A wave of anti-LGBTQ laws for schools in red states has Biden administration weighing a response

KATY, Texas – It was late in the fall semester a few years ago when the yearbook staff of a suburban Houston high school finished putting together the project, including a full-page feature on the high school's Pride club, a support group for LGBTQ students.

The 2018-19 yearbook made its way to the administration for final review, which was when the principal saw the addition and made a controversial decision: parents of every student on that page would need to sign a permission slip.

The slips, sent to parents without students’ consent and for no other school club, caused an uproar, recalled Cameron Samuels, a club member and then a freshman.

"That forcibly outed those students to their families, and the Pride club disbanded because of that controversy and just the sheer impact that it had on the members of the club," Samuels told USA TODAY.

Samuels, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, was not in any photos on the page and was spared that trauma. But they saw how it shook and disturbed some classmates, they said.

'Don’t Say Gay': States try to limit LGBTQ influence

The controversy in Texas is one of many flashpoints in the divide playing out in school districts across the country between LGBTQ advocates pressing for greater acceptance and conservatives who oppose what they see as a radical shift in what children are being taught or exposed to in the classroom.

The nonprofit Movement Advancement Project estimates that 19% of LGBTQ people live in states that censor discussions of queer people or issues in school.

The pushback against LGBTQ rights is gaining steam across America, especially in red states where cultural wars over education have propelled Republicans to election victories. But that movement could hit a wall in the form of the Biden administration, which is proposing sweeping changes to Title IX, a federal statute that protects against discrimination based on gender and sex.

In March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill prohibiting the mention of sexual orientation or gender identity from classroom curriculum. Since then, about a dozen other state governments have passed or proposed copycat legislation, referred to derisively by opponents as "Don't Say Gay" laws.

DeSantis has defended the legislation, officially titled Parental Rights in Education, as giving more control to parents.

“We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination,” the governor said last spring.

Fearful, isolated: As 'Don't Say Gay' and similar bills take hold, LGBTQ youths feel they're 'getting crushed'

One of many states: Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill sparked national backlash. But more legislation is brewing.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced in April that passing a similar law is a “top priority.” Patrick won reelection in November for his third term in a position that also makes him president of the state Senate and in charge of the legislative agenda.

Texas could soon surpass Florida in restricting LGBTQ curriculum in public schools. While the Sunshine State's law prohibits instruction of sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade, a bill just introduced in the Texas legislature would carry the same restriction through eighth grade.

"The sexualization of our children must stop. Parents and taxpayers have spoken loudly over the past year-plus. The message is no more radical ideology in the classroom – particularly when it comes to inappropriate or obscene content," the bill's sponsor, GOP Rep. Jared Patterson said in a statement.

Rev. David Chatel speaks during a rally at the Alabama State House to draw attention to anti-transgender legislation introduced in Alabama on March 30, 2021.
Rev. David Chatel speaks during a rally at the Alabama State House to draw attention to anti-transgender legislation introduced in Alabama on March 30, 2021.

Alabama, Ohio, Louisiana among states leading anti-LGBTQ charge:

  • Alabama: The state legislature there passed what began as a “bathroom bill” preventing transgender students from using the bathroom of the gender they identify. The bill, signed by Gov. Kay Ivey last April, came to include additional restrictions on sexual orientation or gender identity discussions through fifth grade.

  • Ohio: Lawmakers in the Buckeye State have proposed a bill to ban LGBTQ-related instruction through third grade.

  • Louisiana: A similar bill in Louisiana was rejected last year by the state's House Education Committee, but it was later revived by conservatives. The bill, shelved for this year’s legislative session, would prevent these discussions through the eighth grade or teachers from discussing their own identities through the 12th grade.

'Taking control of our own lives': Virginia students walk out over reversal of transgender protections.

More: Are anti-LGBTQ laws legal? Alabama trans laws spark debate over Constitutional rights.

Federal pushback from Biden administration in the form of Title IX

These state initiatives could soon face challenges at the federal level, though. On the 50th anniversary of Title IX last summer, the Biden administration proposed expansions to the civil rights law that would strengthen protections for LGBTQ students.

In that case, so-called "Don't Say Gay" legislation would be at odds with federal law, in violation of the new, more explicit definitions of sex discrimination and stereotyping, said Title IX Consulting Group Founder and CEO Sandra Hodgin.

“Federal regulation trumps state regulation,” Hodgin said. “State regulators would have to figure out how to make whatever they want in place to work with the federal (requirements).”

President Joe Biden ordered a review of Title IX policies last year and over the summer released a proposal with sweeping amendments, including greater protection for LGBTQ students.
President Joe Biden ordered a review of Title IX policies last year and over the summer released a proposal with sweeping amendments, including greater protection for LGBTQ students.

Much of the burden would fall on the schools and districts of red states. While navigating any discrepancies, local officials would have to revise policies to be in line with federal guidelines, Hodgin said.

“Several of the school districts are reaching out to people like me right now to figure out ‘OK, what's the middle ground? What do we have to do?’” said Hodgin, who is hired by campuses to advise them on Title IX compliance. “They don't want to lose millions of dollars in federal funding.”

An investigation: What happens if a school doesn’t comply with Title IX? Not a whole lot.

50 years of Title IX: As US celebrates the anniversary, a new bill aims to improve gender equity in sports.

The Department of Education plans to release the finalized amendments this May, said deputy press secretary Vanessa Harmoush.

Samuels said they hope any changes made would lead to real protections for students in their home district.

“Just as they would follow any other law, I hope that districts like Katy and every other district in Texas would respect the rights of queer youth,” the student said.

Communities in transition at center of cultural divide

Katy, a suburb about 30 miles west of Houston, is not unlike many once-agrarian communities across the U.S. transformed by urban sprawl. Though these communities have long left their farm-town status following rapid growth and diversification in the last decade, a persistent undercurrent of conservative beliefs has intensified cultural divisions within the community, Samuels said.

“It's that dialogue around what does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be a Texan? And how can we solidify that with traditional values, which often are going to exclude the diversity that we actually (have) as a country or as a state or a community,” said Samuels, now 18 and a first-year student at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

Cameron Samuels of Katy, Texas, has advocated for years for LGBTQ youth.
Cameron Samuels of Katy, Texas, has advocated for years for LGBTQ youth.

Austin Davis Ruiz, communications and marketing manager at the Montrose Center, an LGBTQ advocacy group and community center in Houston, has not heard of any local district coming out against the proposed Title IX changes. However, he said there is still an “anti-LGBTQ sentiment in suburbs outside of Houston.”

As a senior last school year, Samuels took on the role of advocate to protest a district internet filter blocking access to LGBTQ-related websites on school computers.

They recall standing alone at one board meeting before a room of adults "spewing bigotry." Samuels said the discussion that evening extended to book banning, with some parents there pushing for school libraries to remove LGBTQ stories or books teaching critical race theory.

Despite partial success from Samuels' efforts, websites like the Trevor Project – an organization focused on LGBTQ suicide prevention – are still blocked for students in kindergarten through fifth grade in Katy, high school senior Logan McLean said at a recent school board meeting.

She said it was emblematic of "Katy ISD's hostility to LGBTQ+ students."

Katy ISD Independent School District did not respond to USA TODAY's request for comment.

The Barrel Babes drag brunch drew crowds of armed and angry protesters and counter-protesters last fall.
The Barrel Babes drag brunch drew crowds of armed and angry protesters and counter-protesters last fall.

"Gay things" unwelcome in some suburbs

The conflict has spilled outside of schools, as well. Last September, First Christian Church in Katy hosted an all-ages drag bingo, an event that drew a swath of angry protestors, including members of the far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys. In the days and weeks that followed, the backlash continued in posts and messages online.

“I didn't even know humanity could hate as much as what I saw on all those social media posts,” said the Rev. Heather Tolleson.

In another Texas neighborhood almost three hundred miles north, another all-ages drag event drew a similar reaction the month prior. The Barrel Babes Drag Brunch in Roanoke, a Dallas-Fort Worth area suburb, was met with conservative protestors and leftist counterprotesters, both groups armed and facing off outside the local distillery and grill.

Tolleson’s church in Katy has made waves in its community for what she said is their “intentionally open and affirming” congregation. They offer LGBTQ ministries and programs like Transparent Closet, which provide clothes and accessories for youth exploring their gender identity.

But some residents of Katy would rather see “gay things” like this stay within the Houston city limits, Tolleson said, and not in their suburban backyard.

“So many of the comments were, 'not in Katy',” she said of the social media reaction to the event.

Members of First Christian Church often attend Katy school board meetings to lend a voice of advocacy, Tolleson said. But she said she also sees many young students there standing up for themselves or peers, including Samuels.

“The students there are not saying the same thing that their parents are saying,” Tolleson said.

Contributing: Kayla Jimenez

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Students fearful of red state laws aimed at LGBTQ influence in schools