Public schools wrestle with sexual orientation issues

Public schools have emerged as a leading venue where divisions over sexual orientation are playing out. State legislation, lawsuits and school district policies are grappling with several areas of concern:

  • The increasing formation of Gay-Straight Alliance chapters in schools.
  • Bullying, discrimination and other forms of harassment that are based on perceived or actual sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • A growing number of students who openly identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning.
  • Free-speech questions over the rights of students who have religious views against homosexuality.
  • Questions about the rights of parents to limit their children’s exposure at school to information about sexual orientation or to limit students’ participation in clubs.
  • Questions about parents’ rights to allow their child to choose his or her gender identity, particularly when the child’s physical makeup includes traits of both genders.
  • Curriculum involving sexuality.
  • Questions about the origins of sexual orientation and gender identity.


The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network‘s 2011 National School Climate Survey of students who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender included findings that:

  • 84.9% of students heard “gay” used in a negative way (e.g., “that’s so gay”) frequently or often at school, and 91.4% reported that they felt distressed because of this language.
  • 61.4% heard negative remarks about gender expression (not acting “masculine enough” or “feminine enough”) frequently or often.
  •  71.3% heard other homophobic remarks (e.g., “dyke” or “faggot”) frequently or often.
  • 56.9% of students reported hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or other school staff, and 56.9% of students reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression from teachers or other school staff.
  • 63.5% felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation, and 43.9% because of their gender expression.

In March 2006, a group of organizations endorsed a framework for civilly discussing these matters. Co-author Charles Haynes wrote, in a column, “When they begin to listen to one another, most educators, parents and students discover that they want the same thing: public schools that are safe and free for all students.”

Why it matters

Opinions on sexual orientation issues are often influenced by religious beliefs and values. Public schools are for everyone. How can differences over sexual orientation and gender identity be handled in an atmosphere where values, safety and self-expression are encouraged?

Additional articles


National sources

Authors or endorsers of the guidelines "Public Schools and Sexual Orientation: A First Amendment Framework for Finding Common Ground":


  • Stephen Wessler

    Stephen Wessler is the former executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence, based in Portland, Maine. Before it closed, the center offered anti-bullying workshops in schools across the nation. Wessler is now training and consulting on a variety of civil rights and human rights issues both in Maine, elsewhere in the US and in Europe.

  • Nicole Manganelli

    The Unity Project is a non-profit, school-based bias and harassment prevention program focused on Maine middle and high schools. The mission of UP is to build strong leadership among young people and adults to prevent harassment and create safe schools. It is a continuation of the efforts started by the Center for Preventing Hate.

  • Brenda High

    Brenda High of Pasco, Wash., is founder and executive director of Bully Police USA, which rates states’ anti-bullying laws. She says it is difficult to gain passage of such laws if they specify protection of victims based on sexual orientation; also, she says that categorizing children under protected categories can stigmatize them and take the focus offthe culpability of bullies and of adults.

  • Matthew Wilson

    Matthew Wilson is the Lead Chair of the Safe Schools Coalition, based in Seattle, which works in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

    Contact: 253-671-2838.


Ex-gay movements and critics of gay rights

  • Mathew D. Staver

    Mathew D. Staver is founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, a civil liberties education and legal defense organization in Orlando, Fla., that focuses on freedom of speech and religious freedom.

    Read a July 5, 2006, news release about a lawsuit settlement that ended the designation of New York City’s Harvey Milk High School as being for gay, lesbian, transgender or questioning youth.

  • Alan Sears

    Alan Sears is president, CEO and general counsel of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal alliance based in Scottsdale, Ariz., whose focus is defending religious liberty. The ADF sponsors the Day of Dialogue in schools around the country to “counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda and express an opposing viewpoint from a Christian perspective.” It also supported the legislation that would have allowed Arizona business owners to deny services to same-sex couples for religious reasons.

    Contact: 480-444-0020.
  • Regina Griggs

    Regina Griggs is executive director of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX), which has worked for public schools to include educational material about ex-gays in programs that encompass sexual orientation.

  • Linda Harvey

    Linda Harvey of Columbus, Ohio, is founder and president of Mission:America, which opposes homosexuality and is concerned about its promotion in public schools.

  • Rick Scarborough

    Rick Scarborough is founder and head of Vision America, based in Lufkin, Texas, which encourages pastors and congregations to promote Judeo-Christian values in local, state and national issues. He favors overturning tolerance policies in public schools that require acceptance and protection of gays and lesbians. He wrote Liberalism Kills Kids (21st Century Press, 2006).

  • Christian Legal Society

    The Christian Legal Society is a nonprofit Christian organization headquartered in Virginia that consists of lawyers, judges, law professors and law students. Its members are bound to follow the “commandment of Jesus” and to “seek justice with the love of God.”

  • Randy Thomasson

    Randy Thomasson is founder and president of, formerly titled Campaign for Children and Families. It is an extremely anti-gay group.

    Contact: 877-405-4005.

Sex education

Regional sources


In the Northeast

  • Diane L. Moore

    Diane L. Moore is senior lecturer in religious studies and education and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School.

  • Lee Swislow

    Lee Swislow is executive director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which is based in Boston and has been active in matters involving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender public school students in New England. On its Rights and Resources page, GLAD tracks students’ rights state-by-state for Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island; click on LGBT Overview under each state.

  • Kristian M. Mineau

    Kristian M. Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, has been collecting reports from parents concerned about homosexuality being taught in public schools.

  • Marvin M. Ellison

    Marvin M. Ellison is Willard S. Bass Professor of Christian Ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine, author of Same-Sex Marriage? A Christian Ethical Analysis and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

  • MassResistance

    MassResistance (formerly Article 8 Alliance and Parents’ Rights Coalition) opposes same-sex marriage and is concerned about teaching about and promotion of homosexuality in public schools. The organization is based in Waltham, Mass.

    Contact: 781-890-6001.
  • Cris Beam

    Cris Beam, an adjunct assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University in New York City, wrote Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers (Harcourt, January 2007). Read a Jan. 5, 2007, article.

  • The Curve

    Planned Parenthood of Central Pennsylvania has organized The Curve, a support group for young people ages 14-21 who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender or are questioning their sexuality.”

  • Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum

    Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum formed in Montgomery County, Md., out of concern for how sexual orientation was presented in the public school sex education curriculum.

In the South

  • Victor Diaz-Herman

    Victor Diaz-Herman is executive director of Pridelines Youth Services, based in Miami, which serves gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth of South Florida. The nonprofit organization hosts an annual GLBTQ prom.

  • Michael Curtis

    Michael Curtis is Judge Donald L. Smith Professor in Constitutional and Public Law at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. He says the government can protect people from hate speech in public schools.

  • John Rustin

    John Rustin is president and executive director of the North Carolina Family Policy Council, based in Raleigh. The council focuses on a variety of faith-related issues, including conversion therapy and gambling.

  • Mark Yarhouse

    Mark Yarhouse is a psychology professor at Regent University, an evangelical Christian school in Virginia Beach, Va., where he is the director of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. He has written widely about same-sex attraction and church counseling, including “ex-gay” ministries, and about transgender identity. He is currently involved in a study of pastors and their response to people in their congregations who are questioning their sexual identity.

  • Kent Ostrander

    Kent Ostrander is executive director of the Family Foundation of Kentucky, a non-profit educational organization that focuses on public policy issues that affect the family.

  • Lisa Beavers

    Lisa Beavers, a licensed professional counselor in Nashville, is forming a safe haven program to meet youths’ concerns about gender or sexual identity formation.

  • Toby Jenkins

    Toby Jenkins is the executive director of Oklahomans for Equality, based in Tulsa, Okla. The organization seeks equal rights for the LGBT community.

In the Midwest

In the West

  • Gayle Ruzicka

    Gayle Ruzicka is president of Utah Eagle Forum, which supports state legislation to necessitate parental permission for student participation in school clubs.

  • Valerie Larabee

    Valerie Larabee directs youth programs at the Utah Pride Center, based in Salt Lake City.

  • Sheila Kuehl

    Former California state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, sponsored legislation – vetoed Sept. 6, 2006, by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – that would have prohibited in public schools teaching or instructional materials that discriminate against people based on sexual orientation.

  • Brad Dacus

    Brad Dacus is president of the Pacific Justice Institute of Sacramento, Calif. The institute is a religious liberty advocacy organization that has litigated on behalf of churches such as the Independent Baptist Church of Sacramento in land use cases.

  • Geoffrey Kors

    Geoffrey Kors is senior legislative and policy strategist for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and former executive director of Equality California, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Californians.

  • Joseph Nicolosi

    Joseph Nicolosi is founder and former president of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, based in Encino, Calif. His books include, as co-author with wife Linda Ames Nicolosi, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality (Intervarsity Press, 2002).

    Contact: 818-789-6944‎.

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