Know Your Rights in School

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) youth often face harassment and discrimination simply for being who they are. Just the thought of entering the school doors can be a nightmare for many students. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s recent survey of LGBTQ students shows this is a very serious problem nationwide:

  • 90 percent of students reported being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation.
  • 70 percent of students reported hearing homophobic remarks such as “faggot” and “dyke” from other students in their school.
  • 60 percent of students say they have heard homophobic remarks made by school staff.
  • 60 percent of students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.
  • 53 percent of students have been victims of cyberbullying by their peers.
  • 47 percent of students have been victims of physical harassment by their peers.
  • 20 percent of students have been victims of physical assault.

But the law requires school administrators and teachers to:

  • Protect LGBTQ students from bullying and harassment.
  • Treat LGBTQ students fairly and equally.
  • Respect LGBTQ students’ free speech and free expression rights.
  • Respect LGBTQ students’ privacy rights.

Unfortunately, many school officials don’t know enough about how the law requires them to protect LGBTQ students. That’s why it’s so important for you to educate yourself about your legal rights and what you can do if your school isn’t treating you or other students fairly.

If you are having a problem at school because of your sexual orientation, your gender identity, or how you express your gender, contact us at mgoodman@nyclu.org.



Your Questions

Am I protected from harassment and bullying at school because of my sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression?

What can I do if I’m being harassed?

Can I be discriminated against because of my sexual orientation at school?

Can I be discriminated against because of my gender identity or for dressing or acting too “masculine” or “feminine”?

Do I have a right to be out about my sexual orientation in school?

Do I have a right to be out about my gender identity in school?

Can the school tell my parents I’m gay?

Can I start a Gay-Straight Alliance or other gay/lesbian club at my school?

How do I start a Gay-Straight Alliance?

Can I talk about being gay in school or wear LGBTQ-related T-shirts, stickers or bracelets?

Can I distribute LGBTQ rights pamphlets or materials at school?

Can the school block my access to LGBTQ websites on school computers?

Can I bring my girlfriend/boyfriend to the prom?

Can I wear a tuxedo to the prom if I’m a girl or a dress if I’m a boy?

Can I be punished for holding hands with, hugging, or kissing my same-sex boyfriend or girlfriend at school?

Can I wear the clothes that fit the gender I identify with?

I’m transgender and I’m not sure which restrooms or locker rooms I’m allowed to use. What are my rights?

Where can I go to get information about sex and how to have safe sex?

How can I find a LGBTQ-friendly doctor?

I’m gay, gender non-conforming or transgender, and I feel like I’m the only one. Who can I talk to?

Where can I learn more about the specific laws that protect me when I’m at school?

I have a hard time keeping up with all the terms being thrown around, like transgender, intersex or zi. Is there a glossary of terms?

I am so uncomfortable at school that I want to quit. What should I do?

Am I protected from harassment and bullying at school because of my sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression?

Yes. Your school has a duty to protect LGBTQ and gender non-conforming students from harassment and discrimination. Federal law and a new New York law called the Dignity for All Students Act protects you from bullying and harassment because of your sexual orientation, your gender or sex, your gender identity, how you express your gender or because others think you look or act too “masculine” or “feminine.” If your school turns a blind eye to harassment because they are uncomfortable with your sexuality, your gender identity or expression, or are uneducated about LGBTQ issues, they are breaking the law.

Gender identity is your own internal sense of being male, female, both or neither. A person’s gender identity usually matches their physical anatomy but sometimes it does not. Your gender identity is about how you see yourself and is part of who you are. The law requires that your school foster an environment that is respectful of that fact.

Gender expression is how you express or show your gender identity to the world. For example, gender expression includes the way you dress, the name and pronoun (“he” or “she”) you use, how you wear your hair, how you act, how you speak and whether or not you wear make-up. Many people express or present themselves in ways that are different from traditional ideas and stereotypes about how girls, boys, women, and men should look or act. Under the law, your school has an obligation to create an environment free from sex and gender stereotypes in which you are free to be yourself. Click here to learn more about the Dignity Act.

What can I do if I’m being harassed?

Don’t be invisible. Report a problem immediately. Your school has to help you fix the problem and keep you safe. Talk to your principal, teacher or counselor as soon as an incident happens, or beforehand, if you feel threatened. Remember to write down every incident with dates and descriptions of what happened and when you reported it. If you feel like school authorities aren’t taking appropriate action there are other steps to take. Go to Steps to Make a Complaint. We’re also here to help. Contact us if your school is not fixing your problem.

Can I be discriminated against because of my sexual orientation at school?

No. Just as you have the right to be free from discrimination because of your race, ethnicity, national origin or gender, you also have the right to be free from discrimination because of your sexual orientation. It is illegal for your school to treat you differently from straight students, to single you out for punishment or to refuse to intervene if other students or administrators harass or bully you because of your sexual orientation. Even if you aren’t out, the law protects you from discrimination, because it is also illegal for your school to discriminate against you because people think you are gay or perceive you as gay.

Can I be discriminated against because of my gender identity or for dressing or acting too “masculine” or “feminine”?

No. You have a constitutional right to express yourself, even at school. Your constitutional right to free expression includes your right to express yourself through how you dress and present yourself to others. Although your school is permitted to enforce a dress code or require uniforms, it is not permitted to enforce traditional stereotypes of “masculinity” or “femininity.” You have a right to dress and present yourself in a way that is different from traditional ideas and stereotypes about how girls and boys should look or act. You also have a right to have teachers and school administrators call you by your preferred name and to use your preferred gender pronoun (“he” or “she”).

Do I have a right to be out about my sexual orientation in school?

Yes. You have the right to come out to whomever you choose. Your constitutional right to free expression includes your right to express your identity, including your sexual orientation. The decision to come out is deeply personal. It is your decision and your decision alone. If you do come out, teachers and school administrators cannot discriminate against you.

Do I have a right to be out about my gender identity in school?

Yes. Your constitutional right to free expression includes your right to express your gender identity – the gender you feel yourself to be. If you are transgender and open about your gender identity, your teachers and school administrators cannot discriminate against you and they must treat you with respect, including by using your preferred name and gender pronoun (“he” or “she”).


Can the school tell my parents I’m gay?

We certainly don’t think so, and several federal courts agree. Your right to privacy includes the right to control to what extent and to whom you disclose highly personal information about your sexual orientation or gender identity. Some federal courts have ruled that schools shouldn't reveal a student’s sexual orientation to their parents or anyone else without the student's permission. We believe that it is illegal for your school to disclose your sexual orientation or gender identity to your parents without your permission.

This is true even if you are open about your sexual or transgender identity at school. Just because you have the right to be “out” doesn’t mean that your teachers or school administrators should “out” you against your will to your parents or force you to come out to your parents. If your principal, counselors and teachers are threatening to tell your parents about your sexual orientation or gender identity against your will, make it clear that you do not want them to do so. If it continues, contact us for help. Coming out is an intensely personal experience. It is hard work being open and honest enough with yourself to recognize who you are and what you want.

Can I start a Gay-Straight Alliance or other gay/lesbian club at my school?

Yes. As long as your school allows other extra-curricular clubs to meet, such as chess or drama club, they must allow a gay-related club to exist. A law called the Equal Access Act says that any public school that gets federal money has to allow all groups access to the same meeting facilities (a room or space on a bulletin board) no matter what the group believes or discusses.

How do I start Gay-Straight Alliance?

It’s easy. A Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) is a student-run club, typically in a high school, which provides a safe place for students to meet, support each other, talk about issues related to sexual orientation and work to end homophobia. There are ample resources to help you start your own. This is a good place to start. If the administration at your school gives you any trouble starting one, contact us.

Can I talk about being gay in school or wear LGBTQ-related T-shirts, stickers or bracelets?

Of course! You have a constitutional right to both express your political opinions and be open about your sexual orientation in school. Your school may try to persuade you not to be out of the closet in school or not to wear shirts they find “offensive,” but they cannot censor you as long as what you say and what you wear doesn’t cause serious disruption to a classroom. So don’t get up on the table in the lunchroom and scream “I’m gay!” at the top of your lungs, but don’t be afraid to talk to your friends in the lunchroom about it. As long as your school doesn’t have a uniformed dress code and allows other students to wear clothing reflecting their political or cultural beliefs, then school officials can’t tell you not to wear a T-shirt promoting gay pride.

The Supreme Court case Tinker v. DeMoines made this clear when it ruled students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” If you are being censored or punished in school for LGBT-related speech or expression, contact us.

Can I distribute LGBTQ rights pamphlets or materials at school?

Yes, as long as it doesn’t cause a substantial disruption in the school. School administrators can’t prohibit it just because they don’t like the content. They also can’t have a blanket rule prohibiting all “disruptive leaflets.” If they want to stop you they must show why your specific leaflet would result in a major disruption at school. The school can adopt “reasonable time, place and manner” rules. That means they may not allow you to distribute fliers in the classroom or narrow corridors where it could disrupt the flow of traffic, but they can’t stop you from setting up a table or standing in the lobby or another area where your presence won’t disrupt foot traffic. You can’t miss classes or study periods to distribute fliers, but if the student government or PTA can set up tables in a specific area then you can, too. If school officials complain about students throwing fliers on the floor, volunteer to help pick them up. You also have the right to distribute fliers on the public sidewalk outside of your school. If your school stops you from distributing fliers inside school or outside on the sidewalk, contact us.

Can the school block my access to LGBTQ websites on school computers?

No. It is illegal for your school to use web filtering software to block your access to positive information about LGBTQ issues and organizations. Your school cannot block access to a site solely because it disagrees with the site’s subject matter or opinion. It is also illegal for your school to block access to pro-LGBT sites but to allow access to anti-LGBT websites. Check out the ACLU’s Don’t Filter Me project for a simple way to check your school’s compliance with its constitutional obligations and to report unconstitutionally blocked sites to the ACLU.

Can I bring my girlfriend/boyfriend to prom?

You sure can. You should be able to take whoever you want – it’s your prom! Taking your choice of date is part of your right to free speech and free expression. Courts have held that the First Amendment protects your right to bring a same-sex date to the prom. If your school gives you a problem, use the ACLU’s letter to principals and superintendants (available here) to explain your rights and your school’s responsibilities under the law, or write your own. If your school still tries to prohibit you from bringing your boyfriend or girlfriend, contact us. We can help.

Can I wear a tuxedo to the prom if I’m a girl or a dress if I’m a boy?

Yes. It is illegal for your school to mandate dress requirements based on outdated notions that only boys can wear tuxedoes and only girls can wear dresses. Federal courts have held that such rules violate your constitutional right to equal protection and your First Amendment right to free expression.

Can I be punished for holding hands with, hugging or kissing my same-sex boyfriend or girlfriend at school?

If your school administrators don’t punish straight students for showing affection, they can’t punish you for doing the same things. Although your school is permitted to discipline students for engaging in “inappropriate PDA,” or public displays of affection, it can not single out same-sex couples for punishment. It also cannot create an “inappropriate PDA” policy that defines only same-sex expressions of affection as “inappropriate.”

Can I wear clothes to school that fit the gender I identify with?

Yes. If you go to a public school that does not require uniforms then you have a right to wear the clothes that express the gender you identify with. If your school has a uniformed dress code it should be your right to wear the uniform of the gender you identify with. If this issue is coming up in your school, contact us.

You also have a right to express yourself in ways that do not conform to gender stereotypes, even if you aren’t transgender. Although your school is permitted to set dress codes, it is not permitted to draw distinctions between clothing that is appropriate only for girls and clothing that is appropriate only for boys.

I’m transgender and I’m not sure which restrooms or locker rooms I’m allowed to use. What are my rights?

You have a right to respect and safety at school, including a right to safely use restrooms and locker rooms in your school. Your school must allow you to use a gender-neutral bathroom, a private single-stall bathroom (even if usually only adults can use it), or to use the bathroom that corresponds with your gender identity. The same is true of locker rooms. If privacy and safety in the restroom or locker room is an issue, your school must work with you to find a solution that makes you feel safe and respects who you are, including ways to create more privacy for you, like more-private changing areas. If you need help with a problem like this, contact us.

Where can I go to get information about sex and how to have safe sex?

There is no shortage of resources. You can start at our Teen Health Initiative website where you can learn about your legal rights as a teen regarding healthcare and information services. For sexual health information specifically by and for LGBTQ young people, check out Youth Resource. Visit our Resources page for other options.

How can I find a LGBTQ-friendly doctor?

The Callen Lorde Center has a program called HOTT (Health Outreach to Teens). It offers low- and/or no-cost medical and mental health services for LGBTQ and street youth, including comprehensive primary care, counseling, social services, HIV/STI prevention services and health education. If you have any questions call us at 212.607.3300 or email knoel@nyclu.org. Our Resources page has other options across the state. Your gay or transgender identity should never prevent you from accessing health care!

I’m gay, gender non-conforming or transgender, and I feel like I’m the only one. Who can I talk to?

You’re not alone. There are community groups and web resources to prove it. There are tons of organizations in New York and across the country devoted to creating an LGBTQ-positive environment. Look at our Resources page for information on these organizations, and how you can join the conversation in person or on the web.

Where can I learn more about the specific laws that protect me when I’m at school?

  • Constitutional equal protection guarantees. The equal protection clause of the U.S. and New York constitutions requires schools to treat everyone equally and prohibits them from discriminating against you because of your sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
  • Constitutional free speech and free expression guarantees. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 1 of the New York State Constitution protect your right to free speech, free expression and free association. This includes the freedom to express your political opinions, your sexuality and your gender identity at school, and the right to be “gender non-conforming” at school – to dress and present yourself in a way that is different from traditional ideas and stereotypes about how girls and boys should look or act.
  • Constitutional privacy and liberty guarantees. Both the U.S. and New York Constitutions protect your right to a certain level of privacy about your sexual life, your intimate relationships and how you identify yourself. We believe (and some courts have agreed) that the federal and state constitutions protect your right not to be out at school if that is what you prefer and prohibit your school from outing you to your parents without your permission. They also protect your right to privacy and confidential sexual and reproductive health care.
  • Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972. Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex and sex-stereotyping by schools, colleges and universities that receive federal funds. Title IX requires schools to protect you from bullying and harassment because of your sex, your gender, how you express your gender, or for looking or acting too “masculine” or “feminine.” Although Title IX does not specifically prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, it does protect LGBTQ students from sex discrimination. When students are subjected to harassment because of their LGBTQ status, the harassment may count as prohibited sex discrimination.
       
  • Dignity for All Students Act. The Dignity Act is a new New York State law that gives students in public schools an educational environment free from discrimination and harassment. It protects against all forms of harassment, including harassment based on a student’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, sex, gender identity or gender expression. When it goes into effect in 2012, the Dignity Act will prohibit activities that create a hostile environment at school and school-sponsored events. It also requires educators to create a more positive and inclusive culture at school through sensitivity training and classroom curricula on diversity.
  • State Anti-Discrimination Laws. New York State Human Rights Law prohibits schools from discriminating against you because of your sex or sexual orientation. New York State law does not yet specifically prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or gender expression. (Click here to learn more about how you can advocate for GENDA, a bill that would fix that!) However, courts have held that some discrimination against transgender or gender non-conforming people might be prohibited sex or sex-stereotyping discrimination or disability discrimination (if the discrimination happens to someone diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder). In addition to protecting your rights at schools, the Human Rights Law protects you from discrimination based on your sexual orientation, sex or disability with respect to jobs, housing, and in public accommodations like restaurants and stores.
  • Local Anti-Discrimination Laws. Discrimination based on gender identity or gender expression is specifically prohibited in local anti-discrimination law in New York City, Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, Ithaca, Rochester and Suffolk and Tompkins counties.

I have a hard time keeping up with all the terms being thrown around, like transgender, intersex or zi. Is there a glossary of terms available?

Yes. Click on the Glossary of Terms to bring yourself up to speed.

I am so uncomfortable at school that I want to quit. What should I do?

Your school has a duty to create a safe and accepting environment for you. If your principal fails to act when you report harassment, bullying or hostility, you can take steps to make a complaint. We understand how difficult things can be, though, and how powerless it can feel when the system seems stacked against you. Talk to someone who knows you well before making the difficult and life-changing decision to leave school. If there isn’t anyone at school or at home that you trust, contact one of the organizations on our Resources page. And remember, it gets better.

If you are having a problem at school because of your sexual orientation, your gender identity or how you express your gender, contact us at mhirose@nyclu.org.

Stay informed

The New York Civil Liberties Union is a state affiliate of the ACLU

Learn more about ACLU National