LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- According to Washington, D.C. lawyer Garry Bevel, LGBTQ rights are not newly devised rights, but a matter of applying basic U.S. civil rights to non-heterosexuals.
“If straight kids can do it, gay kids should be able to do it,” Bevel said flatly. “If a boy wants to wear a pink backpack – you can’t tell a boy not to, if girls can.”
And the best way to protect the legal rights of LGBTQ teens, according to Bevel, is not threatening litigation but working with agencies that serve teens.
“We need to build partnerships,” Bevel told his audience of teachers, counselors, social workers and lawyers on Saturday at Time to THRIVE, a Las Vegas conference organized by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation to promote the wellbeing of LGBTQ youth, who have higher rates of suicide, homelessness, depression and addictions than their straight peers.
The constitutional rights to self expression and freedom of assembly are the legal grounds to justify same-sex teens attending prom or wearing T-shirts to school that mention a gay-rights organization or forming a Gay Straight Alliance club on campus, he explained. “Being ‘out’ is not something special. We’re not carving out new rights.”
Civil rights laws and Title 9 often apply, and should be cited, when advocating to change policies and practices that adversely affect LGBTQ teens, he added. Bevel has been a staff attorney with the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law, though he is leaving that position on Friday.
“The big picture is that the courts have begun to look at laws broadly,” said Mary Hermann, chair of counselor education at Virginia Commonwealth University. Hermann, who also led a session at Time to THRIVE, was an expert witness in a Michigan case, Ward v. Wilbanks, in which the court found a graduate program can require counseling candidates to counsel clients who are LGBTQ, regardless of the candidate’s religious beliefs.
According to Bevel, some of the law enforcement “solutions” for handling LGBTQ teens when in custody are harmful, and advocates need to argue for better placements, as well as document inadequacies in order to build a legal record. “Silence is one of the biggest enemies” to change, he said.
For example, if a transgender teen enters the juvenile justice system for a status offense – such as under-age drinking, violating curfew or skipping school – the teen is often put in custody with peers of the trans’ originating gender, as opposed to his or her identifying gender. That sets the teen up for harassment and physical harm.
Or – equally harmful illegal, Bevel asserted – is the law enforcement practice of putting a transgender teen in solitary confinement to protect him or her from peers.
“It is unconstitutional per se,” Bevel said. “You’re placing the burden of the child’s safety on the child, not the facility.” Being isolated increases emotional trauma and creates more opportunity for suicide. Conference participants also discussed the possibility of applying the same logic to education, if a LGBTQ teen is moved to a new school or diverted to home study because of bullying at the home school.
When it comes to foster care for LGBTQ teens, the state must do more than provide a place to eat and sleep. The caregivers must be unbiased and emotionally supportive. “Once a state steps in as the parent, that triggers a lot more responsibilities,” Bevel concluded.