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5 Reasons Why We Need Symbols of LGBTQ Support

Removing pride flags and safe space stickers in schools.

Key points

  • Pride flags and safe space stickers are facing bans in schools around the country.
  • The five basic arguments: safety, "turning" gay, parents' rights, student learning, and political speech.
  • Students need safe and positive classroom environments to learn and develop into healthy adults.

Teachers and districts around the country are facing attacks for having symbols of LGBTQ support in their classrooms. What’s the concern about a pride flag or safe space sticker, and what reasons are there for teachers to display them? For example, this August, Florida school districts ordered the removal of such stickers in response to the newly passed "Don’t Say Gay" bill. Their argument was that the “safe space” sticker “distracts from our goals of creating a school-wide and districtwide safe environment.” There are several stories of schools in Missouri, Maine, and Pennsylvania asking teachers to remove pride flags from their classrooms. In an effort to help understand the research that supports positive symbols of support in schools, I will share research that refutes the arguments I have seen against these symbols:

  1. School safety: “Safe space” stickers indicate that only some spaces are welcoming for LGBTQ students and prove that not all spaces are safe for all students. By removing the stickers, we can proclaim the whole school “safe” for all students.
  2. Turning gay: Pride flags show support for LGBTQ people. By saying it's “OK to be gay,” it will make more students come out. Seeing a pride flag will make kids “turn” LGBTQ.
  3. Parents' rights: Discussing gender and sexuality should happen in the privacy of the family unit. By displaying safe space stickers and pride flags, you are violating parents’ rights to raise their children in their worldview.
  4. Student learning: Schools should focus on teaching students the official curriculum: math, history, science, English, and so on. Showing support for the LGBTQ community distracts from the purpose of schools.
  5. Teacher speech and political statements: Teachers should not display political symbols or express personally held political viewpoints in the classroom.

School Safety

To address the school safety argument: there is ample evidence collected by many scholars over the past two decades that clearly show that LGBTQ youth are not safe in many schools. They experience higher rates of bullying and harassment, dropping out, and lower feelings of school safety and belonging. School climate research indicates that for students to be successful at school, they need to: feel safe, like they belong, and have positive student-teacher relationships. If these elements aren’t present, students are more likely to struggle academically, skip school, or drop out (Thapa et al, 2013). Teachers understand this and try to build positive relationships with their students. These stickers and flags are one way to signal support and affirmation for students who often don’t feel seen and respected at home or at school. Having supportive adults at school is important, as indicated by GLSEN’s research:

“Looking at students with 11 or more supportive staff members, versus those without any supportive staff members, students with this level of support were less likely to feel unsafe (40.6 percent vs. 78.7 percent), less likely to miss school because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable (16.9 percent vs. 47.2 percent), had higher GPAs (3.3 vs. 2.8), and were less likely to say they might not graduate high school (1.7 percent vs. 9.5 percent). Overall, students who had supportive staff by their side reported higher perceptions of safety and overall academic performance, creating a better school environment for all.”

"Turning Gay"

The turning gay argument. There is no evidence that seeing a pride flag or safe space sticker will “turn” a person gay. What it might do is make them feel supported enough that they are willing to “come out” or share that aspect of their identity with you. However, this argument is inherently homophobic. It assumes that having an LGBTQ identity is a bad thing that is to be avoided. This framing is harmful. If more kids come out as LGBTQ+, that should be viewed as a good thing: it means they feel seen, safe, and supported and can lead healthier lives as a result of having pride and confidence in their developing identities. The reasons someone identifies as LGBTQ are not settled in the research community, but there is no evidence that seeing a pride flag is a factor (Halley 2014).

Parents' Rights

The parents’ rights argument. These are becoming more popular as “transparency” and “parents’ rights” laws are spreading around the country. These state laws are harmful and undermine the public schools in a diverse democratic society. The Supreme Court has already decided that parents don’t have a right to dictate the curriculum in public schools (Mead & Lewis, 2016), however, these state laws can deprive students of meaningful learning about many topics including race and LGBTQ people. Public schools are a public good and the education professionals who are experts in content, child development, school safety, and equity should be allowed to make these decisions without the over-involvement of extreme factions of their community.

Student Learning

The issue of student learning. We know that students will refuse to learn and disengage from adults who don’t see and respect them (Watson & Russell 2016). We know that students will stop attending school if they aren’t safe and supported (Kosciw et al 2020). If we want students to learn and teachers to support their academic success, then we need to be able to ensure their safety: both physically and emotionally.

Teacher Speech and Political Viewpoints

Finally, there is the teacher's speech and political viewpoint argument. I have written earlier posts about existing research and knowledge about free speech in schools. However, I would argue that the pride flag is not an explicitly political symbol. Displaying it is much like having posters of diverse authors, or flags from different countries; it displays support for the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion so all students can thrive. It is a symbol of support for students which shouldn't be politicized.

References

Halley, J. (2014) Sexual Orientation and the Politics of Biology: A Critique of the Argument from Immutability. Routledge

Kosciw, J. G., Clark, C. M., Truong, N. L., & Zongrone, A. D. (2020). The 2019 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools.

Mead, J. F., & Lewis, M. M. (2016). The Implications of the Use of Parental Choice as a Legal "Circuit Breaker". American Educational Research Journal, 53, 100-131.

Thapa, A., Cohen, J., Guffey, S., & Higgins-D'Alessandro, A. (2013). A Review of School Climate Research. Review of Educational Research, 83(3), 357-385. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654313483907

Watson, R. J., & Russell, S. T. (2016). Disengaged or Bookworm: Academics, Mental Health, and Success for Sexual Minority Youth. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26(1), 159-165. https://doi.org/10.1111/jora.12178

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