We’re only a quarter of the way through 2022, but the year has already been a tough one for LGBTQIA+ people, especially transgender children and adolescents and their parents. Lawmakers across the country have filed a record-breaking 238 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills with discriminatory policies being put in place in Texas and anti-LGBTQIA+ measures being signed into law in Tennessee, Florida, and Alabama. Most of these measures aim to silence LGBTQIA+ children and families, prevent transgender kids from playing sports, and block gender diverse children from receiving medically necessary health care.

But the town of Arlington recently sent a different message altogether to its LGBTQIA+ children, adolescents, and families.

That message was a simple one: We love you just the way you are.

On March 29, the Arlington Public School’s LGBTQIA+ Rainbow Task Force, the Arlington Human Rights Commission, and the Arlington LGBTQIA+ Rainbow Commission jointly sponsored an “LGBTQIA+ Community Conversation” at Arlington Town Hall. About 80 students, parents, teachers, and other community members showed up to hear LGBTQIA+ students talk about what it’s like to attend school in Arlington and what they like best about their schools.

Many of the attendees were middle and high school students, a number of whom wore transgender Pride flags as capes.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Dr. Roderick MacNeal, who chairs the Arlington Public Schools LGBTQIA+ Rainbow Task Force, welcomed attendees. He provided an overview of the most recent results from the Arlington portion of the Middlesex League Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).

The Middlesex League YRBS surveys students in 11 school districts in Middlesex County to capture vital information related to health status and behaviors that can put the health of students in middle and high school at-risk. In addition to Arlington, the communities of Belmont, Burlington, Melrose, Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, Wilmington, Winchester, Woburn, and Watertown also participate.

Key findings related to mental health found that around one-quarter of Arlington High School students (27%) and middle school students (23%) reported that their mental health was “not good most of the time or always.” Among all students, cisgender male students reported the lowest rates of mental health issues with 13 percent of high school and 15 percent of middle school students reporting that their mental health was “not good most of the time or always.” Genderqueer students, loosely defined as LGBTQIA+ students, reported the highest rates of mental health issues with 68 percent of high school students and 52 percent of middle school students reporting that their mental health was “not good most of the time or always.”

By contrast, 30 percent of Black high school and middle school students of all genders and 32 percent of cisgender female high school students and 29% of cisgender female middle school students reported that their mental health was “not good most of the time or always.”

The numbers are a sobering reminder of the negative impact that stigma and discrimination based on anti-LGBTQIA+ beliefs can have. Such beliefs, when held by parents, faith leaders, school officials, and other community leaders can be devastating.

The Community Conversation was moderated by Jeff Perotti, the founding director of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Safe Schools Program for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Students. Three students from Arlington High School’s Gender Sexuality Alliance, a parent of one of the students, a middle school teacher, and a graduate of Arlington Public Schools talked about ways that teachers and other staff can be strong allies to LGBTQIA+ students. Strategies can range from putting rainbow stickers on a classroom door and disclosing pronouns in a matter of fact way at the start of the school year.

Students said that the most powerful thing teachers can do, however, is to confront intolerant behavior immediately and facilitate discussion that leads to greater understanding.

The next Community Conversation will be held Tuesday, April 26 at Arlington Town Hall at 6:45 p.m. You can register for the event here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdkvErKMmka3eOg7lJXYqnKuwZ967Doh55Spjr0qAL-zCrWBA/viewform