Pride Month is a time to celebrate the vibrancy and resilience of the LGBTQ community. It’s also a time to reflect on the contributions of LGBTQ people throughout America’s history and our collective fight for justice and equal rights for all.

This year’s pride celebrations mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, often considered the birth of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Looking back on the past 50 years, we should remember the fact that the fight for LGBTQ equality and freedom started out as a protest against police violence — a collective call to remind the American people that many of us were denied the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” simply because of who we are or who we love and subjected to discriminatory policing.

Since the Stonewall riots, until recently, America was making progress in advancing LGBTQ equality, but there is legitimate concern now that we are beginning to move backwards even when we still had a long way to go to achieve full equality. Among the most serious concerns is the full-fledged retreat of the federal government from any policies protecting LGBTQ students in public schools and colleges.

LGBTQ students are among the people most vulnerable to discrimination and harassment. The good news is that the Richmond School Board recently approved a new policy aimed at protecting LGBTQ students from discrimination. Earlier this year, thanks to the work of local advocates, Loudoun County School Board also amended its equal opportunity policy to add protections for LGBTQ students and employees of the school system. Nonetheless, across the Commonwealth, only 13 school divisions have LGBTQ-inclusive policies for students and staff, which means that only 35% of students and employees in Virginia are protected from discrimination and harassment based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. And, in a case that may go to the United States Supreme Court which is being watched closely by school divisions across Virginia, the Gloucester County School Board continues to argue that it should be able to deny transgender students the right to use the bathroom associated with their identities.

We have the power to work with local school districts to ensure that they adopt LGBTQ-inclusive policies and practices because it is the right thing to do, not because they are legally required to. Schools boards across the Commonwealth don’t have to wait for the federal government or for the courts to protect LGBTQ students and staff. In fact, schools have a legal responsibility to ensure that every child has the opportunity to be educated in a school free from discrimination and harassment. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring affirmed in 2015 that public schools in Virginia may create anti-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity without violating state law.

It is in the best interest of every school board and school division to protect LGBTQ students and staff from discrimination and to foster an inclusive environment where every child is able to be their authentic self. To bring more inclusivity to your school, here are a few things you can do as an advocate to help make change:

  • Speak to school board members and school administrators about the importance of LGBTQ-inclusive policies at school board meetings and in individual meetings.
  • Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper and to school board members advocating for LGBTQ-inclusive policies.
  • Start or join a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at your school to educate students about diversity and support LGBTQ students.
  • Support the establishment of training programs for teachers and school administrators on LGBTQ issues. Side by Side provides training for school personnel and mental health professionals to effectively work with LGBTQ youth.
  • Contact your state delegate and senator to advocate for LGBTQ equality and inclusivity. Invite them to school board meetings to testify in support of LGBTQ-inclusive policies. Participate in advocacy activities like Lobby Day sponsored by Equality Virginia.

Pride Month is more than just colorful parades or a series of parties – although those are fun, too. It’s the observance of those who have come before us and the sacrifices they’ve made, as well as an opportunity to honor them with action. Each of us can be an agent of change, and we can take action right now within our own community to advocate for LGBTQ equality.

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