California has some of the strongest laws in the country to protect and support LGBTQ+ youth. Unfortunately, these laws often only apply to public or charter schools, not private or religious schools. But some of these laws protect students in non-religious private schools as well.
Knowing your rights is the first step in making sure you're treated equally, and youth across the state are taking steps to uphold their rights and be themselves. This guide will show you what the law says about your rights in school, allowing you and your classmates to take the lead in making the future of LGBTQ+ students as bright and fair as possible.
You Have the Right to Be Your Authentic Self at School
Do I have the right to be out at school?
YES. You have the right to be open about your identity and to be yourself at school.
The California Education Code prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation and/or other protected characteristics ¬in public schools and non-religious private schools. This means that your school must respect student’s sexual orientation and the gender identity and/or expression of trans, nonbinary, gender non-confirming, and gender-diverse students. Title IX and the U.S. Constitution also provide similar protections by prohibiting schools from stereotyping based on sex and from reinforcing stereotypical gender norms.
If you feel comfortable, you should talk to your parents, guardians, and/or trusted school staff about how best to support you in being your authentic self while at school. You should not need to show proof of any legal documents, medical diagnosis, or medical treatment to have your identity recognized at school.
Do I have the right to be addressed by the name and pronouns that correspond with my gender identity?
YES. You have the right to be addressed by the name and pronouns that match your gender identity at school. This is true even if you have not formally changed your name and gender marker.
For informal school documents, like your student ID, class attendance rosters, and yearbook, you can request to use the name that matches your gender identity, and your school is required to honor that request. However, your school may ask for legal proof of a name change (or a change to the gender marker on your birth certificate) for a small number of formal school documents, such as standardized testing paperwork and transcripts.
You can learn more about updating your records as a student (or former student) at https://www.aclusocal.org/en/know-your-rights/updating-your-name-gender-school-records.
Do I have the right to dress in a way that matches my gender identity?
YES. You have the right to dress in a way that you feel reflects your gender identity both at school and at school-sponsored events. If your school has a policy that specifies what boys or girls may wear to school or for special events, then your school must allow you to wear clothing that best corresponds to your gender identity. But also, gender-based dress code policies are outdated, and a dress code may not be legally enforceable if it sets different standards for different genders rather than setting consistent standards for what any student may wear.
You can learn more about your rights around dress codes at https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/rights/school-dress-codes-uniforms/.
Do I have the right to participate in school programs and activities, like sports or P.E., according to my gender identity?
YES. You have the right to participate in all school programs and activities according to your gender identity. For example, your school must allow you to participate in the sports teams and P.E. classes that best match your gender identity.
Do I have the right to use school facilities, like restrooms and locker rooms, according to my gender identity?
YES. Your school must allow you to use the restrooms and locker rooms that best match your gender identity. Your school should never force you to use a private, single-user restroom (such as in the nurse’s office) if you don’t want to.
Single-User Restrooms or Changing Areas
However, if you want more privacy and prefer to use a more private restroom or changing area, you (or any other student) can ask whether your school can accommodate that. Since 2017, California’s Equal Restroom Access Act has required “single-user” restrooms to be marked as “all gender” restrooms, including in schools.
As of fall 2023, a new law, SB 760, requires most schools teaching any grade 1-12 to provide at least one all-gender restroom on campus for student use by July 1, 2026. While SB 760 provides flexibility to school districts in determining how to provide access to an all-gender restroom, it does require that at least one all-gender restroom be easily accessible to students.
Access to Menstrual Products
Students attending schools teaching any grade 3-12 also have the right to access free menstrual products in a range of school restrooms, including all women’s and all-gender restrooms, and at least one men’s restroom.
Learn more about your right to access free menstrual products in schools at https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/rights/student-health-rights/.
Harassment and Bullying of LGBTQ+ Students
Do I have the right to be free from bullying and harassment at school?
YES. All students have the right to be treated equally and to be free from bullying, harassment, and discrimination, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
Learn more about your right to be free from bullying and harassment at https://www.myschoolmyrights.com/rights/harassment-bullying/.
Do I have the right to keep information about my gender identity and/or sexual orientation private?
YES. Generally, school staff cannot share information about your gender identity and sexual orientation without your permission, except under very limited circumstances, such as in case of an emergency.
California law requires that school districts provide a safe and welcoming environment where you can learn and be yourself. Disclosing a student’s gender identity or sexual orientation without their permission may violate California’s antidiscrimination laws by potentially exposing the student to increased harassment. Additionally, under the California and U.S. Constitutions, you have a protected right to privacy, which includes the right to keep your sexual orientation and your gender identity private (what courts call a “reasonable expectation of privacy”). This means that you have the right to control to what extent and to whom you disclose this information. While your school should support your coming out by supporting you and encouraging parental involvement, your school should also first check with you to ensure they are not accidentally outing you. Being open about your gender identity and sexual orientation at school does not mean you automatically give up your right to privacy outside school, and school staff should not disclose your LGBTQ+ status without your permission.
However, under some limited circumstances, your school can tell your parents about your sexual orientation and/or gender identity—but only if they have a very good reason for doing so, such as a serious concern for your physical safety where your gender or sexual identity is relevant to the concern. For example, if a peer purposefully outed a student to the entire class and the student who was outed expressed feelings of self-harm. It really depends on the circumstances, but they cannot out you just to punish you, harass you, discriminate against you, or retaliate against you. For example, if you complain to the principal about a teacher making or allowing anti-LGBTQ+ comments in class, that does not automatically authorize the principal to call your parents and reveal your actual or perceived LGBTQ+ status. Still, in the event outing you is relevant to a concern and your school is considering outing you, they should still make a good faith effort to tell you first.
Can my school district adopt a policy requiring school staff to out students against their will?
California education law requires that schools provide students with a safe and welcoming environment where they can learn and be themselves. A policy requiring school staff to disclose a student’s gender identity or sexual orientation without their permission may violate California’s antidiscrimination laws by potentially exposing students to increased harassment. Further, under the California and U.S. Constitutions, you have a protected right to privacy, which includes the right to keep your LGBTQ+ status private. Given this, policies that mandate school staff to out students against their will are unlawful in California.
Your school may try to support your coming out by encouraging parental involvement, but it is ultimately your choice. Because you have a right to privacy regarding personal information, including LGBTQ+ status, your school should first check in with you before disclosing your private information to anyone. If you share that you aren’t comfortable sharing your LGBTQ+ status with your family, your school should acknowledge and try to understand your concerns and work with you towards getting your family’s support whatever that may look like for you.
Still, some schools are attempting to disregard student rights to privacy by passing coercive outing policies. If your school or school district adopts a policy of outing students against their will, it risks violating students’ legal and constitutional rights.
Freedom of Speech and Expression
Do I have the right to express myself and speak out about LGBTQ+ issues while at school?
YES. You have the right to express your opinion, including about LGBTQ+-related topics. This includes wearing LGBTQ+-positive t-shirts, badges, buttons, armbands, stickers, and bracelets, accessing information about LGBTQ+-related topics on school computers, bulletin boards, printed materials, petitions, and school publications, and bringing same-sex dates to prom.
Under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, student expression is protected both on campus and outside the classroom, and California's Constitution has even stronger freedom of speech protections. California law also protects your right to discuss LGBTQ+ issues and topics in school. In addition, no public school, charter school, or non-religious private high school can discipline you for talking about being LGBTQ+ or for discussing LGBTQ+ issues.
Of course, this doesn't mean that you can say whatever you want at any time—your speech isn't protected if it disrupts class time, if it's intended to encourage other students to break school rules, if it's obscene, or if it's something untrue about another person that could damage their reputation. Your school can also put some limits on where and when certain kinds of speech are allowed, but generally, if other students are allowed to speak at a school event or in class, you should also be allowed to talk about LGBTQ+ issues in those same spaces.
T-shirts. If your school allows other students to wear t-shirts (or other types of clothes) that express their beliefs or political views, then they can’t stop you from wearing clothes that express your support for LGBTQ+ issues. For example, in 2015, when Taylor Victor was called into the vice principal’s office and told that her “Nobody Knows I’m a Lesbian” t-shirt violated the Manteca Unified School District’s dress code policy because it was “disruptive,” “sexually suggestive,” and “degrades religious values,” she sued the school district. She stood up for her right to express her views, and the school district updated its dress code to allow students to wear clothing that expresses their own identity and their support for other students’ identities. Learn more about Taylor’s story.
Class Projects. Your school also can't prevent you from doing a class project about an LGBTQ+ topic or book, so long as it meets the requirements of the assignment. For example, officials in Ramona, CA, tried to prevent sixth grader Natalie Jones from giving a report in class on Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California. This violated both federal and state freedom of speech protections. After standing up for her rights, Natalie was allowed to give her presentation in class like all the other students. Learn more about Natalie’s story.
Prom. Freedom of expression includes your right to be “out” about your sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Nobody can censor who you are. This includes the right to bring a date of any gender to your prom or other school dances, to wear gender non-conforming clothing, and to run for “prom king” or “prom queen” (or other “prom royalty”) based on whichever category best matches your gender identity. For example, Constance McMillen bravely stood up for her rights both to bring her girlfriend to her school's prom and to wear a tuxedo. With the ACLU's help, Constance established that students have the right to bring the prom date of their choice and to dress in a way that allows you to freely express your gender, including in gender non-conforming ways. Learn more about Constance’s story.
Senior Portraits and Yearbook Photos. Your right to be yourself and wear clothing that best expresses your gender identity extends to what you wear in your school photos. For example, when Ceara Sturgis chose to wear a tuxedo for her senior yearbook photo, instead of the drape typically provided for girls, her school excluded her picture from the yearbook. With the ACLU's help, Ceara pushed back and won: Ceara's photo was added to the wall of senior photos at the school and her school improved its senior photo dress and anti-discrimination policies. Learn more about Ceara’s story.
The right to express yourself and speak about LGBTQ+ issues also applies to yearbooks, including senior quotes. For example, when Steven Madrid and Mikayla Garaffa’s pro-LGBTQ+ yearbook quotes were rejected by school administrators for being “politically divisive,” they stood up for their right to express their views, and with the ACLU’s help, their quotes were included in the yearbook.
To learn more about Steven and Mikayla’s story, click HERE.
Can I start a Genders & Sexualities Alliance (GSA) or similar club at my school?
YES. If your school has even one other non-curricular club, you have the right to start a GSA or other similar social justice club. Your school cannot treat GSA clubs differently than other non-curricular clubs.
Non-curricular clubs are clubs that are not directly related to classes taught in school. For example, a Math Club or a French Club are curricular clubs, but a Step Club or a Chess Club are non-curricular. GSA clubs must get the same privileges and access to meeting facilities as other non-curricular clubs. So, if your school lets other clubs meet in classrooms and put up posters, then it must let the GSA meet in classrooms and put up posters too.
If you're having difficulty forming a GSA, or feel that your GSA is being treated differently, you should raise your concerns with school officials and explain that the law requires the GSA be treated like other non-curricular clubs. For example, students in Madera, CA, negotiated with administrators who had been blocking the formation of a GSA club for over two years. They explained that the actions of the school violated the law, and the club was finally allowed to start. Student members of a GSA in Hesperia, CA also successfully pushed back against school administrators who were censoring the GSA's announcements and posters and who were not allowing them to screen movies about LGBTQ+ issues.
Starting a GSA is like starting any other club. Find out what your school's rules are and then follow those rules carefully. You may also want to consider different ways to protect your club members’ privacy. But you shouldn’t have to complete any additional steps or fulfill any further requirements beyond what students establishing any other non-curricular club have been expected to do.
Unbiased, Accurate, and Inclusive Curricula
Do I have the right to unbiased and LGBTQ+-inclusive instruction?
YES. Your school is required to teach LGBTQ+-inclusive history and sexual health education and should never allow bias in the classroom.
Under California law, public schools cannot provide instruction or sponsor activities that promote or reflect bias or discrimination against any person on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or gender. This means that your school cannot teach biased or discriminatory things about LGBTQ+ people or promote and reinforce gender stereotypes. For example, if your teacher discusses gender, sexual orientation, or families, they should acknowledge, when appropriate, that there are different types of genders, sexual orientations, and families, and they should discuss them even handedly. But your right to LGBTQ+-inclusive instruction does not end there.
The FAIR Education Act (Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act) requires that your school teach the role and contributions of LGBT Americans throughout history. For example, this might include discussions of Sylvia Rivera, Bayard Rustin, or Myra Laramee.
Learn more about your right to inclusive sex education at https://www.aclusocal.org/en/know-your-rights/sex-education.
Can my school remove books simply because they relate to LGBTQ+ topics or are written by an LGBTQ+ author?
NO. In California, you have the right to a fair, accurate, and inclusive education. This right includes access to materials that speak to the role, contributions, and experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people both historically and in contemporary society. A new law, AB 1078, further clarified the law in this area and prohibited school boards from banning books, instructional materials, or curricula that includes diverse and inclusive perspectives, including books and material by and about LGBTQ+ individuals. Still, current state and federal law prohibits your school from discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, and your school’s decision to remove books relating to LGBTQ+ topics or by LGBTQ+ authors may be unlawful discrimination.
Can my school monitor and/or filter “LGBTQ+” and related terms as search terms on my school computer?
NO. Schools should not be automatically filtering for words like “LGBTQ+” or blocking websites providing information and resources on LGBTQ+-related topics or issues, such as GSA Network or the Trevor Project’s websites. Websites that use the words “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “transgender,” and/or “queer” are not inherently obscene or inappropriate for school. A filter that assumes otherwise may be a form of “viewpoint discrimination” that violates students’ First Amendment rights, especially if it allows students to access sites critical of LGBTQ+ people and their rights but blocks supportive resources. Filtering programs that alert school staff when a student tries to access LGBTQ+-related content risk outing students and exposing them to bullying and/or harassment.
Additionally, you have the right to a fair, accurate, and inclusive education. As such, your school should not be filtering or monitoring “LGBTQ+,” or any variation of LGBTQ+, as a search term. For example, a student should be able to look up José Sarria, the first openly gay person to run for public office, for a school project on historical figures. Filtering and/or monitoring LGBTQ+-related content may also be a form of unlawful discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The ACLU of Southern California and ACLU of Northern California appreciate support from the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles Foundation for work on this resource!