While Americans celebrate Brown v. Board of Education decision's role in the civil rights movement, human rights advocates continue to push for protections for LGBTQ individuals, and the issue has taken on significance in public schools.
"The landscape for LGBTQ students, as well as individuals who work in public education, is very much a patchwork across the country because we don't have federal protection," said Ellen Kahn, director of the Children, Youth & Families Program at the Human Rights Campaign.
Lawmakers in Washington are grappling with the Equality Act, legislation to expand the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include protections against discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
"I really like to emphasize that there are a lot of people in K-12 education who are very committed to equity and inclusion and they walk that talk every day," said Kahn about the Human Rights Campaign. "It's a bit of the luck of the draw where you happen to go to school whether someone has your back or not."
Victimization of LGBTQ students has gotten worse for the first time in a decade after years of improvement, according to the 2017 National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN, an organization that champions LGBTQ issues in K-12 education.
About 87 percent of LGBTQ students reported experiencing harassment or assault, according the survey, which included 23,000 LGBTQ individuals ages 13 to 21.
The issue is personal for Angie Powers, English and AVID teacher at Olathe Northwest High School.
"Just being a teacher, you see very close up the impact that inequity has on students, so I've always been very passionate about that," Powers said, "but I particularly became more interested in figuring out how to serve LGBTQ students because my own child came out as LGBTQ."
Powers, who is also the sponsor of Olathe Northwest's Gender Sexuality Alliance club, received training as part of the HRC Foundation's Welcoming Schools program, which provides training and resources related to diversity and LGBTQ issues.
She said one of the concepts that took longer for her to fully understand was that LGBTQ students are constantly "coming out," with different levels of "outness" as they assess the safety of various settings. Creating that sense of safety is crucial to learning, she said.
"Particularly at the secondary level, one of the most important things we can do is ask students what they want to be called, both their names and their pronouns," Powers said. "Having those teachers who respect that this is what I want to be called is really affirming and if you feel affirmed you can learn better."
Powers was a 2018 Kansas Teacher of the Year finalist, and the distinction gave her the opportunity to make public appearances across state promoting education.
"I definitely saw less visibility (of LGBTQ issues) in some of the rural schools, not all of them, but that's probably and area for growth," she said.
The environment for LGBTQ students varies from classroom to classroom, and finding welcoming places within a school is important for LGBTQ students. GSA clubs provide a safe place for students at some schools to socialize and interact with like-minded individuals. The acronym has evolved from Gay Straight Alliance to Gender Sexuality Alliance in some schools.
Kevin Hedberg teaches government and is the sponsor of the GSA club at Washburn Rural High School in Topeka.
"We as a school really take bullying seriously and try to deal with it in any which way that we can," Hedberg said. "GSA has always been a haven for kids. It gives them a forum to be with each other and talk with each other and share experiences and just be kids with a commonality."
The number of students involved in the club has varied over the years, reaching as high as 100 in some years. Currently, there are about 50 students involved in GSA at Washburn Rural, and they meet once or twice a month. He said the students in the club have said they feel like there is more acceptance in the community and a "live and let live attitude."
"I don't want this aspect of tolerance to be spoiled by some of the hate that gets spewed out there," Hedberg said. "A lot of the hate that gets spewed out there is coming from a relatively small segment of our society."
Greg Fallon, sponsor of the GSA at Topeka High School, said the mission of the club has evolved over the years. It was founded in the 1990s, after the HIV/AIDS epidemic drew attention for its impact on celebrities like Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson, and others, like Elizabeth Taylor, launched foundations and became advocates. The Topeka High GSA club was part of that nationwide movement.
"A lot of our students either had gay family members or gay parents or they themselves were gay," Fallon said. "They were very interested in becoming more open as a community, for example marching in our homecoming parade like any other club. They were also involved in political activities like demonstrating at the capitol."
The club was dormant for a while before renewed interested in the past decade or so as interest in equal rights issues began to rise. The club has kept up with current events and shifted its focus along with changes in society. After the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed same-sex marriage and homosexuality became more generally accepted in society, the club began to focus more on transgender issues.
Topeka has seen the intensity on both sides of the issue, underscored by the Equality House, a rainbow-colored house, that is across the street from the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, known for years for picketing funerals of LGBT individuals.
"I can tell you that, speaking for past students, when those marriage laws passed, the Westboro Baptist Church became irrelevant. I think our students felt like we won the war," Fallon said.
But the issue persists. Earlier this year, a group of Republicans in the Kansas House sponsored a bill declaring same-sex marriage a “parody” of the established order and describing any form of marriage outside the union of a man and woman the equivalent of engaging in bestiality or the wedding of a person and an inanimate object. In January, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly restored employment protections to LGBTQ state employees that were eliminated by an executive order signed by Gov. Sam Brownback.
Leo Espinoza, a career advocate at Topeka High and a 2013 graduate of the school said the GSA has worked to create a community where transgender individuals feel comfortable and safe and provide answers to questions people have. Some students have created public service announcements to educate staff and students about the issues.
"One of the big things now is how do you have these conversations with family members or people in the greater community, because I would say high school students are pretty accepting," he said.