Report identifies good and bad news related to school experiences of LGBTQ youth

While the rates of homophobic behaviors in schools are declining, the high levels jeopardize the safety of many young people.

There’s good and bad news related to the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) young people, according to a report recently released by GLSEN, a national organization focused on providing safe and affirming schools for LGBTQ students. The report is based on a national survey that GLSEN has conducted every two years since 1999 to document the experiences of LGBTQ students, and the newest report reflects input from over 10,500 young people across the country (mostly in grades 6 to 12). The good news from the report is that the rates of homophobic remarks, verbal and physical harassment, and physical assault continue to decline. The bad news is that these levels remain high and continue to negatively affect the lives of many LGBTQ youth.

According to the report, nearly 58 percent of LGBTQ students indicated that they felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 43 percent felt unsafe because of their gender expression (defined in the report as how traditionally “masculine” or “feminine” students are in appearance or behavior). The report also indicated that 71 percent of students reported experiencing verbal harassment at school because of their sexual orientation, 27 percent experienced physical harassment (for example, being pushed or shoved), and 15 percent reported being physically assaulted (for example, being punched, kicked or injured with a weapon). Although other reports have shown that many young people report missing school because they don’t feel safe, the rates are significantly higher for LGBTQ youth, with 32 percent reporting that they had missed at least one full day of school during the past month.

One of the key contributors to a hostile school climate is the presence of anti-LGBTQ language, and 98 percent of young people reported sometimes, often or frequently hearing “gay” used in a negative way. Ninety-six percent of youth also reported sometimes, often or frequently hearing other types of homophobic remarks (for example, “dyke” or “faggot”), 96 percent reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression (for example, not acting “feminine” enough), and 86 percent reported hearing negative remarks about transgender people. The use of biased and homophobic language wasn’t limited to young people – large numbers of LGBTQ youth reported hearing homophobic remarks (56 percent) and negative statements about gender expression (64 percent) from teachers or other school staff.

While it’s troubling to read findings related to the negative behaviors of adults, one area of good news in the report was that the rate of LGBTQ students reporting the presence of supportive school staff was higher than in previous surveys. Almost all students said they could identify at least one staff member who was supportive of LGBTQ students at their school, and 41 percent said they could identify 11 or more supportive staff members. Students benefit from this high level of support – those reporting having 11 or more supportive adults were less likely to feel unsafe, less likely to miss school and more likely to have higher grade point averages than students who reported having no supportive school staff.

During a recent webinar in which GLSEN presented the findings of their report, one of the researchers stressed that while one educator can change a life, a group of educators can change a school. To accomplish this level of change, there are several things that school staff can do to provide a supportive and affirmative climate for LGBTQ youth. For example, staff can take part in professional development opportunities in which they examine their own beliefs and attitudes about sexual orientation, gender and gender expression. These learning opportunities can also focus on ways to interrupt and prevent student harassment behaviors and to provide support for those who are targeted. The GLSEN report also emphasized the importance of providing students with LGBT-inclusive curricula and resources, as well as giving students opportunities to get involved with groups such as Gay-Straight Alliances that work to improve school climate. School staff can also work to ensure that school policies and practices don’t discriminate against LGBTQ students and that anti-bullying/harassment policies and reporting systems specifically address incidents where students are targeted based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Visit the GLSEN website for more information on other research and resources, including state-specific research findings such as the GLSEN 2015 State Snapshot: School Climate in Michigan. You may also be interested in the variety of resources provided by Michigan State University Extension related to helping parents, educators and other adults understand issues of bullying, bias and harassment in the lives of young people. Among these is the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments curriculum, which is designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create positive relationships and inclusive settings.

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