Eli Bundy, a 15-year-old sophomore at Charleston County School of the Arts in South Carolina, knows how it feels to be ignored in the classroom. In South Carolina, it's illegal for teachers to address queer relationships, unless they're talking about sexually transmitted infections, also called STIs.
Eli, who identifies as queer, says they and their classmates have broached the subject of non-heterosexual relationships in health classes, but that their questions go unanswered.
"I think that no student should have to be told by their health teacher that they can't talk about their identity," Eli told NPR in a phone interview. "I think that just ... it really hurts a lot of teenagers. And I think it's definitely something that needs to change."
Eli leads their high school's Gender and Sexuality Alliance; one of three groups being represented by Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights in a federal lawsuit against South Carolina's Superintendent of Education aiming to repeal the 32-year-old state law.
The complaint, enacted last Wednesday, argues that the law discriminates against LGBTQ students and violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. constitution.
"This lawsuit would seek to remove the gag rule," Peter Renn, counsel at Lambda Legal told NPR during a phone interview. "Removing the law would enable local school districts to include LGBTQ students in the curriculum, but it wouldn't create any sort of affirmative obligation," he said.
South Carolina is one of a handful of states that restricts how teachers speak about queer relationships in class. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas also have "no promotion of homosexuality" laws on the books, many of which were filed in the late '80s and early '90s, at the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a lawsuit over a similar law in Arizona, which resulted in the state repealing the law in 2019. Utah also repealed a similar law in 2017 following a lawsuit filed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Eli told NPR that South Carolina students are ultimately fighting for education equality.
"Well, it's certainly very frustrating to be in a classroom with my friends, with my peers and to feel that me and my fellow LGBTQ classmates are not being given equal treatment and equal education in regards to health and sex ed," they said. "So not only is there the primary effect of not be[ing] given sex education, but then also the secondary effect of feeling rejected and not accepted in your school environment."
Eli said their teacher told them they didn't know about the drug. "There are lots of people that get their education from the Internet or from their friends, which can sometimes be unreliable sources." Eli said this results in an "inequality of information."
Molly Spearman, South Carolina's superintendent of Education, issued the following statement in response to the lawsuit:
"As State Superintendent, I am required to uphold the laws passed by the South Carolina General Assembly without discretion. My primary obligation, however is always to protect the rights and safety of our students and their families.
"The lawsuit ... highlights an issue that the General Assembly has failed to address."
In South Carolina, 76% of LGBTQ students face verbal harassment based their sexual orientation and 88% say they routinely hear homophobic slurs, according to a 2017 report from GLSEN, a group focused on LGBTQ inclusion in K-12 schools.
Renn from Lambda Legal said schools are meant "to be an important part of the antidote to that problem, but discriminatory curriculum laws do the exact opposite."
"They poison and breed an environment where harassment and discrimination can be allowed to thrive. That is the natural consequence of treating a group of students as virtually unmentionable."
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
A group of students in South Carolina want the freedom to learn about LGBTQ relationships in the classroom. Right now, it's illegal in South Carolina for teachers to bring up nonheterosexual relationships during health class unless it's about sexually transmitted infections. Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights are trying to force the state to change the 32-year-old law. Those organizations have successfully overturned similar laws in Utah and in Arizona. They say the South Carolina law also violates the Constitution. Eli Bundy is a 10th-grade student at Charleston County School of the Arts who leads their school's Gender and Sexuality Alliance, one of the plaintiffs in the case. Welcome.
ELI BUNDY: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
FADEL: So what is it like to be in a classroom where your relationships aren't even spoken about or can't be spoken about?
BUNDY: Well, it's certainly very frustrating to be in a classroom with my friends, with my peers and to feel that that me and my fellow LGBTQ classmates are not being given equal treatment and equal education in regards to health and sex ed.
FADEL: So it's not just about relationships. But it's really about your health, as well, right?
BUNDY: Yeah, it is. And it's not only about sexual health. But there's also a lot of concerns surrounding suicide rates and certainly...
BUNDY: ...Depression and anxiety rates among LGBTQ youth. And so not only is there the primary effect of not be giving sex education but then also the secondary effect of feeling rejected and not accepted in your school environment.
FADEL: Critics of this - of overturning this law would say something like, we don't think it should be in the schools. What do you say to them?
BUNDY: Well, to that, I would say sex-education reform is a completely separate issue. We're not advocating for what should or should not be taught in the classroom. Specifically, what we're advocating for here is equal treatment. And currently, in South Carolina, heterosexual students receive education about sexual health. And LGBTQ students do not receive that education about their health. And so whether or not you support sex education in schools is irrelevant in this case because, really, what we are asking for is not for specific things to be taught but just for the same things to be taught across the board for people of all identities.
FADEL: You're 15. And you're suing the state. That's kind of a big step. Why are you so passionate about it? What do you want to get out of this lawsuit?
BUNDY: LGBTQ teens need support and especially at the state level. Being discriminated against in your own classroom is just unacceptable. In addition to the health of teenagers, I also think it's important to just send a message to LGBTQ kids and LGBTQ people across the state, which is that South Carolina recognizes you, that it sees you. And even if it, in the past, has discriminated against LGBTQ people - that hopefully with the filing of this lawsuit - that discrimination will be slowly taken out of the state lawbooks.
FADEL: Eli Bundy's a 10th-grade student at Charleston County School of the Arts and the president of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance there. Thank you so much.
BUNDY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.