When Lena Lee, a ninth-grade English teacher, began decorating her new classroom at Fossil Ridge High School, in Fort Worth, she tacked up a rainbow canopy made of tissue paper and hung macramé rainbows on the walls, along with colorful gifts from former students. She also put up a flag for the school’s gay-straight alliance (GSA). Before students even arrived in the classroom, the club’s sponsor asked Lee if she’d consider taking over because she no longer wanted the role. Lee immediately said yes. “LGBTQ students have always been really close to my heart,” Lee said. “I am bisexual, and I was never allowed to acknowledge that in my childhood or teenage years and never allowed to explore that side of my identity.” 

In her role as instructor, Lee was able to provide to students the affirmation and support that she missed out on as a kid. And despite the hostility and suspicion of some politicians and parents in the area where she taught, the school seemed a largely safe environment for LGBTQ students and teachers. Students might giggle over her rainbow decorations, but they were hardly throwing around hate speech.

That was three years ago. This school year, she said, several of her ninth-grade students have muttered slurs against her under their breath. This shift didn’t come out of nowhere, she observed. During its 2023 session, the state legislature passed several laws targeting LGBTQ Texans, including one that prohibits minors from receiving gender-affirming care and another that bans transgender athletes from participating in college sports. Then, in June, her school board, in the Keller Independent School District, passed two new policies targeting LGBTQ students. The first directs students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their “gender assigned at birth.” The second states that school employees will not “promote or require” the use of pronouns inconsistent with a student’s “biological sex.” Keller was not the only Texas district to implement such changes. In July, Carroll ISD, in Southlake, removed gender and sexual orientation from its nondiscrimination policy, sparking concern from some parents. (School board members argued that those protections were already guaranteed under Title IX.) In August, Katy ISD, just west of Houston, adopted a similar policy, which is now the subject of a Title IX complaint brought by a former student.

Lee believes such policies and legislation have emboldened those with anti-LGBTQ biases. “[Some of my students this year] are the most openly homophobic, and I do believe that it is directly correlated with the laws that have been passed,” Lee said. Things aren’t any better for Lee’s students. “They feel it very, very deeply,” Lee said. “And it is hard on them . . . they are so vulnerable.” 

Members of the school’s gay-straight alliance—a club intended to provide a welcoming environment for kids regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity—told me they frequently feel under attack from some fellow students simply because of their identities and allyship. During homecoming this year, for example, the club passed out pride flags as a gesture of goodwill. Many of the flags were found in the trash, or cut up, or burned, or scrawled over with slurs. Amber Tibbs, a member of the GSA, said it’s a good day when they’re not called a slur. One day this year in math class, Tibbs remarked that it had been one of those good days. A classmate took it upon himself to change that. Turning to Tibbs, he said, “You should kill yourself, f—.” Just the day before, he’d asked Tibbs to do his homework. 

Another member, Cass Robin, said the kind of self-expression they’d grown accustomed to no longer feels safe. In middle school, they’d wear shirts that openly proclaimed “I’m gay.” “But this year, I have a flag, and suddenly I’m the worst thing on the planet,” Robin said.

In an unsigned email, a spokesperson for Keller ISD told me that the district encourages students and teachers to report incidents of bullying and that it has not seen an increase in such reports. (The representative did not say whether this statement applied specifically to reports of harassment related to gender or sexual orientation, which are included in its report-filing portal.) The spokesperson said the new policies regarding LGBTQ students have been adopted to “put a focus on learning and to protect students and staff.” 

Attorney and activist Marian Coleman, who has experience advising school districts on Title IX cases, said school boards face little resistance in implementing policies like the ones in the Keller and Katy ISDs, because even if a parent or student files a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which oversees these cases, that office moves slowly at best. “There’s like five, ten, fifteen years’ worth of litigation until this is actually sorted out,” Coleman said. This puts pressure on the students to challenge the law, a tough ask in environments with heavy social stigma. It can be easier for students to just stay closeted, Coleman said. 

While the onslaught of legislation hasn’t yet focused on GSAs, the environment of a school can discourage the clubs’ existence. Lawmakers opposing LGBTQ expression “benefit by creating a culture of fear and a culture of conformity,” Coleman said. “If it’s a hostile environment, they’re just never going to have any [LGBTQ people], because none of those kids are going to come out.” 

Still, at least for now, every Monday at 4 p.m. students at Fossil Ridge find solace in the rainbow-strewn haven that is Lee’s classroom for their weekly GSA meetings. The existence of GSAs remains protected in Texas school districts—students have a right to form an alliance as long as their school allows for extracurricular clubs. According to the Texas GSA Network, 46 percent of Texas students attend a school with a GSA.

But the hostile environment is taking its toll at Fossil Ridge. Last year, Lee said, GSA meetings might regularly include 20 to 25 students. Attendance takes a hit during theater season, but even at the height of rehearsals last year, Lee said, about 10 or 15 would show up. Now fewer than 10 attend every meeting. For them, the GSA has become a second home. “When I first joined I was very anxious, but then these gremlins, they were always nice to me,” Robin said. “Having people come up to me like, ‘Hey, let’s be friends,’ brings me a lot of joy because I can’t do that myself.”

Tibbs said they grew up in a “bad space.” Until high school, GSAs were a fantasy they had only read about in books. They actively searched the hallways for GSA posters and finally joined this year, as a junior. Robin joined the GSA because their partner was in the club, and continued going. “It was like a safe space for me, and I was happy to be there.” 

Elsewhere in Texas, GSA members are accustomed to contending with bias. Leaders of Coppell High School’s GSA, in Coppell, about thirty minutes northeast of Fort Worth, said many students go by pseudonyms, and the club refers to itself as the General Science Association to prevent backlash from unaccepting parents. Members of the club believe anti-LGBTQ legislation statewide discourages students from affiliating with the GSA. “Even the smallest things can show how we implicitly hide ourselves because we feel like people aren’t that welcoming just yet,” said Anu De, a senior who serves as the club’s vice president. “We live in a status quo where our state can silence our voices.” For students who join the club, though, having a place to go where they feel understood can be “groundbreaking.” “It was very beautiful to see that for a moment, I was not the only one in this life living this experience,” De said. “I didn’t have to struggle through my queer identity, and how people perceived it, alone.”

It often falls to teachers to provide a safe haven for LGBTQ students to the degree that they can. Twelve minutes by car from Fossil Ridge High School, in the same school district, sits Timber Creek High School, where teacher Joshua Saye cosponsors the GSA. He said he does what he can to protect students. “Kids already deal with so much,” Saye said. “We can at least give them somewhere that they can feel safe, be who they are.” 

Saye said his school’s administration subtly supports teachers the best it can. But his students still benefit from having a GSA. “There’s been talks about do we want to be more of an activist club and go to the school board meetings and try to get them to look more favorably, or go to rallies or parades?” Saye said. “[But] everything else is second to just that idea of it’s a safe space for them to come and be comfortable and have fun.”

Lee made a similar observation. “As a teacher, I love hearing these students talk to each other about issues that matter to them and that matter to the world,” she said. “They don’t necessarily see it that way. They just see it as they can hang out with their friends, and they get to talk about things that are interesting to them. But that’s just as important.”