Some LGBT youth experience supportive, welcoming school environments where they are physically and emotionally safe and their LGBT identity is respected, or even embraced. Others may experience unwelcoming, unsafe, and unsupportive conditions in schools. Research has found that LGBT youth are more likely to experience stress and fear in school than are non-LGBT youth. This experience is associated with verbal harassment (e.g., being subject to name calling), physical harassment (e.g., being pushed or shoved), and physical assault (e.g., being punched or kicked) because of their sexual identity and gender identity/expression.1
A 2011 national survey of 8,584 LGBT students ages 13 to 20 from 3,224 unique school districts found that approximately
- 85 percent of them reported frequently or often hearing “gay” used in a negative way, and 57 percent heard homophobic remarks from teachers or other school staff;
- 82 percent of responding students had been verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation in the past year, and almost 64 percent felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation;
- 38 percent were physically harassed because of their sexual orientation; and
- 18 percent were physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation.2, 3
Transgender youth experience even higher rates of harassment. One study that focused on transgender youth found that two-thirds of transgender students felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation (69 percent) and how they expressed their gender (65 percent).4 Another study of young adults and adults found that those who expressed a transgender identity or in a gender variant way while in grades K-12 reported having experienced high rates of harassment (78 percent), physical assault (35 percent), and sexual violence (12 percent).5
These negative conditions can affect the likelihood that LGBT youth attend and complete school. Research on LGBT youth shows that if they experience victimization, they are more likely to
- drop out of school;
- have higher absenteeism;
- have lower postsecondary education aspirations;
- have higher levels of depression and anxiety; and
- have lower self-esteem.6
How to Improve School Experiences for LGBT Youth
Available research suggests that school safety is a potential protective factor for LGBT youth.7 Regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, all students have the right to a safe, supportive learning environment. Students who are harassed, assaulted, or bullied because they are LGBT, or are perceived to be, can benefit from speaking with caring, supportive teachers or other adults in their schools.8 Importantly, schools can
- foster safer, more supportive environments by developing and implementing policies that protect LGBT youth from discrimination, violence, and bullying along with establishing practices that foster more affirming learning environments;
- assess school climate to inform improvement strategies, using tools such as the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) school climate survey (available at http://glsen.org/lscs);
- build the capacity of teachers and other school staff (e.g., cafeteria workers, bus drivers, security personnel) to create more supportive environments for LGBT youth; and
- establish organizations and clubs that expand school-based supports for LGBT youth—in addition to including conversations about LGBT role models as well as gender and sexual identity in class lessons and school events.9
The following sections provide additional information on these strategies.
Schools cSchools can help support LGBT youth by encouraging respect for all students and developing and implementing nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies that include actual or perceived sexual orientation as well as gender identity and expression.10 Research has found that states with these policies or laws have lower rates of anti-gay remarks in schools, fewer suicide attempts, and lower levels of harassment and assault based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender expression compared with states without these policies or laws.11
Schools can work to create safer environments throughout their building and grounds by adopting the following practices:
- Create safe spaces, such as counselors’ offices, designated classrooms, or student organizations, where LGBT youth can receive support from administrators, teachers, or other school staff.12 Research suggests that when teachers get involved to stop harassment and bullying, students feel safer.13
- Provide teachers with resources and ongoing professional development on LGBT issues that enhance the cultural competence of school staff. Professional development can focus on ways to discuss LGBT-related topics in an age-appropriate way during lessons to create safe, supportive school environments.14 Professional development can build staff awareness of the language that LGBT youth use to identify themselves. These approaches can benefit these youth and yield positive school outcomes such as increased school attendance.15 The National Education Association has developed a school staff conversation guide (PDF, 36 pages) to support students that includes tips and suggestions for communication and describes victimization/suicide warning signs.16
- Serve as a resource to parents and families by providing affirming information on sexual orientation and gender identity to them (e.g., see the Safe Schools Coalition) and working with them to reduce bias and be more supportive.
- Work with families and students to identify and connect them with affirming supports and resources in the community.
- Ensure that LGBT youth who need behavioral health services are connected with culturally competent, community-based providers who have experience offering these services to LGBT youth.17
The U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a growing body of research suggest that gay-straight alliances (GSAs) or similar efforts that explicitly acknowledge and include LGBT students (e.g., safe zones) can play important roles in promoting emotionally and physically safe schools. In particular, GSAs and similar student clubs for LGBT students are an important strategy for positively connecting students with supportive adults and peers.18 GSAs can help schools address the harassment of LGBT students, encourage dialogue about diversity and acceptance, and promote respect for all people.19 Research shows that GSAs have numerous positive benefits for students, even among those who do not participate in them, such as by creating a more affirming school environment. GSAs can also enhance students’ self-esteem and foster their resilience and coping skills for responding to bias.20 Find local Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) chapters and a registry of GSAs at schools across the United States at GLSEN Chapters or the GSA Network, or register at GLSEN’s student organizing page.
Schools can include LGBT role models and LGBT history as part of their lessons and instruction. Schools can also provide age-appropriate, LGBT-affirming information and resources for students. Research has found that school-based programs that address sexual/gender identity development, connect youth to their cultural community, and dispel prejudice and discrimination are likely to reduce bullying and harassment directed toward LGBT students.21 Students report feeling safer at school when they know how to identify and access information and resources about LGBT issues.22 Also, recent analyses of student survey data in California found that LGBT students reported feeling safer in schools where LGBT issues were included in the curriculum.23
Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network
The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) works to ensure safe schools for all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. Over 40 GLSEN chapters exist around the country. Chapters work closely with the network’s national staff to implement programs and to keep national staff informed of local events. They also work to cover a variety of subjects and issues, from public policy to teacher training to supporting students and educators around the country.
Gay-Straight Alliance Network
The Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Network is a youth leadership organization that connects school-based GSAs to each other and community resources. Through peer support, leadership development, and training, GSA Network supports young people in starting, strengthening, and sustaining GSAs and builds the capacity of GSAs to: (1) create safe environments in schools for students to support each other and learn about homophobia and other oppressions; (2) educate school communities about homophobia, gender identity, and sexual orientation issues; and (3) fight discrimination, harassment, and violence in schools.
The getR.E.A.L (Recognize. Engage. Affirm. Love) initiative of the Center for the Study of Social Policy is designed to help transform child welfare policy and practice to promote the healthy development of all children and youth. It focuses on sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression (along with race, ethnicity, and disability) as part of the identity formation that occurs in adolescence. The getR.E.A.L name was crafted as a challenge to public systems working with children. It also provides lessons, implications, and a process for parents, caregivers, and all system-involved youth. The acronym is directed at all these stakeholders—and many others—as a means of meeting the initiative’s primary goal to improve the healthy sexual and identity development of all children and youth in child welfare systems.
A Guide for Understanding, Supporting, and Affirming LGBTQI2-S Children, Youth, and Families (PDF, 8 pages)
This guide, written by members of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Workgroup to Address the Needs of Children and Youth Who Are LGBTQI2-S and Their Families, provides information for service providers, educators, allies, and community members who seek to support the health and well-being of children and youth who are LGBT, questioning, intersex, or two-spirit (LGBTQI2-S) and their families. This guide can support efforts to promote full and affirming inclusion of LGBTQI2-S youth and families in communities and provider settings (e.g., child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health, schools). The guide’s last page includes a place for organizations to add their endorsement electronically. Both the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) have endorsed the guide. You can access the guide with the NASP and NASW endorsements through the guide link above.
Key Policy Letters from the Education Secretary and Deputy Secretary
In 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued this letter to public school districts about LGBT bullying. He specifically states that GSAs are protected under the 1984 Equal Access Act, which protects student-initiated groups.
National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
Created by the NASP Committee on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Issues, this website provides various resources related to LGBT and questioning students.
Stopbullying.gov: Bullying and LGBT Youth
This website, maintained by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education, provides information related to bullying of LGBT youth along with resources and tips to create supportive environments for LGBT people.
Welcoming Schools Project, Human Rights Campaign Foundation
Welcoming Schools is an LGBT-inclusive approach to addressing family diversity, gender stereotyping and bullying and name-calling in K-5 learning environments. The project offers professional development tools, lessons aligned with the Common Core State Standards, and many additional resources for elementary schools.
1 Human Rights Campaign, 2012a; Hunter & Schaecher, 1987; Poirier, 2012; Reis & Saewyc, 1999; Reis, 1999; U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2012
2 Kosciw, Greytak, Bartkiewicz, Boesen, & Palmer, 2012
3 These students do not necessarily represent all LGBT youth because the data are based on convenience samples (i.e., respondents who are not randomly selected, which generally would increase the generalizability of the results). However, the data provide important information on the experiences of responding LGBT youth and the challenges they experience in schools.
4 Greytak, Kosciw, & Diaz, 2009
5 Grant, Mottet, & Tanis, 2011
6 Kim, 2009; Kosciw et al., 2012
7 Institute of Medicine, 2011; Ryan, Russell, Huebner, Diaz, & Sanchez, 2010
8 O’Shaughnessy, Russell, Heck, Calhoun, & Laub, 2004; Safe Schools Coalition, 2005, n.d.
9 Espelage, 2011; Russell, 2010; Poirier, 2012
10 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011a; Espelage, 2011; Russell & McGuire, 2008
11 Espelage 2011; Goodenow, Szalacha, & Westheimer, 2006
12 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011a
13 Espelage, 2011; O’Shaughnessy et al., 2004
14 Espelage, 2011; Greytak & Kosciw, 2010
15 Poirier et al., 2008; Poirier, 2012
16 National Education Association, 2006
17 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011a
18 Meyer, 2010; Munoz-Plaza, Quinn, & Rounds, 2002; Poirier, 2012; Valenti, 2010
19 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011; Duncan, 2011
20 Lee, 2002; Macgillivray, 2007; Toomey, Ryan, Diaz, & Russell, 2011
21 Espelage & Horne, 2008
22 O’Shaughnessy et al., 2004
23 Russell, Kostroski, McGuire, Laub, & Manke, 2006
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