Rising high school senior Jameson Johnson is among the thousands of LGBTQ students returning to school at a time when conservative lawmakers and activists are pushing to ban or limit the rights of queer people in schools and beyond.
State legislatures considered dozens of bills targeting LGBTQ youth this year, with the number of proposed measures targeting access to bathrooms and locker rooms and transgender participation in school sports exploding, according to Education Week.
Florida and at least 10 other states have blocked the use of Medicaid to pay for gender-affirming care, though a few, including Hawaii, are expanding the same kind of care. In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott asked the state’s child protection agency to investigate parents who seek gender-affirming care for their children as child abuse, though a judge has blocked some of that order. A Utah judge last week blocked a ban on transgender students participating in school sports, but students now face a commission who will decide whether they can play on a case-by-case basis.
“I feel these laws are out of misinformation and ignorance of the queer community,” Johnson said. “I’m lucky that I live in Colorado. … We don’t have as many anti-queer youths bills or laws yet.”
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The suicide rate among LGBTQ youth has escalated over the past three years, according to the Trevor Project. And about two-thirds of LGBTQ youth told the nonprofit that current and proposed state policies have had a negative impact on their mental health.
USA TODAY asked LGBTQ students across the country for their thoughts about the new school year. This is what they told us:
Speaking up for others
As a genderfluid person, Johnson, 17, recognizes the importance of using his voice for those in need for the upcoming school year.
Johnson, who goes by he, she or they, will be president of the Queer Student Alliance at his Denver high. For him, senior year of high school will be about advocating for LGBTQ students around the country who face new restrictions on their rights. He said he plans to create a safe space for the LGBTQ students on his campus in part because of a lack of counselors at the school.
“I think we need a safer place for queer students so that they can just have an area to relax,” said Johnson, and “making sure they’re okay because school can be really stressful for them.”
He grew up in a family that was supportive: His mother allowed him to explore his identity. He used to play dress-up with his sister’s clothes and would have tea parties and fashion shows.
“I was very feminine within my family setting, and I guess that carried over to the school and with my friends,” Johnson said. “It was nice to be raised without traditional gender roles.”
He said he hopes to provide the same acceptance and comfort to his peers and that colleges and universities will also take notice as he begins the application process.
“I hope they can notice my journey and activism,” Johnson said.
Sharing a new gender
For Glenn Leynes, 17, who is starting his senior year in Maryland, going back to school means an opportunity for a fresh start on a new campus – with a new identity as a transgender male.
Leynes came out as nonbinary three years ago until he realized who he really was more recently. Six months ago, he began hormone treatments to complete his transition. He said his old school, in a conservative part of the state, didn’t feel inclusive for LGBTQ students. Leynes said there were few other students he knew of who identified as LGBTQ. He said he hopes his new school will provide a different experience.
“I’m excited because the school I will attend now is diverse, and there are many different people,” Leynes said. “Not everyone looks the same.”
As a transgender young man, he said he is concerned about restrictions on gender-affirming care emerging across the country. Multiple studies have found that gender dysphoria, or psychological distress resulting from a mismatch between a person’s gender identity and the sex assigned at birth, increases the likelihood that young people will attempt suicide.
Transgender teens have the highest rates of attempted suicide in the country, according to a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Receiving gender-affirming care has been really important for me,” Leynes said. “It’s relieved a lot of dysphorias I’ve had previously and makes me feel more at peace with myself. Honestly, it saved my life.”
Afraid of being bullied
For Daniel Trujillo, 15, the new school this year means a big change: shifting from middle school to high school. As a trans youth, he said he fears that he could be the target of bullying and discrimination.
“My school district has been supportive, and I never had a problematic teacher. But talking to my friends, there are many transphobic and homophobic people at the new school,” Trujillo said of the campus he will attend in Tucson, Arizona.
“I am going to meet all these people, and I don’t know who will be safe to trust.”
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He said he hopes that with his family’s support and protection, the transition will be manageable.
“My little bubble in south Arizona is like a blue bubble surrounded by red,” said Trujillo. “My parents always try bringing other trans people around so I can see myself everywhere.”
Searching for gender-neutral bathrooms
Scott Jones, 17, said he is concerned about the lack of support for LGBTQ youth in the Maryland school system where he will be a senior this year.
Jones, who is gay, said he hopes to change that for others. As part of his Gay-Straight Alliance club at his school in Aberdeen, he plans to advocate for gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms this year, which he said should be an option available at every Maryland school.
About two-thirds of transgender or gender-nonconforming youth avoid school restrooms, according to a survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. They feel unsafe or uncomfortable regardless of which segregated bathroom they enter.
“Gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms should always be a choice, but not all schools have them,” he said.
Jones, who is on his school’s swim team, said he also hopes there will be no further restrictions on transgender youth participating in school sports, as has been the case in some states. He said he understands that some people are uncomfortable with the idea of transgender youth competing in sports, but keeping some kids from taking part can be damaging.
“Yes, I understand that a teenage boy transitioning to being a girl might have an advantage, but it is normal for people to want to play sports, especially transgender teenagers,” said Jones.
“They just want to be normal teenagers.”
Revealing a new name
Nyx Litthisouk Keomounmany, 16, who uses they and them pronouns, is excited to start their junior year at a new school in Salt Lake City.
When Keomounmany, who identifies as nonbinary, changed names mid-year, family and friends were quick to adapt, but they only felt comfortable sharing it with some people at school, worried it would require too much explanation for some of their teachers.
“Until the end of the year, seven teachers didn’t use my [new] name,” they said. An exception was a former art teacher they were close to. “I didn’t tell my other teachers because I thought that would be too much work.”
They hope teachers at their new school, where they will share their new name from Day One, will be understanding from the outset.