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A school bus makes its way down Market Street during the San Francisco Pride Parade on Sunday, June 25, 2023.  © Brontë Wittpenn/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, 2023)

Transgender youth from California to Alabama are under threat due to a growing trend to pass policies mandating that school staff—and in some cases, any government employee—disclose to their parents if a student identifies as transgender. This movement for so-called “parental rights” disregards basic civil rights and puts trans youth in danger.

In California, which has long been considered a stronghold for LGBT rights, conservative groups that have gained control of local school boards are advancing anti-LGBT measures, including forced outing policies. Last July, Chino Valley Unified School District became the first of at least six counties to adopt these forced outing measures. Despite intervention from the state attorney general’s office, the county adopted a modified version in March.

California is not alone. Since 2022, Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina and North Dakota have enshrined forced outing policies into state law. Six other states recently enacted laws that promote the outing of trans students through vague requirements to notify parents about "health or behavioral concerns." For instance, in Montana, government employees are prohibited from withholding “relevant health information” from parents, and schools are set to establish procedures requiring parental consent for a child to change their name or pronouns.

The consequences of these policies are dire. A 2022 study from the Trevor Project revealed that fewer than one in three trans youth find their home to be accepting or gender affirming, opening the way to rejection and even abuse from their families because of their gender identity. LGBT youth face a 120 percent higher risk than heterosexual, cisgender youth of becoming homeless after coming out to their families, and are twice as likely to experience homelessness at some point in their lives. The profound impact of familial rejection and abuse also amplifies the vulnerability of trans youth to mental health issues, including depression, substance abuse, and an increased risk of suicide.

A trans student in Chino Valley told Vice that because of the forced outing policy, "I’m so afraid that I’m going wake up tomorrow, or the next day or the day after that, and I'm going find out that one of my friends isn't here anymore.”

While homes may not always provide a safe haven for trans youth, schools should. For trans youth, especially those encountering difficulties at home, school often serves as a vital outlet for self-expression. Studies indicate that trans youth thrive when they can openly and safely express their gender identity. Yet, with a surge in anti-LGBT legislation and ongoing incidents of bullying and harassment, schools are increasingly becoming hostile territory for LGBT youth.

Beyond forced outing policies, right-wing groups have advanced measures that erase LGBT history from curricula along with accurate accounts of racism and slavery, ban trans students from using bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity, exclude trans students from sports participation, and impose outright bans or severe restrictions on discussions or curricula related to LGBT issues.

Despite the evident harm incurred by these policies, conservative proponents of “parental rights,” such as Alliance Defending Freedom, continue to demonize and mischaracterize inclusive school policies as a form of indoctrination at best and grooming at worst.

While these “parental rights” supporters claim an allegiance to political neutrality, these arguments sprout from politically spoiled grounds. Conservative factions, in the US and abroad, have long invoked “parental rights” to elide the autonomy and safety of children. These efforts subvert the child’s autonomy, denying their basic rights to non-discrimination and harassment, access to education and health care, and freedom of expression.

These groups exclude parents who support their LGBT children or value historically accurate and inclusive educational material. This uneven application of "parental rights," catering to certain parents while dismissing others, underscores the overtly political nature of such laws.

Such distorted interpretations of "parental rights" divert attention from the genuine challenges faced by parents, particularly those from marginalized communities, who strive to nurture and empower their children. LGBT parents, like Kris Williams, a lesbian mother in Oklahoma who lost custody of her own child to the sperm donor, continue to grapple with custodial precarity. Black and Indigenous parents living in poverty, continue to be disproportionally affected by unjust removals of children by child welfare agencies. Such discriminatory policies devastate families, fracturing homes and exposing children to devastating harm.

LGBT youth should not be casualties of political crossfire. Protecting youth and upholding their fundamental rights ought to transcend partisan divides. Policymakers at all levels should defend the rights of LGBT youth, not undermine them.

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