Fort Bend students fight for LGBTQ protections.
By Kim Hogstrom
Transgender teen Landon Richie says that, for the most part, teachers and administrators at Dulles High School in Sugar Land are sensitive to the needs of LGBTQ students.
But there have been exceptions.
Landon recalls a “fun, funny” school survey in which people were asked to vote on things like which student had the biggest feet or bushiest eyebrows. The survey divided students according to sex, and one of Landon’s trans male classmates, who has not yet had his gender-marker changed, appeared on the list of girls.
“I have not had any bad experiences,” Landon says of his time at the school. “However, they sometimes act out of ignorance. Mostly, LGBTQ students receive phenomenal support from principals and staff, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that there are members and teachers who don’t understand the needs of queer students.”
It’s just one example of why students in Dulles High’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) are calling on the Fort Bend Independent School District to add LGBTQ protections to the district’s nondiscrimination policy.
“We know that Fort Bend’s trustees do not condone the discrimination students face, but to actually prevent it will require their action,” Landon says. “Our objective is to have FBISD put a policy on the books to protect LGBTQ students and employees. We are hoping to sway the board with the overwhelming support we are seeing from the community at large.”
The campaign for LGBTQ protections, called the Fort Gender Benders, has garnered 630 signatures on a petition from students, teachers, employees, parents, and alumni representing eight schools. The petition was initiated by parents of LGBTQ students under the guidance of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“As one of the most diverse school districts in Texas, Fort Bend ISD has a duty to celebrate, value, and protect diversity of all kinds,” the petition states. “Every child should feel seen, heard, and affirmed at school, and every teacher/administrator should feel supported at work. LGBTQ students and teachers contribute to the dynamic diversity and rich culture of our school district, and we deserve equal rights and a learning environment free of discrimination.”
In addition to launching a website that hosts the petition, the Fort Gender Benders have been block-walking to gather signatures and change hearts and minds. But thus far they have been unsuccessful in convincing the district’s top administrator, superintendent Charles Dupre, that LGBTQ protections are needed.
Dupre told OutSmart he believes the district’s current nondiscrimination policy—which covers race, religion, color, age, national origin, sex, and disability—is sufficient.
“In FBISD, we value all our 75,000 students, and we are dedicated to protecting the safety and the rights of each one,” Dupre says. “I believe our [current] policy is written in a way that offers protections for all, and that our current policies are effectively serving our students.”
Neither state nor federal law explicitly protects LGBTQ students or employees against discirmination in public schools. However, several larger Texas districts, including Houston, Austin, and Dallas, have adopted LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination policies.
A 2013 report from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that half of LGBTQ students have experienced discrimination at school. Twenty-eight percent reported being disciplined for public displays of affection; 17 percent were prohibited from discussing LGBTQ subjects, and nine percent reported being disciplined for simply identifying as LGBTQ.
The GLSEN study also found that LGBTQ students have lower GPAs, higher rates of absenteeism, and are more likely to suffer from depression than their non-LGBTQ counterparts.
SAGA vice president Maya Leo, 15, says she has experienced discrimination firsthand.
“I have been called names, harassed, viewed as a freak, and left out of activities for identifying as other than straight,” says Leo, who is pansexual. “Our anti-bullying policy helped, but the anti-discrimination protections would cover more people and issues.”
Due to her work with the ACLU on the Fort Gender Benders campaign, Maya says she intends to study law and eventually go to work for the organization. Along with Landon and SAGA co-president Danielle Jaffe, Maya has also been accepted into the ACLU’s prestigious intern program this summer.
Danielle, who also identifies as pansexual, says she experienced discrimination from another student who called her names and taunted her. Although Jaffie was able to resolve the matter on her own, she says a nondiscrimination policy would have helped. She also says she is grateful to have had a safe space in which to discuss the problem.
“We enjoy, love, and support one other,” Jaffie says of SAGA. “We have all kinds of students in the group—all ethnicities, allies, and every gender identity or expression. And we all want the same thing—the right to be who we are. The addition of a policy protecting LGBTQ people would go a long way to granting that.”
Maya’s mother, longtime LGBTQ ally Januari Leo, is among the founding parents behind the Fort Gender Benders. In addition to working with the ACLU, Leo has met with Dupre and lobbied individual school-board members.
“The ACLU really has our backs, but it’s the kids who are driving this,” Leo says. “First, we reached out to the superintendent. He suggested we get the board of trustees behind it, so we are meeting with them individually. They have been receptive; there have been no closed doors.
“Fort Bend County is a fantastic place,” Leo says. “It is so diverse and welcoming. We are made up of all sorts of wonderful people, including LGBTQ kids. It makes sense that the county would value and protect them, too.”
For more info or to sign the petition, visit FortGenderBenders.org.
This article appears in the May 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.