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Volume 22, Number 3
May/June 2006

Making Schools Safer for LGBT Youth

Despite signs of progress, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students say harassment persists


Student names used in this article are pseudonyms.

Shelby is an openly gay junior at a large suburban high school near Boston. On most days, she says, she feels lucky to attend a relatively affluent, liberal school that offers her “an excellent education, opportunities to pursue my passions, and a fairly safe place for me to express my sexual orientation.” Issues like same-sex marriage, now legal in Massachusetts, have been discussed in several of her classes, and incidents of homophobia are addressed swiftly.

Nonetheless, Shelby says the undercurrents of homophobia run deep among her peers. Students are quick to use expressions like “That’s so gay!” or to hurl antigay slurs against opponents at sporting events. Despite its policies and its reputation, she says, her school sometimes seems like an unsafe place to be a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) student.

“Our school promotes safety, diversity, and tolerance as part of its mission, but does the message get across?” she asks. “From the way students act, it seems that the answer is largely no.”

Dena attends a much smaller high school in a more conservative town than Shelby’s, about 60 miles away, where she has come out as bisexual. “I hear derogatory comments such as ‘gay,’ ‘queer,’ or ‘fag’ at least ten times daily,” she reports. “My school doesn’t have many openly queer students, and those who do have the courage to be open about their sexuality are ridiculed, harassed, and assaulted.” Last year, for example, a group of girls on a school bus put gum in Dena’s hair and called her names like “dyke,” “lesbian,” and “bitch.” Although the school has a “no tolerance” harassment policy, Dena says school administrators simply told the offending girls that their behavior was “inappropriate.”

“The administrations in our schools…are in denial about how bad the harassment really is,” she says.

Youth Culture: “Gay-Blind”?

The experiences reported by Dena and Shelby run counter to some recent reports that suggest today’s teenagers—growing up in an era of same-sex marriages and films like Brokeback Mountain—are much more accepting of their LGBT peers than their counterparts twenty, ten, or even five years ago.

Last summer, Ritch Savin-Williams, professor and chair of human development at Cornell University, raised eyebrows with the publication of his latest book, The New Gay Teenager, which was featured in an October 2005 Time magazine cover story on gay teens. In the book, Savin-Williams criticizes much of the research on gay youth, charging that it has perpetuated a “suffering suicidal script” about these young people, the vast majority of whom are, by his account, “adapting quite well, thank you.”

“The culture of contemporary teenagers easily incorporates its homoerotic members,” he writes. “It’s more than being gay-friendly. It’s being gay-blind.”

In addition to surveys and interviews he has been conducting since 1983, Savin-Williams points to the latest Hamilton College Hot Button Issues poll, a survey of 1,000 high school seniors conducted in November 2005 by the college and Zogby International, for evidence of this shift in youth values. The poll found that large majorities of high school seniors nationwide favor either legal marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples; adoption by same-sex couples; and laws banning job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

“These kids have come so much further than adults have, or even their brothers and sisters in college,” Savin-Williams says.

Savin-Williams cites the proliferation of gay-straight alliances (GSAs) as further evidence of changing school climates. GSAs are in-school groups formed by LGBT students and their “straight allies” to discuss homophobia, plan school events to raise awareness of LGBT issues, or simply hang out in a safe place. The number of GSAs has quadrupled in U.S. high schools since 2000. “While not long ago this issue was kept out of just about every school in the country, there are now more than 3,000 gay-straight alliances,” Savin-Williams says. “Clearly, schools have accepted or at least tolerated these organizations.”

Attitudes vs. Actions

If attitudes among students and school administrators have changed so dramatically, why do students like Shelby and Dena—who attend school in one of the most LGBT-supportive areas of the country—still feel so unsafe?

“The problem of harassment in schools has not gone away,” says Kevin Jennings, a former classroom teacher and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a New York–based organization dedicated to improving school climates for LGBT students. GLSEN’s National School Climate Surveys, polls of LGBT students conducted every two years, have consistently found high levels of anti-LGBT harassment in schools across the country. Last year GLSEN also commissioned a national survey by the research firm Harris Interactive, which indicated that LGBT students face significant obstacles that prevent them from feeling safe and able to concentrate on learning in school.

Jennings is quick to point out that these surveys are not being used to portray LGBT students in a negative light; rather, they are intended to draw attention to the deficiencies of schools and other institutions in serving these young people effectively. “I don’t think what we’re doing is pathologizing the kids. We’re not—the kids are great,” Jennings says. “If we’re pathologizing anything, it’s the schools that don’t do the right thing.”
The “LGBT-Friendly” School

To ensure that LGBT young people attend school in a safe environment that is conducive to learning, Jennings and others say, the first basic step is the establishment of a school policy explicitly stating that all students have the right to attend school free from harassment and discrimination. Beth Reis, a researcher and cochair of the Safe Schools Coalition, a Seattle-based organization that works with school districts to establish and enforce safe schools policies, says there are several characteristics that make up the “ideal” district antiharassment/antidiscrimination policy. First, she says, it must specifically cite the kinds of harassment and discrimination that are prohibited in school, explicitly mentioning such issues as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and gender expression as well as the kinds of language and behavior the policy covers. Second, she says, the policy must be accessible to students at all grade levels, since harassment and discrimination can and do take place from elementary through high school.

Other characteristics of effective school policies, Reis notes, include a comprehensive plan for dissemination; procedures for reporting any problems that arise; and an “anonymous option” that allows students to cite violations of the policy without identifying themselves, if doing so might place them at psychological or physical risk.

Still, as Shelby’s and Dena’s experiences attest, policies are only the beginning. Though research in this field is relatively new, a number of studies point to other elements that can contribute to the creation of an “LGBT-friendly” school:

Gay-straight alliances. A 2001 study of 1,646 students and 683 staff members from randomly selected schools, commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Education and led by researcher Laura Szalacha, found that LGBT students in schools with GSAs were three times as likely to feel safe being out at school and were significantly less likely to hear homophobic slurs on a daily basis, compared to students in schools without GSAs. Numerous interview studies have further documented the power of GSAs in helping LGBT youth feel safe and supported at school (see sidebar  “Supporting GSAs beyond Boston and San Francisco”). Supporting GSAs beyond Boston and San Francisco

According to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), California has the largest number of gay-straight alliances (GSAs), around 400, and Massachusetts has about 200, more per student than any other state.

But what about the rest of the country? Does attending high school in a culturally conservative state like Georgia or Utah virtually guarantee that an LGBT student won’t have access to supportive programs like GSAs?

If some state legislators have their way, the answer might be yes. Legislation currently pending in both states would require parental permission for students to participate in any afterschool club, a move many LGBT student advocates view as a direct assault on GSAs, which depend on confidentiality.

There are other indications that access to safe, inclusive schooling may be, at least in part, a matter of geography:

* Lawmakers in Virginia, Arizona, and Missouri have recently considered legislation that would effectively ban GSAs.
* Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah have laws that either prohibit the discussion of homosexuality in public school class¬rooms or allow it to be mentioned only in a negative light.
* The latest GLSEN National School Climate Survey (pdf) found that students in the South were significantly less likely than students in other regions to have access to GSAs or school policies protecting them from harassment and discrimination.

But school administators in these parts of the country can still create a supportive environment for LGBT students. When a student at Southeast Guilford High School in Greensboro, N.C., petitioned to start a GSA earlier this year, a small but vocal group of students and community members expressed strong opposition. The principal received a large volume of “hate mail,” according to GSA advisor and school counselor Donna Allred. “We had parents who were on a mission to get this out of the school,” she says.

Even more disturbing, a group of students began posting flyers around the school with strong antigay epithets. Rather than back down in the face of opposition, the principal and superintendent met with the groups voicing opposition, emphasized their obligation to combat hatred and bias, and supported students’ legal right to form a GSA. They also suspended one student who had posted antigay flyers and brought in an outside speaker to help GSA members plan ways to counter negative misconceptions about the group.

“After a few months, [the opposition] just died down,” Allred says. “I think it’s important not to give up, because the more opposition you get, it’s that much more of an indication that a gay-straight alliance is needed.”

Supportive teachers and faculty training. The Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which samples more than 3,000 students from randomly selected high schools every two years, has found that students are less likely to report feelings of depression or to attempt suicide if they feel that they have adults at school that they can talk to about things that are important to them. This finding is especially significant given the dramatically higher rates of suicidal behaviors among sexual minority youth. Szalacha’s study found that in schools where faculty had been trained in LGBT youth issues, more than half of LGBT students said they felt they had the support of school faculty, compared to only about a quarter of LGBT students in schools where such trainings had not taken place.

Addressing the needs of LGBT youth of color. GLSEN’s school climate surveys have found that LGBT students of color often face different forms of harassment and discrimination than their white LGBT peers. In the most recent poll, the vast majority of these young people (85 percent) said they had been harassed at school, and about half said they had experienced harassment based on both their race and their sexual orientation. Qualitative researchers like Lance McCready of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., have found that the LGBT youth of color sometimes feel marginalized both by their peers of color and by other LGBT youth at school, and thus avoid groups like GSAs that might provide them with support. Experts say it is crucial to ensure that LGBT programs meet the needs of students of color as well as white students.

Understanding transgender issues. Issues affecting transgender students are widely considered to be the last frontier in efforts to ensure safer schools for sexual minority students. School faculty and staff often know the least about transgender students, or even what the word “transgender” means, Jennings notes. (In addition to transsexuals, transgender students include those who do not conform to traditional gender roles, such as dressing in ways that run contrary to gender norms.) Like LGBT youth of color, transgender youth face unique risks in school settings, according to the GLSEN school climate surveys. “Even within the category of LGBT students, the surveys have shown that transgender students have it worse than LGB kids, I think because gender difference is more visible,” Jennings says. He stresses that training on LGBT issues must include specific discussion of how schools and classrooms can be made safer for transgender students.

Beyond Programs and Policies

Policies and programs aside, the quality of school life for LGBT students like Shelby and Dena seems to hinge most on the daily interactions between students and teachers—and, perhaps more important, among students themselves. The most critical step toward creating the “LGBT-friendly school” may therefore be to do what schools are charged to do in the first place: educate students. According to Reis, this education can take a number of forms, from displaying LGBT-related images throughout the school building to curriculum that acknowledges the contributions, the voices, and the history of LGBT people—not just on a special “gay day,” but within the fabric of regular school subjects. Reis recommends reaching out to parents and community members in planning these kinds of efforts even in the face of resistance, since the alternative—neglecting LGBT education for fear of “making waves”—can have devastating consequences.

“I often tell people [who challenge the inclusion of LGBT issues in the curriculum] that in the 13 years they went to school, I doubt that the two young men who killed Matthew Shepard ever heard a teacher say anything positive or even neutral about gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people,” Reis says. “If they had, I wonder if he would be alive today.”

Michael Sadowski is an assistant professor in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. He was formerly the editor of HEL, an instructor on LGBT issues in schools at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and vice chair of the Massachusetts Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth.

For Further Information

For Further Information

Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, 90 Broad St. 2nd Fl., New York, NY 10004; tel: (212) 727-0135.

L. McCready. “When Fitting in Isn’t an Option, or, Why Black Queer Males at a California High School Stay Away from Project 10.” In K. K. Kumashiro, Troubling Intersections of Race and Sexuality: Queer Students of Color and Anti-Oppressive Education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

Safe Schools Coalition, 10501 Meridian Ave. N., Seattle, WA 98133; tel: (206) 632-0662.

R.C. Savin-Williams. The New Gay Teenager. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

L.A. Szalacha. “Safer Sexual Diversity Climates: Lessons Learned from an Evaluation of Massachusetts’ Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students.” American Journal of Education 110, no. 1 (2003): 58-89.