Schools Are Failing Minority LGBT Students

A new report outlines the many obstacles gay children of color face as they try to get a good education.


LGBT children of color often fall through the cracks of the U.S. educational system. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender pupils, obstacles to completing secondary school and gaining entry to college mount in unique ways: These children simultaneously confront multiple barriers to effective learning, stemming from race, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and socio-economic status. A report released last week by the Human Rights Campaign and the Center for American Progress, A Broken Bargain for LGBT Workers of Color, targets the larger question of why job market inequities exist for LGBT people. But underneath its employment story lies a subplot about a group of children not getting what they need from the adults and institutions around them.

Students of color make up three quarters of the student population at the lowest-performing high schools in the United States. They are six times more likely than white students to attend such a school. Because the U.S. school financing system relies heavily on local property taxes, the great disparities in educational resources across different communities hit poor and low-income pupils hard. Specifically, A Broken Bargain notes, at under-resourced schools the teachers and staff are overstretched, less experienced, and paid less than their counterparts in schools with larger white student populations. The schools are less likely to offer advanced courses to prepare students for college, such as calculus: only 29 percent of high-minority enrollment high schools did, versus 55 percent of low-minority enrollment schools. Other crucial educational supports are lacking, too, such as assistance for students with learning disabilities or difficulty learning a foreign language or mastery of English classes (for English language learners as well as college-hopeful native English-speaking students).

Add to this picture the student life experience of an LGBT child. In one study, more than half of LGBT students who are African American, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander and multiracial said they had been verbally harassed at school in the past year. Another reports nearly half (48 percent) of LGBT students of color experienced verbal harassment from both their sexual orientation and race or ethnicity, and 15 percent had been physically harassed or assaulted. The physical, emotional, and mental health impacts of a hostile climate at school easily encourage avoidance behavior, and students often skip class or stay home. This has deleterious effects on their school performance and college entrance prospects. Serious long term effects of harassment at school emerged in one study: 32 percent of transgender people who were physically assaulted at school reported a history of work in the underground economy, including drug dealing and sex work, compared with 14 percent who had not experienced violence at school. In a different survey, a staggering 51 percent of LGBT people who reported being harassed or bullied at school also said they had attempted suicide.

Overstretched staff at under-funded schools rarely can devote much time and attention to LGBT students’ concerns and may have no training whatsoever to address victims’ needs. This may be why fewer than half of LGBT students of color tell a teacher or staff member about harassment they experience at school, the report notes, out of fear that it could make the problem worse or that nothing will be done. Lack of support at school is often accompanied by lack of support in the family. The LGBT children report that in addition to harassment at school, their top concern is disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity to non-accepting families. And they are right to be scared. In what is probably the most shocking statistic of the report, one study found that 20 to 40 percent of the homeless youth in the U.S. identify as LGBT or believe they may be LGBT. About five percent of youth in the general population identify as LGBT. This homelessness is attributed to family rejection of the LGBT children who have been forced out by their parents. “Among the consequences of homelessness for these children is difficulty completing school,” the authors note dryly. Only one out of three shelters in the U.S. offers GED programs. Shelters remain a problematic substitute for a family home for children, anyway, especially transgender youth whose gender identity does not match the sex categories used by the homeless shelters. Where do they end up? A Broken Promise does not say, but notes they “face substantial challenges such as increased substance use and increased interactions with law enforcement, which later make it more difficult to enter the mainstream labor force.”

If one group of school-age kids has fear on their minds—fear of coming out to parents, fear of harassment or worse at school, fear of being kicked out of a family home—while another group thinks about tests, grades, college plans, and careers, it’s easy to see how their paths to a future of higher education and good jobs begin to diverge early and, probably, irreparably. A Broken Bargain is full of recommendations to repair the broken pipeline to college—and hence good jobs and economic security—for LGBT youth of color. These include: federal and state governments passing safe school laws, addressing school funding disparities, and expanding housing options for homeless LGBT children; school districts revising discipline policies to reduce harassment and violence and keep LGBT pupils from avoiding school; and advocates helping LGBT students find financial, academic, and family support. Other helpful recommendations are offered for agencies, businesses, and leaders. Intervention is needed. Graduates of high school earn $7,840 more and college grads earn $27,390 more each year, on average, than non-graduates, and both have more secure life prospects generally. But the more important truth is that it is wrong for any child in the U.S. to endure such daunting barriers to education.