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The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America's Public Schools, Second Edition

reviewed by Emalee J. W. Quickel - May 24, 2019

coverTitle: The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America's Public Schools, Second Edition
Author(s): Stuart Biegel
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
ISBN: 1517905729, Pages: 376, Year: 2018
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In the Second Edition of The Right to Be Out, Stuart Biegel embraces the lofty goal of examining the intersection of education and the law as it relates to members of the LGBT community and their allies, with a particular focus on K-12 public education in the United States. This encompasses a thorough review of the historical context of LGBT rights in the U.S., including a comprehensive investigation of relevant case law grounded in its relationship to the First and Fourteenth Amendments (free speech and equal protection, respectively), as well as a wide-ranging discussion of how schools can continue to move forward in efforts to become more inclusive and affirming, particularly to LGBT students. In addition, Biegel devotes specialized attention to the complex relationship of both religion and athletics to these contexts, as well as including an entire chapter dedicated to the unique needs of transgender individuals. The research and case law he includes are appropriate, relevant, up to date, and widely applicable to a variety of educational domains. This second edition provides needed updates in these important areas, since the original edition of the text was published in 2010.

The specified goals of this text are three-fold. In the Introduction, Biegel outlines his hope that the book will provide: (a) specialized chapters that stand alone; (b) a series of chapters that build onto each other to create a full review of LGBT case law, public policy, and educational practices; and (c) a reference manual that can be used selectively as needed. Biegel ostensibly accomplishes these goals, though the text contains many references to previous content that may make it more difficult for readers to navigate and comprehend if they are only reading portions of the total content. Similarly, he references case law throughout by giving only the name of the case (that he has described more fully in previous chapters), which can be confusing even to readers who have been diligently following along but who might have difficulty committing to memory the names and details of the plethora of cases he discusses. In addition, he is clear that his intended audience spans “legal, educational, and public policy communities” (p. xi) and beyond, and that he hopes to both celebrate the progress that has been made in these domains over the past several decades while also acknowledging the work that is yet to be accomplished, or accomplished consistently, in order to achieve full equal rights for LGBT individuals and communities. While Biegel certainly accomplishes the latter by providing readers a fair and balanced review of progress (and setbacks) over time, an individual who is less familiar with legal terminologies and contexts (e.g., many K-12 educators) might struggle with this read, as it requires the reader to have a more advanced repertoire of legal jargon and a more sophisticated understanding of legal systems, structures, and processes.

In Part One, “The Law: The Emergence of the Right to Be Out,” Biegel outlines how the right to be out has unfolded over time, how it has been shaped by litigation that included arguments grounded in the free speech clause of the First Amendment and the equal protection under the law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, how it has interacted with other historical developments for LGBT individuals such as marriage equality, and ultimately how it has manifested in the classroom for students, educators, and administrators. This section is as heartbreaking as it is hopeful and as nuanced as it is informative.

Biegel details a multitude of court cases throughout these first 137 pages, many of which have tragedy and discrimination as their foundational elements. Many of the protagonists of these stories are LGBT youth who successfully litigated their own right to be out; however, many of the stories also reveal youth who attempt to litigate/legitimize the oppression of their LGBT peers, though most were unsuccessful in these efforts. Notably, Biegel is able to contextualize these court cases throughout, pointing out places where legal decision-makers relied on prior case law, invoked a particular decisional technique, or dissented in such a way that it ultimately paved the way for future litigation efforts. He pays particular attention in this section to the manifestation of LGBT-inclusive curriculum and how it has been litigated over time, often with respect to religious objections. He concludes with the hopeful summary that “with rare exception, judges implicitly recognize the right of LGBT persons to be out, their right to be treated equally as a result, and their right to the same level of tolerance as anyone else” (p. 137).

In Part Two, “Public Policy: Implementing the Right to Be Out,” Biegel attempts to provide readers with strategies and best practices for cultivating and maintaining inclusive and affirming environments for all students, especially those who identify as LGBT. While this section is arguably an easier read due to less reliance on case law and legal terminology, it perhaps falls short of its intended goals. With some notable exceptions, many of Biegel’s suggestions for improving climate for LGBT students are vague and provide only aspirational goals versus direct, implementable techniques or tactics. For example, he briefly discusses the concept of heteronormativity, or the assumption that everyone is heterosexual and that being heterosexual is implicitly more normal or valued (pp. 170–171), and how damaging this can be for LGBT individuals; however, no actionable solutions are offered, such as removing gendered language from school forms (e.g., asking about parents/caregivers versus mothers/fathers) or advertising school dances in LGBT-inclusive ways. A few notable exceptions to this include some specific strategic initiatives described in Chapter Eight, which discusses changing the culture of athletics in educational settings (e.g., enlisting the help of LGBT role models in sports), and in Chapter Nine, which offers considerations that may be uniquely impactful to transgender students (e.g., allowing students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their identified gender).

All in all, The Right to Be Out provides an important look at the juncture of education and the law with respect to LGBT students, educators, administrators, and their allies. Biegel also takes care to note how those who occupy intersectional marginalized identities (e.g., being a student of color in addition to being LGBT) may face additional barriers to inclusive and affirming educational environments, which is a welcome perspective in a societal landscape that is increasingly diverse in many ways. As Biegel states in Chapter Two, “even with all the challenges that remain, LGBTs and their growing number of allies should be highly optimistic regarding what lies ahead” (p. 44). This text provides readers the evidence upon which to base this optimism, and a preliminary blueprint for how to forge ahead in the continued struggle for LGBT equality in K-12 public education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 24, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22808, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 5:51:02 PM

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About the Author
  • Emalee Quickel
    Loyola University Maryland
    E-mail Author
    EMALEE J. W. QUICKEL, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Clinical Supervisor at Loyola University Maryland. She graduated with her Ph.D. in Clinical Health Psychology from the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Research interests include legal decision-making, LGBTQ+ campus climate, and mindfulness. Recent publications include a book chapter about campus climate for LGBTQ+ college students in the Southeastern United States (Bracken, Winters, & Quickel, 2018), an article about race and culpability in plea bargaining (Quickel & Zimmerman, 2019), and an article about mindfulness acquisition and symptom reduction in a partial hospital program (Mochrie, Lothes, Quickel, St. John, & Carter, in press). Current projects include a follow-up study using a Policy Capturing methodology to examine racial differences in plea decisions, and the supervision of several student dissertations in the following areas: mindfulness interventions for substance abuse, mental health needs for formerly incarcerated Black men, the relationship between psychological, neuropsychological, and psychosocial mitigating evidence and defendant race on sentencing decisions, and access to care for South Asian women in the United States who have experienced a sexual assault. Clinical interests include working with legally-involved populations and LGBTQ+ populations, mindfulness and acceptance-based interventions, and borderline personality disorder.
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