightful place at the table when it comes to matters of equity and inclusion. They should not have to demand a seat only after a distressing incident occurs and makes headlines. The passage of SB 857 would help to rectify this situation. Notably, it received majority support in the state Senate, passing on a bipartisan vote of 35-0. In the coming weeks, it will be considered in the state Assembly. Let us come together and enact this crucial piece of legislation into law in California.

State Senator John Laird, a gay man, represents the 17th Senate District, which contains Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo Counties in their entirety, as well as portions of Monterey and Santa Clara Counties. Laird served as former governor Jerry Brown's secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency and previously as a member of the state Assembly. He's also a former mayor of Santa Cruz.

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