Respect, Resilience, and LGBT Students - ASCD
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September 1, 2013

Respect, Resilience, and LGBT Students

Schools can create conditions that help LGBT students thrive.

I feel so unsafe when I'm at school—I hear the word gay used as an insult so often—I always feel like there's something wrong with me even though I know there isn't.

This Michigan high school student is not alone in her feelings, especially in feeling "unsafe" in her school. Whether rural, suburban, or urban, public or private, U.S. secondary schools are often inhospitable places for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. Students across the United States speak of similar experiences and feelings. It's up to educators to alter the learning environment and embed sources of resilience that can help LGBT students feel not only safe, but also respected and affirmed.

Research by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has shown that an overwhelming number of LGBT students experience schools as hostile. On GLSEN's most recent national survey of LGBT youth in secondary schools,1 almost 90 percent of the 8,584 LGBT students surveyed reported being verbally harassed for some personal characteristic during the 2010–11 school year, 80 percent reported being the target of mean rumors or lies, and close to 70 percent reported being targets of sexual harassment in school.

It's easy to understand how difficult it would be to achieve your potential—or simply learn—in the kind of environment this research depicts. LGBT students are more likely than other students to miss classes or even whole days of school as they attempt to avoid hostility. This not only affects their ability to develop a healthy sense of connectedness to their school, but it also may compromise their academic achievement. Given all of this, it's not surprising that the research shows that LGBT students have lower aspirations for postsecondary education than their peers do. In addition, the kind of negative experiences LGBT students face in schools can lead to all sorts of damaging outcomes, including lowered self-esteem and increased depression and anxiety.

Fortunately, the same research that renders the somewhat horrifying picture described above also sheds light on school-based variables that serve as sources of resilience for many LGBT youth. Supportive adults, a clear antibullying policy, an LGBT-inclusive curriculum, and student clubs such as Gay–Straight Alliances are the four school-based resources that research suggests make a difference for LGBT students. Considering the extent to which a school provides these sources of resilience and focusing efforts on providing them are important steps for educators to take to build resilience in LGBT students.

Someone You Can Count On: Supportive Adults

The greatest single source of resilience for LGBT students in a school may be the presence of supportive adults. Consider this 9th grade student's reflection:

Teachers can be more of that figure you look up to and when they are accepting of you, it means the world to you. To know that you're OK and that they are there for you.

It is not uncommon to hear stories of how a single school staff member changed the course of a student's life. For LGBT students, the presence of these individuals—often referred to as allies—can help create a welcoming and safe environment in which LGBT students can learn, achieve, and develop healthy aspirations for postsecondary education. Adult allies may also have a positive effect on LGBT students' school experiences and psychological well-being.

There are many ways that educators can demonstrate their support for LGBT students, from responding to anti-LGBT language and behavior when they witness it to advising student clubs such as Gay–Straight Alliances. LGBT students have even shared how seeing a Safe Space sticker or a display that includes positive images of LGBT people has helped them to feel supported and safe in their schools.

It is encouraging that in the latest GLSEN survey almost all of the students surveyed (95 percent) could identify at least one staff member supportive of LGBT students at their school. The research in our survey, however, shows that it takes six or more supportive adults to truly make a difference in eradicating negative outcomes, especially those most directly related to academic achievement and postsecondary aspirations. Only 54 percent of students surveyed could identify six or more supportive adults. Schools can provide this source of resilience by offering professional development on LGBT issues and developing a Safe Space program within the school.

A Safe Space is a welcoming, supportive and safe environment for LGBT students. We would hope to describe an entire school as such a space, but current research suggests that this is rare. In many schools, educators may choose to designate their classroom or office as a Safe Space and let others know by displaying a symbol such as those available at www.glsen.org/safespace. There are many ways to design a Safe Space program, but the most effective programs are those that start with professional development that builds staff knowledge and skill around the issues.

Rules That Protect You: School Policies

Students may not generally identify school policy as something that can help them in times of difficulty, but an enumerated antibullying policy, defined as one that identifies specific types of individuals to protect, can be a great source of resilience for LGBT students. The most effective antibullying and harassment policies do two things: They require that all students be protected from bullying and harassment, and they specify all categories of students who must be included by name (such as LGBT students). In the case of protecting LGBT students, policies should mention both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Of course, a school policy is only effective if students are aware of it. For LGBT students, knowing that such a policy exists can serve as a source of resilience and can empower them to advocate for their rights. Students and staff should be given instruction on not only how to recognize bullying and harassment but also how to prevent and intervene in bullying situations. Enumerated antibullying policies have been credited with empowering LGBT students to advocate for themselves on a wide variety of topics, including recognition of clubs and access to an LGBT-inclusive curriculum. Sadly, the most recent survey suggests that only 7 percent of LGBT students reported that their school had such a comprehensive policy, which is not surprising given that only 15 states currently require one.

Seeing Yourself in Your Learning: An LGBT-Inclusive Curriculum

A school curriculum that includes positive representations of LGBT people, history, and events can be a source of resilience for LGBT students. LGBT students in schools with an inclusive curriculum (only 16.8 percent of the students surveyed) feel a greater sense of connectedness to their schools than LGBT students in schools without such a curriculum. Educators should spend time identifying the extent to which LGBT-related content is present in their current curriculum and take care to fill gaps while looking for opportunities to deepen student understanding of their world.

LGBT people, history, and events can be easily inserted into most content areas. For example, educators could include civil rights leader Bayard Rustin when teaching about the 1963 March on Washington or acknowledge the gay identity of Francis Bacon (creator of the scientific method) or Frida Kahlo's bisexuality when studying her art. New sources for LGBT-relevant and developmentally appropriate content continue to be developed, especially in light of California's Fair Education Act, which calls for inclusion of LGBT-related content in curriculum.

The inclusion of LGBT people, history, and events in the curriculum educates all students about LGBT issues and may help to reduce prejudice and intolerance. Working to cultivate greater respect and acceptance of LGBT people among the student body can result in a more positive school experience for LGBT students.

A Time and Place for Community: Student Clubs

Finally, for many LGBT students, student clubs that address LGBT student issues (commonly called Gay–Straight Alliances, or GSAs) offer essential support. These clubs are student-led, usually at the high school or middle school level, and work to address name-calling, bullying, and harassment and promote respect for all students. However, despite the evidence of the benefits these groups offer, many students lack access to the valuable resources GSAs provide. Fewer than a quarter of U.S. high school students have a GSA in their school, and LGBT students of color and students in small towns and rural areas are the least likely to have access to this type of support.

The GLSEN survey suggests that LGBT students in schools with GSAs are less likely to hear biased language, such as homophobic remarks; are less likely to feel unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation and gender expression; and are less likely to miss school because they are afraid to go. GSAs may also help students identify staff members who may be supportive and to whom they can report any incidents of victimization.

The presence of a GSA offers evidence of a school's commitment to LGBT students and their allies, even when these students are not actively engaged with the GSA themselves. There are a number of free resources available to schools wishing to start a GSA at www.glsen.org.

Changing What We Can

Individually, each of these school-based resources yields important positive outcomes. Taken together, their effect would be even more significant. As educators, we have a responsibility to consider what's in the best interest for all of our students, especially as it relates to removing obstacles or helping students overcome them. Certainly there are some factors that may impede the success of our LGBT students that we cannot easily influence, such as family acceptance. But research tells us that there are things that educators can do to increase the likelihood that LGBT students will succeed in school. We know how to foster resilience for LGBT students in our schools. We simply need to do what we know.

End Notes

1 Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Bartkiewicz, M. J., Boesen, M. J., & Palmer, N. A. (2012). The 2011 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation's schools. New York: GLSEN.

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