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The transgender pride flag.  © Wikimedia Commons

This month, lawmakers in Indiana voted to advance a bill that would prohibit transgender girls from playing sports with other girls. This discriminatory and harmful bill quickly gained traction even though there doesn’t seem to be any issue in Indiana with transgender girls participating in athletics.

Efforts to bar transgender girls from participating in school sports are profoundly misguided. Proponents of these bills narrowly fixate on the possibility that some transgender girl might potentially outperform her cisgender peers. To avoid that scenario, they cruelly prevent transgender kids from participating at all.

This marks transgender children as different from a young age and deprives them of the physical and social benefits that athletics in schools are meant to provide. The result can be devastating, particularly for children who might already struggle with exclusion and isolation in school.

Yet bullying and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) young people in Indiana is a real problem – and Indiana hasn’t taken meaningful steps to address it. Lawmakers haven’t even scheduled a hearing for a pending bill that would prohibit discrimination in education based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and protect children from being punished for who they are.

This winter, I’ve spoken to LGBT students in Indiana who described how difficult school environments can be. One young woman told me that she regularly heard anti-LGBT slurs at her high school, and never heard positive messaging about LGBT issues in the classroom. Even though her school had a gay-straight alliance, she didn’t join because she feared the repercussions of coming out at school.

Now in college, she said that being able to come out to others had “a huge impact on my mental health, just being able to be fully myself to everyone around me.”

But lawmakers in Indiana and elsewhere are stifling, not encouraging, that sense of safety and self-worth. Dozens of states are advancing restrictions on transgender children in schools – limiting which bathrooms they can use, what sports they can play, and whether they can learn about themselves in class.

These attacks take an enormous toll on the mental health of LGBT youth, even when they don’t become law. Young transgender people take notice when lawmakers attack and demonize them in public, and understandably lose faith in the adults who are supposed to protect them when those adults fail to stand up for their rights.

Other states have adopted laws to address the mistreatment that LGBT students face. In 17 states, legislation expressly prohibits discrimination against LGBT students in schools, and 21 states expressly prohibit bullying on those grounds. Other states have adopted regulations or teacher codes addressing discrimination and bullying. Indiana has done neither.

Supporting young people shouldn’t be controversial. If lawmakers in Indiana genuinely care about student well-being, they should take meaningful steps to address bullying, discrimination, and mental health challenges for LGBT students – and should abandon legislation that would make those things worse.

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