Officials from LGBTQ+-advocacy organizations Equality Illinois, Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, Rainbow Cafe and Youth Outlook announced a sharp increase in the number of bullying incidents directed against LGBTQ+ students across Illinois at a press conference the afternoon of Nov. 16.
There is no uniform statewide mechanism for reporting and tracking incidents of school bullying, but each of the organizations engage the issue extensively and stress the importance of students and parents seeking out resources and assistance when their families are faced with the issue.
Equality Illinois Deputy Director Mony Ruiz-Velasco said that advocates and community members must send "a strong, unified message to LGBTQ+ students."
Carbondale high school student Cal Vine noted that that, while they have not experienced bullying personally, they knew many people who did.
"It is still intimidating," Vine said, further passing along from a message from a friend who said "people need to stop dancing around the topic."
Nancy Mullen, executive director of Naperville-based Youth Outlook, explained that LGBTQ+ students are facing challenges not just from their peers, but also hostile faculty members, school boards and parents in the community.
Transgender students have become a "hot-button" issue in numerous school districts, for example, while libraries and schools have been questioned for including LGBTQ+ affirming materials on their shelves. Mullen noted that, even as the social-cultural understanding of the LGBTQ+ community evolves, the community inevitably can face pushback from anti-LGBTQ+ elements.
This heated rhetoric comes just after the state passed a law including LGBTQ+-related materials into Illinois' history curriculums. Grecia Magdaleno of Illinois Safe Schools Alliance said that, even as that law has drawn controversy, officials are designing curriculums such that information specifically about gender identity and sexual orientation are only first introduced at age-appropriate levels.
"It's not a politicized issue," Magdaleno said. "It's about identity at its core."
Despite the heated rhetoric centering the LGBTQ+ community within various controversies, and residual resistance to change on the part of some school boards, faculties and parents, Ruiz-Velasco emphasized that most Illinoisans are on board for positive change, noting that the legislature has now passed numerous pro-LGBTQ+ measures, and the LGBTQ+ community does have a great deal of visibility.
Magdaleno noted that some LGBTQ+ students likely felt empowered after schools shut down due to COVID-19. The relative isolation from schools gave them the opportunity to reflect on their identity, and they returned to school not willing to hide their orientation and/or identity.
Ruiz-Velasco said, "When there is more favorable visibility, we see more pushback in places where people are not as affirmed."
Indeed, Carrie Vine, vice chair of the Rainbow Cafe LGBTQ center in Carbondale, confirmed that her organization's clients were enduring "bullying and discrimination like we've never seen it" and called for action from the community.
"These matters simply cannot go ignored," Carrie said.