The Day I Was Reminded LGBTQ Students Still Don’t Feel Safe in Schools

Recently, I co-facilitated a session with Lora Cover at a conference for school leaders of color, where we focused on creating more diverse, equitable, and inclusive education institutions. In the session, we conducted an activity (one which our Talent Advising team created in partnership with Erin Trent Johnson and Xiomara Padamsee) where we asked participants to name times in their lives when parts of their identities were either on the mainstream — seen as “normal” — or in the margins — seen as “other” — and to explore when and where certain identities potentially shifted between the two.

Then we listed some demographic identifiers that could describe a member of their school community — a teacher, parent, student, or even a school leader — and asked participants to physically place themselves on a spectrum from “IN” on one side of the room to “OUT” on the opposite side of the room depending on how that person might feel in the context of their school and work environment.

Most prompts yielded relatively balanced spreads across the “IN” or “OUT” spectrum, indicating a fairly evenly split between those that were struggling and succeeding in creating inclusive environments for different types of students, family members, and staff. However, when we came to “a student who identifies as LGBTQ,” every individual in the room with the exception of two non-school based leaders went to the “OUT” side of the room. The striking implication: not one school leader in that room felt as though their school was inclusive for LGBTQ youth.

I was heartbroken. As both a person who identifies as LGBTQ and a former teacher, to see a room full of school leaders all express that their school environments were non-inclusive for students who identify as LGBTQ was horrifying. However, it painted what I believe to be an accurate picture of the majority of schools in America. Despite the fact that gay marriage is legal across the country and that there is increased visibility and representation for LGBTQ people in the public sphere, individuals who identify as LGBTQ — particularly our children — do not feel protected, safe, or like they belong. They are not able to live as their full selves.

I have distinct memories of not feeling safe in high school as a closeted teenager. I never felt I could act as my “full” self. I pretended to like all the things the other boys liked, including girls. For a while, I was incredibly unhappy. When I finally came out in my early twenties, I felt as though a burden had been lifted. Even still, as a teacher, I never came out to my students for fear of causing some kids discomfort, backlash from parents, and even potentially losing my job. This is the greatest regret of my professional career thus far. I frequently think to myself: “When is the next time my black and brown students are going to have a gay man of color in front of them to show them that that we do exist, that we do have value, and that we can be proud of who we are?”

Unfortunately, recent data underscore that things have not gotten better in our schools for young people who identify as LGBTQ.

In August of last year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released their biennial Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which they describe as “the nation’s principal source of data for tracking national health risk behaviors among high school students.” For the first time ever, this study asked for students’ sexual orientation, making it the first nationally representative study of risk behaviors from lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) self-identified youth in grades 9-12.

The results were appalling.  According to the data and the more than 15,000 LGB high school students surveyed, LGB students were:

  • Greater than two times more likely than their straight peers to experience sexual or physical dating violence
  • Around two times more likely to be bullied at school or electronically
  • Greater than three times more likely to have attempted suicide
https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/2016/lgb-media-data-summary.pdf

Via Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Young people spend a majority of their waking time in school. School staff, as educators, guardians, and caretakers of young people, must play an active role in creating inclusive environments by preventing bullying, providing supports and aid for any student who feels as though they are living on the “margins” instead of the “mainstream,” and teaching and modeling healthy relationships. Further, these data illustrate the dire need to consider what types of curricula — both academic and interpersonal — we are putting in front of all of our youth about what it means to be LGBTQ.

These data do not include information on students who dropped out of high school and are therefore outside the potential positive reach of schools. Further, the report does not include information on hundreds of thousands of students who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, which studies, while limited, have shown to be a population even more at risk for harassment than lesbian, gay, or bisexual individuals.

Last month, the Trump administration rescinded federal protections enumerated under the Obama administration that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms and facilities that correspond with their gender identity. While the rescission goes on to say that schools still have a role in protecting LGBTQ youth from bullying and discrimination — and some, like my colleague Andy Rotherham, have argued that because President’s Trump’s order has little short-term effect on schools, the move is more symbolic than substantive — this still represents an important step backward in bringing transgender young people out of the margins. The CDC data give texture to the very real threats to life, safety, belonging, and happiness that policy decisions like this can impact.

Regardless of where we may stand politically or morally, if we believe that the role of schools is to educate all children, we must do what we can to make schools a safe place for all kids to learn, including LGBTQ youth.  Modeling positive relationships, displaying safe space stickers, supporting Gay-Straight Alliances, hiring and supporting openly gay teachers and staff, and making explicit statements condemning bullying towards LGBTQ students in school policy have all proven to be effective in creating school environments where LGBTQ students feel safer. If you are a school leader, find resources, ask questions, and listen to young people who identify as LGBTQ. They are the best source for information on how to make them feel more “IN.”