Ellen A. just wanted to be a good teacher. But she felt she couldn’t help all of her students.

It was fear that stopped her. Fear of discovery, fear of being fired. It stopped her from being herself day in and day out.

Ellen, who is in her 50s, was assigned male at birth, but identifies as female. Before March 2015, there was no law in Utah protecting her from being fired for being herself should anyone discover her secret.

That changed when the state legislature passed Senate Bill 296, which banned discrimination in employment and housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Ellen began her transition shortly after the bill was passed, after first speaking to her school’s administration, who offered their full support.

Many schools across the United States remain hostile environments for LGBT students despite significant progress on LGBT rights in recent years. 

“[The law] saved my life, it changed my family’s life,” Ellen told Ryan Thoreson, a Human Rights Watch researcher. “It was a lifetime coming.”

A new Human Rights Watch report “‘Like Walking Through a Hailstorm’: Discrimination against LGBT Youth in US Schools,” shows how states that do not protect LGBT teachers from employment discrimination hamper their ability to be resources for students and to intervene when bullying occurs.  

For the report, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 350 students and 145 parents, teachers, administrators, and service providers in Alabama, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah. Utah is the only one of these states with a law that explicitly protects LGBT faculty and staff, and none of the five states have anti-bullying or anti-discrimination laws that expressly protect LGBT youth.

Ellen’s story, however, is a positive one. It shows the power legislation has to help LGBT adults, and in turn LGBT youth.

Ryan and Ellen met in the club where Ellen and her wife had been members before she came out and began transitioning. The smartly dressed waiter called Ellen “ma’am” with an easy, friendly smile as he took their order. There was no hostility, even in this traditional club decorated with dark wood and old leather, just down the road from the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.

“I think the impact [of the law] is not yet completely realized,” Ellen said, noting that after being put down for so long, the transgender community still doesn’t trust that it can be okay to come out.

Life before the legislation came into effect was sometimes devastatingly hard for Ellen. It wasn’t helped by an openly homophobic principal, who has since been replaced. Nor was it helped by the lack of support from school staff in disciplining students who used homophobic slurs.

I can take discrimination – I don’t like it, and it hurts – but a child shouldn’t have to. There’s nothing worse than seeing a child with their self-esteem destroyed.

Ellen A.

Teacher, Utah

Ellen, whose name has been changed, felt that defending pupils being bullied for their sexual orientation, or even standing up for LGBT rights in general, might expose her to scrutiny. She feared she could ultimately lose her job.

She could not forget a “terrifying conversation” she had years ago with the school’s now former principal, who said, “I don’t want to be having any of that [gay] stuff on the playground.”

After that conversation, she felt helpless and unable to defend a boy who seemed like he could be gay who came through her elementary school. “There was nothing I could do, and it killed me. It not only broke my heart for him, because I saw the bullying and teasing – but I was also terrified for me. I didn’t want to risk exposing myself.”

As she spoke, Ellen held her hand over her heart, voice wavering slightly. But as with the rest of Ellen’s story, things got better once she felt she could be open about her life. She even reconnected with that pupil years later at an LGBT center called OUTreach.

“He said, ‘do you remember who I am?’ And I said, ‘of course, and I’m sorry that what happened to you happened to you.’ And now he knows … I’ll be there for him.”

Ellen feels that her visibility as a transgender person, afforded her by SB 296, has helped many younger LGBT people in Utah, both by showing that someone in a similar position is out and happy, but also as a source of information.

“The topic of being transgender in my life has been an open book,” since the law allowed her to make the transition openly, she said, “so when the conversation is allowed to take place, it’s so kind and respectful and discreet – it’s not promoting anything, it’s not promoting the lifestyle. A gay person, lesbian person, transgender person is not promoting anything, it’s who they are.”

“There’s a young lady at the junior high school, and when I was doing the parking lot [duty] she passed a message through my classroom aides that she wanted to speak to me. So I met her at one of the pillars by the flagpole, and that did begin a conversation.”

 
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Ellen said the girl asked her questions about LGBT people, but said she was “asking for a friend,” so Ellen wasn’t sure if the queries were about the student personally.

“I can take discrimination – I don’t like it, and it hurts – but a child shouldn’t have to,” Ellen said, adding that the bullying endured by children wasn’t always physical and had moved online with the rise of social media.

“There’s nothing worse than seeing a child with their self-esteem destroyed.”

The Human Rights Watch report also features the stories of LGBT teachers who feared being driven out of their jobs by state “no promo homo” laws, which restrict discussions of LGBT topics in schools. When teachers feel unable to voice support for LGBT students, it can leave those students without any authority figures to talk to.

“School should be a safe place,” Ellen said. “If you put me in a place where I am terrified, I’m not going to learn. When I was terrified of being discovered, I wasn’t nearly as effective as a teacher as I could have been. And people have told me that this year. And I think what applies to me applies to kids.”