N.C. one of the worst states for LGBTQ+ protections, national report finds

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North Carolina is one of 22 lowest-ranked states in a national report published last month to examine state laws and policies impacting LGBTQ+ people.

The 8th annual State Equality Index (SEI), released Jan. 20 by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the Equality Federation Institute, placed North Carolina in the report’s lowest category, “High Priority to Achieve Basic Equality” — due to a lack of LGBTQ-friendly laws and a presence of those deemed as anti-LGBTQ.

“The 2021 State Equality Index outlines and analyzes how over a dozen states across the country led an intentional, coordinated attack on the transgender community, particularly children, that has led to villainization, blatant discrimination, and ultimately, violence,” said JoDee Winterhof, Human Rights Campaign senior vice president of policy and political affairs. “On the other hand, we have seen a record-breaking amount of states step up for LGBTQ+ equality and fight to pass laws that champion inclusivity and equity in the face of sweeping discrimination. It is clear that considerable effort has been, and continues to be made, to prevent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation from becoming law, progress toward LGBTQ+ equality in the states truly cannot be stopped.”

The 2021 SEI ranked 21 states in its highest category, “Working Toward Innovative Equality.” The second category, “Solidifying Equality,” had three states; the third, “Building Equality,” had four.

North Carolina has few laws to protect LGBTQ+ youth. The state doesn’t protect youth from conversion therapy, for example, and has no laws addressing LGBTQ-youth homelessness Additionally, many N.C. schools don’t have policies in place to explicitly protect and welcome LGBTQ+ students.

“Our assessment is much the same,” Craig White, supportive schools coordinator at the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, told the News + Record. “I see several school districts in North Carolina that are doing very well, and in fact, we’ve got a few school districts whose policies are models for the rest of the country.

“But overall, as a state, I would say that’s only a handful of our 100-and-whatever school districts,” White said, “so I would say that as a state, we have a lot of work to do.”

School districts with strong LGBTQ+ protections, White said, not only have comprehensive policies that anticipate LGBTQ concerns — such as gender-inclusive dress codes, private bathroom facilities and staff trainings — but also provide diverse curricula and a safe environment for students from all backgrounds.

“I think we’ve been in a place for a long time where there’s been an absence of those affirming and welcoming elements — the schools don’t have policy, they don’t have a welcoming environment, teachers don’t have training and LGBTQ people aren’t represented in the curriculum,” White said. “That’s been the status quo for a while, and I think that that’s why North Carolina got a poor ranking in this national survey.”

‘Mental health outcomes of students’

Chatham County Schools began its two-year equity training efforts with The Equity Collaborative group last February, focusing on race, income, sexual orientation, disability status, religion, gender and other protected classes.

The training is a part of the Equity and Excellence for Everyone (E3) team’s work, formed six years ago. The E3 team’s recent work led to the district revising its dress code and discipline policies, making language on district forms more gender-inclusive and adding more diverse texts and curricula to classrooms.

Ness Shortley, Horton Middle School’s librarian and equity team member, previously told the News + Record that looking at LGBTQ and disability status includes people of color, and can provide a more intersectional approach.

“I feel like I’m constantly pushing equity for our disabled kids and equity for LGBTQ kids,” Shortley said then. “And that’s not something I’ve seen a lot of progress on so far.”

At Jordan-Matthews High School, Gay-Straight Alliance club officers Rebecca Narcizo and Erick Benitez Espinoza said that for the most part, LGBTQ students aren’t targeted at school. They noted that most teachers ask students their preferred name at the start of a semester, but not for their pronouns.

A lack of LGBTQ-focused education is the most pressing issue, Narcizo said. As noted by the SEI, N.C. doesn’t have LGBTQ-inclusive sex education laws.

“I have to educate myself on my own things,” said Narcizo, GSA vice president, “because my school won’t teach me.”

School Counselor Margaret Grayson helped a former student start GSA in 2012. J-M, she said, lacks LGBTQ-trained staff — something she hopes to help address soon.

“Because I think a lot of them don’t know,” she said. “So they just avoid it.”

The club is 10 years old and has hosted socials, movies and game nights, along with its weekly meetings after school. Recently, faculty advisor Katie Rehder Zoomed in guest speakers, like a Guatemalan friend in D.C., who spoke about his Latinx experience in gay community. (At J-M, 63.4% of students are Hispanic, according to the district’s most recent ethnic enrollment report.)

Though impacted by the pandemic — and potentially inaccessible to some students without transportation — Rehder said the club provides a space for students to have at least one support person, particularly for students without family support. LGBTQ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt, 2019 data from the Trever Project shows.

“I call it like safe and brave space, like a space where you can really be yourself,” Rehder said. “Being in a small town where there’s not a lot of visibility of the LGBTQ community, it’s more important to have an organization, a club like this, at school, because they may not have that anywhere else.”

The national SEI cites a lack of youth laws mandating school suicide prevention strategies as a policy that would make North Carolina safer for LGBTQ+ people and youth.

Suicide risk and substance use is higher among LGBTQ+ youth, national and state data shows, particularly for people of color. But acceptance of LGBTQ+ youth can go a long way in reducing that risk, a recent Healthline report documented.

“We often hear these negative statistics about LGBTQ youth and mental health, but it’s not really about the youth,” White said. “What that is tracking is the families, schools and peer groups around those youth. … There’s a close correlation between the policy climate and the culture of a school and the mental health outcomes of students — and not just LGBTQ students, but also students of color.”

Students and staff welcomed an LGBTQ-friendly policy passed statewide last March, with the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction announcing it would update its PowerSchool student information system to display a “preferred name” field. The move followed years of lobbying by LGBTQ advocacy groups, who’ve said using a student’s legal or birth name causes emotional harm to transgender students and can put them at risk for being outed.

“I just think that it will make people feel better about themselves,” Pride Co-President Oliver Ewy, then a sophomore at Northwood, said of the change. “Because obviously, seeing a name that you don’t associate with yourself, or that you associate with negative things can make someone really uncomfortable.”

‘Feeling like they’re under attack’

Across the state, recent challenges in school and public libraries have targeted books about racism or sexuality, especially when the latter feature LGBTQ+ characters.

Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson led parent groups last October in characterizing several books with LGBTQ+ main characters as “obscene” material that should be removed from schools. At the time, Robinson referenced his religious convictions in criticizing the books — including his belief that homosexuality is sinful.

“The Constitution offers us this promise of a quality education, which means students seeing themselves reflected in being safe and welcomed at school,” White said. “Honestly, right now, a lot of students of color and a lot of LGBTQ students are not experiencing that. They’re feeling like they’re under attack.”

White also cited incidents of teachers being asked by administrators to remove rainbow flags outside of classrooms, and transgender students being followed into bathrooms “that they have a right to use under federal law,” and harassed by other students — bullying that White says violates student Title IX rights.

White emphasized the importance of opposing similar policies that harm LGBTQ students, while also advocating for policies that uplift and protect youth.

“I think that there’s a very small minority of people in North Carolina who are carrying this anti-LGBTQ bigotry, but they have a very loud voice right now,” he said. “And they’re putting school boards and administrators and teachers under a lot of pressure — and the students are really the ones who are feeling that pressure.”

For J-M’s Narcizo and Benitez Espinoza, a little goes a long way.

“Just having that sense of community in your school is important,” Narcizo said of GSA, “because I know a lot of people don’t really have that outside of school.”

“It’s important because it’s like a little community — we can make each other laugh,” Benitez Espinoz, the club’s president, added. “We also try to brighten up each other’s days, learn more about each other and what’s going on to support — even when it’s not all about LGBT stuff.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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