Schools

Some LGBTQ+ youth experience supportive, welcoming school environments where they are physically and emotionally safe and their LGBTQ+ identity is respected or even embraced. Others may experience unwelcoming, unsafe, and unsupportive conditions in schools. Research has found that LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to experience stress and fear in school than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. 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 sexual identity and gender identity/expression.1

These negative conditions can affect the likelihood that LGBTQ+ youth attend and complete school. Research on LGBTQ youth shows that if they experience bullying and 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
  • have lower self-esteem2

How to Improve School Experiences for LGBTQ+ Youth

Available research suggests that school climate is a potential protective factor for LGBT youth.3 Regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, all students have the right to a safe, supportive learning environment. Inclusive policies that address sexual orientation and gender identity are linked to more supportive school environments for LGBT youth. These specific policies are also directly linked to decreased truancy and increased positive experiences and perceptions of school climate.4

Students who are harassed, assaulted, or bullied because they are LGBTQ+, or are perceived to be, can benefit from speaking with caring, supportive teachers or other adults in their schools.5 Importantly, schools can:

  • foster safer, more supportive environments by developing and implementing policies that protect LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ youth
  • establish organizations and clubs that expand school-based supports for LGBTQ+ youth — in addition to including conversations about LGBTQ+ role models as well as gender and sexual identity in class lessons and school events6

The following sections provide additional information on these strategies.

Policies

Schools can support LGBTQ+ 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. 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.7

Supportive Adults in Schools

Schools can create safer environments by adopting the following practices: 8

  • Create safe spaces, such as counselors’ offices, designated classrooms, or student organizations, where LGBTQ+ youth can receive support from administrators, teachers, and other school staff. Research suggests that when teachers get involved to stop harassment and bullying, students feel safer.
  • Provide teachers with resources and ongoing professional development on LGBTQ+ issues that enhance the cultural competence of school staff. Professional development can focus on ways to discuss LGBTQ+ topics in developmentally-appropriate ways during lessons to create safe, supportive school environments. Professional development can build staff awareness of the language that LGBTQ+ youth use to identify themselves. These approaches can benefit these youth and yield positive school outcomes such as increased school attendance.
  • Serve as a resource to parents and families by providing affirming information on sexual orientation and gender identity to them (e.g.,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 LGBTQ+ youth who need health services are connected with culturally competent, community-based providers who have experience offering these services to LGBTQ+ youth.

Supportive Organizations or Clubs

A growing body of research suggests that gay-straight alliances (GSAs) or similar efforts that explicitly acknowledge and include LGBTQ+ students (e.g., safe zones) can play important roles in promoting emotionally and physically safe schools. In particular, GSAs and similar student clubs for LGBTQ+ students are an important strategy for positively connecting students with supportive adults and peers.9 GSAs can help schools address the harassment of LGBTQ+ students, encourage dialogue about diversity and acceptance, and promote respect for all people.10 Research shows that GSAs have numerous positive benefits for students, even among those who do not participate in them, such as creating a more affirming school environment. GSAs can also enhance students’ self-esteem and foster their resilience and coping skills for responding to bias.11 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.

Inclusion of LGBTQ+ Role Models and Resources on Gender and Sexual Identity in Schools

Schools that are inclusive of LGBTQ+ role models, LGBTQ+ history, and events and observances celebrating LGBTQ+ identity, expression, and well-being as part of their curriculum provide a better school climate and improved academic outcomes for LGBTQ+ students. Schools can also provide age-appropriate, LGBTQ+ -affirming information and resources for students of all ages. 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 LGBTQ students.12

Resources

Developing LGBTQ-Inclusive Classroom Resources
This resource provides practical information on how to develop inclusive and appropriate curriculum and guidance on how to promote inclusive behavior in the classroom.

Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
This organization works to ensure safe schools for all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. More than 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 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 (GSA)
This organization connects school-based chapters 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.

getREAL (Recognize. Engage. Affirm. Love)
This initiative promotes the healthy development of all children and youth, with a focus on sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression. getREAL challenges public systems working with children and youth to improve their policies and practices to support 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 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 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, 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 includes a section 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.

LGBTQ Youth Programs-At-A-Glance
This webpage provides examples of federally-funded state and local education agencies that address LGBTQ youth issues through HIV, STD, and pregnancy prevention activities.

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
This association provides resources related to LGBTQ+ students.

Resources for LGBTQI+ Students
This webpage provides resources that may be of interest to LGBTQI+ students and allies.

Stopbullying.gov: Bullying and LGBTQ Youth
This website provides information related to bullying of LGBTQ youth along with resources and tips to create supportive environments for LGBTQ people.

Welcoming Schools Project
This project addresses family diversity, gender stereotyping, and bullying/name-calling in K-5 learning environments. The project offers professional development tools, lessons aligned with Common Core State Standards, and additional resources for elementary schools.

References

1 Hunter & Schaecher, 1987; Poirier, 2012; Reis & Saewyc, 1999; Reis, 1999; U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2012
2 Kim, 2009; Kosciw et al., 2012
3 Ryan, Russell, Huebner, Diaz, & Sanchez, 2010
4 Day, Ioverno, & Russell, 2019
5 O’Shaughnessy, Russell, Heck, Calhoun, & Laub, 2004; Safe Schools Coalition, 2005, n.d.
6 Espelage, 2011; Russell, 2010; Poirier, 2012
7 Hatzenbuehler & Keyes, 2013; Hatzenbuehler et al., 2014
8 Hatzenbuehler et al., 2014; Bauermeister et al., 2015
9 Meyer, 2010; Munoz-Plaza, Quinn, & Rounds, 2002; Poirier, 2012; Valenti, 2010
10 Duncan, 2011
11 Lee, 2002; Macgillivray, 2007; Toomey, Ryan, Diaz, & Russell, 2011
12 GLSEN, 201

Other Resources on this Topic

Youth Voices

Youth Briefs

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Youth Transitioning to Adulthood: How Holding Early Leadership Positions Can Make a Difference

Research links early leadership with increased self-efficacy and suggests that leadership can help youth to develop decision making and interpersonal skills that support successes in the workforce and adulthood. In addition, young leaders tend to be more involved in their communities, and have lower dropout rates than their peers. Youth leaders also show considerable benefits for their communities, providing valuable insight into the needs and interests of young people

How Trained Service Professionals and Self-Advocacy Makes a Difference for Youth with Mental Health, Substance Abuse, or Co-occurring Issues

Statistics reflecting the number of youth suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders highlight the necessity for schools, families, support staff, and communities to work together to develop targeted, coordinated, and comprehensive transition plans for young people with a history of mental health needs and/or substance abuse.

Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions

Nearly 30,000 youth aged out of foster care in Fiscal Year 2009, which represents nine percent of the young people involved in the foster care system that year. This transition can be challenging for youth, especially youth who have grown up in the child welfare system.

Coordinating Systems to Support Transition Age Youth with Mental Health Needs

Research has demonstrated that as many as one in five children/youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Read about how coordination between public service agencies can improve treatment for these youth.

Civic Engagement Strategies for Transition Age Youth

Civic engagement has the potential to empower young adults, increase their self-determination, and give them the skills and self-confidence they need to enter the workforce. Read about one youth’s experience in AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).