Skip to main content

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

Bankrolling Change in Massachusetts Schools: A Pathway to LGBTQ+ Inclusion

Earlier this March, an autopsy report ruled that Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old transgender student from Oklahoma, had died by suicide.1 Controversy surrounding the circumstances of Benedict’s tragic death has since reignited national attention towards LGBTQ-related issues, particularly within schools. In the United States, on average, LGBTQ youth are over four times more likely to report attempted suicide. In the 2021-2022 school year, one out of eight LGBTQ students reported experiencing identity-based physical assault while at school.2

As a former high school teacher in a small, secluded rural town in Eastern Kentucky, I was a firsthand witness to anti-LGBTQ antagonism in public schools. Students often bore the brunt of targeted threats and abuse from their peers, parents, and school administration. I left my teaching position in 2022, and recently relocated to Massachusetts — which consistently ranks as the most liberal state in the US.3 The Appalachian Bible Belt and the comparatively progressive East Coast embrace starkly different attitudes towards social issues, not to mention issues surrounding the LGBTQ community. Liberal-leaning states like Massachusetts have the political will to do what a red state like Kentucky cannot. Blue states are particularly well-positioned to lead the charge in applying innovative and intensive strategies to protect, support, and nurture queer and marginalized youth.

Addressing the Conditions of LGBTQ Youth in Massachusetts

While Massachusetts’ left-leaning constituency has afforded numerous protections for LGBTQ-identified individuals, the state ranks just 14th in policy protections for gender-identity and 13th for sexual orientation in the country.4 Moreover, these protections don’t preclude students and young people from experiencing harms —  facing parental hostility, witnessing the national onslaught of targeted anti-LGBTQ legislation, or encountering local anti-LGBTQ demonstrations.5

Based on preliminary findings from the 2021 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey (MYRBS), LGBTQ-identified youth constitute over a quarter of the state’s student population.6 In Massachusetts, about 1 in 5 (21.9%) students identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and 1 in 20 (5.3%) identified as transgender. Of these youth, an alarming 43.8% reported suicidal ideation and 18% reported attempted suicide, compared to 10.9% and 4.4%, respectively, for their heterosexual/cisgender peers. According to the Trevor Project, this increased suicide risk is not inherently attributed to sexual orientation or gender identity, but rather to how LGBTQ youth are stigmatized and persecuted in society.7 MYRBS findings corroborate that in Massachusetts schools, LGBTQ youth are about twice as likely to be bullied and significantly more likely to be threatened at school compared to those who are heterosexual/cisgender.8

This concern can’t be fixed by well-intentioned platitudes advocating for “mental health awareness” and “bullying prevention.” While such issues are indeed pressing and highly relevant, LGBTQ students need support that is explicitly designed to meet their needs. The Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth publishes an annual series of recommendations aimed at driving such strategies into action.9 Though the Commission’s report cites ongoing efforts to advance legislation and offers recommended training and services to schools, the issues facing LGBTQ+ students warrant more of a push than leaving it to individual districts and schools to take the initiative. But here’s the catch; legislative mandates, such as S.B. 259 (which would amend the state’s social studies standards to include histories and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people), constitute the very thing that anti-LGBTQ advocacy groups fear most: “The government is forcing our children to learn about obscene sexual deviancy.”10

While on the topic of social studies standards, we should reflect on an important lesson from the United States desegregation and Civil Rights movements. These movements are rightfully praised as producing landmark steps in this country’s fight towards achieving racial equity; yet de facto school segregation still persists and Black and Brown Americans are disproportionately incarcerated and subjected to police brutality.11 In short, forcing people to violate their firmly-held beliefs — no matter how abhorrent those beliefs are — will not magically make those beliefs go away. Anti-LGBTQ antagonism is both a systematic and culturally embedded phenomenon, and systems and cultures are interdependent. So, then, how can policymakers and governments take action against something so deeply woven into America’s fabric? The solution lies within the one thing that every single district in America desperately wants more than anything: school funding.

Implementing Targeted Supports Using Funding-Based Models

Rather than juggling between school district autonomy versus government heavy-handedness, Massachusetts should consider funding-based incentives tied to the recommendations that the Commission has proposed. This way, the State can take a “kitchen-sink” approach specific to LGBTQ-focused education policy.12 Toss in queer-inclusive curricular reform and mandatory school trainings; add in a bit or two about school policy on bullying and harassment; require the hiring of a school-based diversity, equity, and inclusion specialist; maintain current and accurate updates on school climate; develop a school-based procedure for reporting and disrupting harmful identity-based antagonism. Liberal-leaning districts that have already put into place some of these measures would welcome additional funding to expand or strengthen their current initiatives. Conservative-leaning districts, particularly those in smaller and/or rural areas, would feel the financial encouragement pushing them to act. This approach underlies the harsh reality of American politics: money, rather than morals, often drives decision-making.

This opt-in approach assumes a strategy based on positive reinforcement. Resources or funds wouldn’t be taken from schools; they would be offered as an additional incentive, à la “Race to the Top.” While categorical grant initiatives are by no means particularly novel intervention strategies in the American education system, they have a niche potential for forging innovative reform. When crafted with careful considerations for access, scaling, implementation, and monitoring, grant-based models can advance major equity-centered reform without the imposition of controversial blanket mandates. And regardless of whether this kind of strategy can effectively change the hearts and minds of the most stubborn religious and “Parents’ Rights” groups, the ultimate concern is that LGBTQ youth can succeed and thrive in schools.13 GLSEN’s 2021 National School Climate Survey finds that schools with inclusive LGBTQ-focused policies were more strongly associated with student perceptions of staff support and improved sense of self-esteem and belonging; students experienced less anti-LGBTQ victimization and exhibited lower likelihood of depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation.14

LGBTQ-focused policy has long been co-opted by party politics as a proxy for ideological demarcation. Thus, enactment of equity-based reform requires a delicate balancing-act. Decisionmakers must prioritize urgent public needs, but risk accelerating the divisiveness that has made “culture wars” battleground of American schools. Currently, this kind of advocacy-based policy is unlikely to take hold in more conservative states, especially those with targeted anti-LGBTQ laws.15 Forward-thinking change must happen to support and protect children like Nex Benedict, or my queer students in Kentucky. In the meantime, blue states must do everything that they can — because they can —  to make schools not just bearable, but effective, inclusive, and safe.

  1. Colbi Edmonds and Adeel Hassan, “What We Know about the Death of a Nonbinary Student in Oklahoma,” The New York Times, March 25, 2024, ↩︎
  2. Joseph G. Kosciw, Caitlin M. Clark, and Leesh Menard, “The 2021 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of LGBTQ+ Youth in Our Nation’s Schools,” GLSEN, 2022, 16, ↩︎
  3. Shane Fulmer, “Most Liberal States 2024,” World Population Review, 2024, ↩︎
  4. “Snapshot: LGBTQ Equality by State,”, April 1, 2024, ↩︎
  5. “Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth: Report and Recommendations for Fiscal Year 2024,” Massachusetts Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Youth, 2023, 25, ↩︎
  6. “Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth: Report and Recommendations for Fiscal Year 2024,” 17. ↩︎
  7. “Facts About Suicide Among LGBTQ+ Young People,” The Trevor Project, January 1, 2024, ↩︎
  8. ownload. ↩︎
    “Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth: Report and Recommendations for Fiscal Year 2024,” 3. ↩︎
  9. “Annual Recommendations – Commission on LGBTQ Youth,”, 2024, ↩︎
  10. An Act Relative to LGBTQ+ Inclusive Curriculum, MA S.259, 193rd Sen. (2023), ↩︎
  11. Sequoia Carrillo and Pooja Salhotra, “The U.S. Student Population Is More Diverse, but Schools Are Still Highly Segregated,” NPR, July 14, 2022, ↩︎
  12. William Safire, “Kitchen Sink,” The New York Times Magazine, March 30, 2008, ↩︎
  13. “Anti-Equality Organizations,” PFLAG, 2024, ↩︎
  14. Kosciw, Clark, and Menard, “The 2021 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of LGBTQ+ Youth in Our Nation’s Schools,” 62-75. ↩︎
  15. “LGBTQ Youth: Forced Outing of Transgender Students,”, August 16, 2023, ↩︎