This post was updated on September 27, 2021.
As students returned to schools across the country this fall, many found themselves in the unexpected position of fighting discrimination against their own teachers, after a wave of suspensions and firings of LGBTQ educators. Still other students saw their schools or districts at the center of debates around whether LGBTQ Pride flags were allowed at school (see updated list below.)
- In Iowa and Colorado, students walked out of school to protest the suspension of bisexual Iowa teacher Lucas Kaufmann and forced resignation of gay Denver volleyball coach Inoke Tonga. In Kaufmann’s case, students created a Change.org petition to support him and to try to prevent him from being fired. Tonga’s Instagram post describing his interaction with officials at the Christian school where he coached in Denver—including suggestions that he “convert” to heterosexuality—spurred other LGBTQ former employees to share their own painful employment experiences there.
- In the Dallas suburb of Irving, Texas, hundreds of MacArthur High School students also walked out in protest after two teachers were reportedly let go from their jobs for supporting LGBTQ students. The student protesters also said that teachers had been forced to removed “safe space” stickers and LGBTQ Pride flag symbols from classrooms across the school.
- In Orange County, California, teacher Kristin Pitzen made a joke on TikTok about the presence of a Pride flag in her classroom during the students’ daily pledge of allegiance and was removed from her post after a conservative uproar. Another teacher, in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, is being investigated by her school district after sharing LGBTQ-inclusive lesson plans on her popular TikTok account. PinkNews reported the TikTok videos had been picked up by a right-wing Twitter account,, that later revealed the teacher’s identity and triggered a flurry of harassment. Illinois is one of five U.S. states that actually mandate curriculum be LGBTQ-inclusive.
- In Southwest Missouri, teacher John M. Wallis resigned after being told to take down his Pride flag, remove a sign that read ‘In this classroom everyone is welcome,’ and not to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity at the school. Wallis said that he has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
- In suburban Chicago, students successfully rallied to get their Catholic school, Benet Academy, to reinstate a job offer for lacrosse coach Amanda Kammes. The school had rescinded Kammes’s offer after finding out she was married to a woman. The students had protested outside the school and circulated a letter signed by over 3,000 alumni and community members.
These are just the cases getting media attention. A report from the Williams Institute this week found that nearly half—46 percent—of LGBTQ people said they had experienced discrimination at work that includes being passed over for a job, harassed, denied a promotion or raise, excluded from company events, denied additional hours, or fired. LGBTQ workers also reported high rates of sexual harassment, and 1 in 5 said they had even been physically assaulted at work—including being hit and beaten up by their own bosses.
Many expected the Supreme Court’s 2020 Bostock ruling to put an end to rampant anti-LGBTQ workplace discrimination when it declared that Title VII’s protection against workplace sex discrimination extends to sexual orientation and gender identity. And when the Biden administration took office in January 2021, it immediately instructed all federal agencies to ensure that any policies about sex discrimination were enhanced to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the definition of ‘sex,’ among dozens of similar moves Biden has made to protect LGBTQ Americans. Both Bostock and federal policy changes have made it more effective to file complaints about SOGI-based discrimination at work, increasing the likelihood of consequences for firing someone for being LGBTQ. And the Biden administration’s many public declarations of support for transgender students, specifically, send a clear message to school districts about the importance of inclusion.
Yet widespread anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination continues, as students are learning this fall first-hand. That’s because there’s no federal law that specifically protects people from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and 27 U.S. states have no local laws that include LGBTQ people in nondiscrimination protections either. The Equality Act would change that, by adding SOGI to the list of other protected classes (like race and religion) under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It passed the House in February but has stalled in the Senate; despite President Biden’s promise to sign once it hits his desk, it needs the support of more senators before it can get there.
In the meantime, anti-LGBTQ discrimination isn’t just threatening the jobs of teachers. It also creates a more hostile environment for all students, as schools and districts debate whether something as simple as a rainbow Pride flag is appropriate for the classroom.
- Near Fort Wayne, Indiana, parents and town residents joined students in a street protest after the school district in Westfield removed all “political” symbols from schools—including LGBTQ Pride flags and Black Lives Matter logos.
- Near Indianapolis, the Indiana town of Pendleton is subject to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in late September after its high school banned LGBTQ Pride flags and then refused to allow a GSA student club the same resources and status enjoyed by other student clubs.
- Just outside Salt Lake City, the Davis school district in Utah banned LGBTQ Pride flags and Black Lives Matter logos. School district spokesman Chris Williams told Utah’s KSL radio that rainbow flags were just as “political” as Confederate flags.
- A similar decision to ban rainbow flags from schools in Newberg, Oregon made national headlines and led neighbors to erect a massive hillside Pride flag on a farm visible from the high school.
Seeing symbols like LGBTQ Pride flags in school can let LGBTQ students know that they are safe, they aren’t alone, and that they can approach a teacher or staff member if they need help. Banning them only silences youth who may already be isolated or facing bullying and harassment at school or at home, and it sends an especially confusing message in schools that have LGBTQ student clubs. No school should ban LGBTQ Pride flags; and no LGBTQ student or teacher should be afraid to be their authentic self in the classroom.
To learn more about the rights of LGBTQ educators and students or to find resources for safer, more inclusive schools, visit GLSEN here.
LGBTQ students, educators, and other school staff who face harassment or discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity can file a complaint at the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (for educators and staff) or with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice.
This post was updated on September 27, 2021.