GLSEN has released its biennial study about the experience of LGBT students across the country. Though the overall climate improved slightly in 2013 compared to the 2011 results, LGBT students still largely feel unsafe, experiencing high rates of harassment and discrimination within the school system. As a result, their educational opportunities are measurably compromised.
What It’s Like For LGBT Students
Overall, schools can still be a particularly toxic environment for LGBT students; 55 percent say they feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and 38 percent say they feel unsafe because of their gender expression.
A number of different experiences contribute to this feeling of not being safe. Language alone has a huge impact, with 74 percent of LGBT students saying they’ve been verbally harassed (called names or threatened) for their sexual orientation, and 55 percent have been verbally harassed for their gender expression. Survey respondents described encountering the following language at school frequently or often:
- “Gay” used in a negative way (71 percent), which makes 91 percent of them feel distressed.
- Homophobic remarks, like “dyke” and “faggot” (64.5 percent).
- Gender policing remarks, like being not “masculine enough” or “feminine enough” (56 percent.
- Anti-transgender remarks like “tranny” and “he/she” (33 percent).
- Teachers or staff using homophobic remarks (51 percent) or negative remarks about gender expression (55.5 percent).
The harassment is not limited to words, nor does it only happen at school. It frequently escalates to violence, like the following experiences:
- Being physically harassed (pushed or shoved) because of their sexual orientation (36 percent) or gender expression (23 percent).
- Being physically assaulted (punched, kicked, injured with a weapon) because of their sexual orientation (16.5 percent) or gender expression (11 percent).
- Being targeted for cyberbullying, harassment via text messages, Facebook, etc. (49 percent).
When students experience this kind of violence, 57 percent of them choose not to report the incident to school staff because they doubt anything will be done about it, or they worry it could make the situation even worse. Among those who did report the incidents, 62 percent said that school staff did nothing in response.
Students have a lot of other reasons to doubt effective school responses, though. The study found that 55.5 percent of LGBT students had experienced discriminatory policies or practices at school, and 65 percent knew of other students who had. Those practices include the following:
- Being disciplined for public displays of affection that non-LGBT students were not punished for (28 percent).
- Being prevented from attending a dance or similar function with someone of the same gender (18 percent).
- Being restricted from forming or promoting a gay-straight alliance (18 percent).
- Being prevented from wearing clothing that supports LGBT issues (15 percent).
- Among transgender students, 42 percent were prevented from using their preferred name, 59 percent were required to use a bathroom that did not match their gender identity, and 32 percent were prevented from wearing clothing appropriate to their gender identity.
The Consequences Of An Unsafe Environment
The negative experiences LGBT students are not merely problems unto themselves. When students don’t feel safe, it impacts their attendance and academic performance, consequences with implications for the rest of their lives. For example, LGBT students who experienced higher levels of victimization or discrimination reported the following:
- They were more than three times as likely to have missed school in the past month.
- They had lower grad point averages by as much as half a point.
- They were twice as likely to report that they did not plan to pursue any post-secondary education.
- They had higher levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem.
What’s Working Well
Though the picture is still troubling, the outlook is not bleak, which is largely in part to increasing resources in schools. The study found that the positive benefits of these resources are easily identified and explain why anti-LGBT harassment is on the decline, however gradually. Here are some of the features of schools where LGBT students felt more safe:
- Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs): About half of students reported having a GSA at their school, and those who did were less likely to experience verbal harassment, discrimination, or feelings that they were unsafe because of their sexual orientation. They also felt more connected to their school community.
- LGBT-Inclusive Curricula: Only 18.5 percent of LGBT students were taught about LGBT people, history, or events in their schools, while conversely 15 percent had been taught negative content on LGBT topics. Less than half of students could find LGBT-related content in their libraries or even via the Internet access provided at school. Not only did students at schools with an LGBT-inclusive curriculum experience much lower rates of harassment, but they were more likely to be interested in studying science, technology, engineering, math, or social science in college.
- Supportive Teachers: Almost all LGBT students (96 percent) could identify at least one staff member at their school who was supportive of LGBT students, but only 39 percent could identify as many as a dozen. Those who could felt safer at school, had higher GPAs, and were four times as likely to plan on attending college.
- Comprehensive Anti-Bullying Policies: Most respondents (82 percent) said that their school had an anti-bullying policy, but only 10 percent reported that the policy specifically enumerate protections based on both sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Students at schools with a comprehensive policy were less likely to experience verbal harassment and more likely to hear staff intervene when they did.
All of these anti-bullying resources are on the rise, but conservatives are still adamantly trying to block them. When they do, they are actually holding back the futures of LGBT youth, at least according to the data. As GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard said about the new report, “Progress is being made in our nation’s schools, but when more than half of LGBT youth continue to report unsafe or even dangerous school climates, we all have a responsibility to act.
For more information about the experience of LGBT students, check out the full 2013 National School Climate Survey.