4 Ways to Support LGBTQ Students

LGBTQ students require special support.

Even if they’re not out, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) kids are statistically very likely to be enrolled in your school. Nationwide, about 3.5% of adults identify as LGBT—just over 11 million Americans. Though some people may not recognize they’re not straight until well after high school, it occurs to some kids quite young. A Pew Research Center poll of 1154 LGB adults found the median age at which they first thought they were, or might be gay, lesbian, or bisexual was 10 to 13 years old.

Unfortunately, LGBTQ kids are also statistically likely not to feel like they really belong to your school. Many peer-reviewed studies have shown that LGBTQ students are at higher risk for bullying, teasing, harassment, physical assault, sexual assault, substance abuse, depression, and suicide-related behaviors. One nationally representative study of adolescents in grades 7-12 found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers.

When I say that LGBTQ kids require special support, I’m not trying to suggest that their experience as part of a minority population is necessarily worse than what members of racial or religious minorities experience—or those with other differences. School can be a rough place for anyone who seems different at a given time! However, when, for example, a Jewish child is harassed or insulted, chances are that she knows some other Jewish kids or adults she can turn to for support. In contrast, it’s very easy for LGBTQ kids to believe that they are alone. Here are some steps that help.

LGBTQ suggestions for school leaders

1. Educate yourself. In 1997 I was fortunate to join the faculty of a public high school that was already engaged in a conversation about how best to support every student in the school community, with specific concern for our non-straight kids. I soon learned about GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, whose mission is to ensure that every member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. The GLSEN website is an excellent starting point for information and educator resources.

As someone who recently offended a student by using an outdated term, I know that the language related to LGBTQ issues (e.g. “gender identity” vs. “gender expression”) can also be a challenge. GLAAD periodically updates references that you may find helpful: an LGB glossary and a guide for transgender issues, which includes terms to avoid.

2. Engage your staff. Of the 7,898 students (grades 6-12, from all 50 states and Washington, D.C.) that GLSEN polled for its 2013 National School Climate Survey, over half (51.4%) reported hearing homophobic remarks from teachers or other school staff. Of students who reported an incident of harassment or assault, 62% perceived that school staff did nothing in response.

There are people of good conscience who are not comfortable with the idea of homosexuality, or who believe that schools should have nothing to do with sexuality aside from certain units in health class. Based on two decades of consulting and presenting on LGBTQ-related issues, I believe that the best approach for leaders is to model respect for different points of view as you appeal to a deeper morality: this is about the kids. If teachers really care about kids, this means all kids—rich kids, poor kids, straight kids, gay kids.

You can make the case that all kids benefit from a more inclusive school. A study of more than 7,000 7th- and 8th-graders focusing on school climate and homophobic bullying found that all students, regardless of sexual orientation, reported the lowest levels of depression, suicidal feelings, alcohol and marijuana use, and unexcused absences when they were in a positive school climate and not experiencing homophobic teasing.

3. Maintain an inclusive school environment. The GLSEN survey showed that 56% of LGBT students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation. About 1 in 3 LGBT students missed at least one entire day of school in the previous month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable. Many LGBT kids avoid bathrooms and locker rooms, school functions and extracurricular activities, with words like “dyke,” “faggot,” and “that’s so gay” pushing them away.

The Teaching Tolerance website has a lode of information on building an LGBT-inclusive environment, from Gay-Straight Alliance clubs (GSAs) and dress codes to gender-neutral restrooms and proms. There are materials for assessing your school’s climate, and tips for responding constructively to common objections to LGBT-inclusive practices. They also have a Gender Spectrum Glossary.

4. Develop an inclusive curriculum. Only 19% of LGBT students in the GLSEN survey reported experiencing positive representations of LGBT people, history, or events in school; less than half said they could find information about LGBT-related issues in their school library.

When schools do post information related to sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression, it is often confined to health classes, the nurse’s office, and the guidance department. Although it is important to have information in these places, having it only in these places can send a subtle message linking LGBT identity to illness or crisis. 

Rather, it’s important for educators to own that history has set the record too straight: for thousands of years, great inventions, works of art, scientific discoveries, philosophical concepts, and social movements have been contributed by LGBT and straight people alike. From Socrates and Sappho to Leonardo da Vinci, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Alan Turing and Audre Lorde, non-straight people have enriched every subject ever taught in a school. It’s just that we tend not to acknowledge it. But as Emily Style has argued, all students need curricular mirrors as well as windows.

Over three decades of teaching, Paula Alida Roy set as her main goal “the creation of a safe, inclusive classroom community in which any topic [could] be discussed respectfully and in which topics often considered too political or sophisticated for high school students [could] be normalized into the discourse of the subject and the class.” Teachers ready for ideas about an inclusive classroom that takes students seriously as nuanced thinkers (and discussion partners) will appreciate Roy’s 1997 essay “Language in the Classroom: Opening Conversations About Lesbian and Gay Issues in Senior High English.”

REFERENCES

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website

Gallup website 

GLAAD website

GLSEN website

J. G. Kosciw, E. A. Greytak, N. A Palmer, & M. J. Boesen. The 2013 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.

Paula A. Roy, “Language in the Classroom: Opening Conversations about Lesbian and Gay Issues in Senior High English” in James T. Sears and Walter L. Williams (eds.) Overcoming Heterosexism and Homophobia: Strategies that Work (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

Pew Research Center website 

Teaching Tolerance website

[Article copyright 2016 by Peter Horn, Ed.D. Image from thunderclap.it]

Peter Horn