LBGT Students Are Not Safe at School

They are disproportionately harassed, and few teachers are trained to help.

Students hold signs including those reading "pee in peace" and "keep calm it's just a toilet."
Students campaign for a gender-neutral bathroom at Santee Education Complex in Los Angeles. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

When Salem Whit walked through the hallways of their high school in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, overhearing classmates ask one another, “What is that thing?” happened with nearly enough frequency to become background noise. Unlike the sound of lockers slamming, however, comments about Salem’s gender identity were too targeted for the teen to treat them as white noise. “I actually thought I was inhuman,” Salem recalled when thinking about the years of bullying and harassment they experienced in high school. “I thought I was an alien. I definitely thought I was going to hell.”

Salem graduated from high school in 2015 but says the process of getting to that point was far from easy. “I’m not sure how my grades were good enough to graduate,” the 19-year-old explained. After years of experiencing gender dysphoria—feeling an intense and innate disconnect from their body, gender presentation, voice, and name—Salem came out as transgender during their senior year of high school. More specifically, Salem identifies as both non-binary and agender, meaning that while Salem does not identify with the female sex they were assigned at birth, they also do not identify as male or use male pronouns.

As classmates and teachers struggled to use Salem’s preferred pronouns and accept their gender presentation, however, the high-schooler found that the greatest relief came from avoiding school altogether. “I skipped classes,” they admitted. “I quit every extracurricular. I stopped participating in sports, gym, and drama—anything that separated us by gender. I even stopped talking for a while, because my gender dysphoria caused me to really hate the sound of my own voice.” At 16, feeling lost and lonely, Salem attempted suicide.

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Disturbingly, Salem’s story is more common than not among youth who identify as LGBT. According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s new report, “Teasing to Torment: School Climate Revisited,” LGBT youth in middle and high school have lower grades, more attendance problems, and are less likely to complete high school than their heterosexual and cisgender peers. Many experience long-term emotional effects from the bullying, harassment, and anti-LGBT bias they face as students. Life may have gotten better for many in the LGBT community in the last decade, but for LGBT youth in middle and high school, there is much room for improvement.

Teachers play an important yet under-discussed role when it comes to anti-LGBT bias and bullying in schools. Youth often seek out teachers, coaches, and other administrators for support when it may lack at home or in their communities. Many LGBT students, however, need staff who are not only supportive of LGBT people, but are also prepared to deal with the complex and diverse issues that the community experiences. As GLSEN’s report demonstrates, few in the school system feel equipped to handle these scenarios, suggesting that training and development for teachers and staff on LGBT-specific topics may be a necessity to provide equal safety and support for LGBT youth.

A disparity exists between what teachers feel and what their actions—or in this case, inactions—suggest. GLSEN reports that teachers are overwhelmingly in support of their LGBT students, but few receive training on how to discuss LGBT topics in the classroom or how to offer guidance to individual LGBT students. Though their support and intervention can make a world of difference for youth like Salem, a striking number of teachers and staff confess to feeling uncomfortable intervening when it comes to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment. According to Emily Greytak, GLSEN’s director of research, administrative support may be the key to keeping LGBT youth in school—and to saving their lives.

GLSEN conducted the study through online surveys among 1,367 middle- and high-school students between the ages of 13 and 18 nationwide. GLSEN also surveyed 10,015 secondary-school teachers. This report examines the current climate of schools for LGBT youth one decade after GLSEN’s original report was released in 2005. GLSEN’s original report was the first nationwide survey that examined the differences in experience between LGBT and non-LGBT youth in schools.

Since 2005, the LGBT community has seen a lot of progress, including marriage equality and advancements in employment protections, and researchers this time around were hopeful to find that school climates improved for LGBT youth as well. “Society has changed in many positive ways, and we assumed schools would follow suit. With this report, we wanted to get a snapshot of how LGBT students are doing in schools today,” Greytak said.

While the 2015 report shows minor, gradual improvements have occurred for LGBT youth in schools over the last 10 years, heterosexual and cisgender students still experience less victimization and better grades and are more hopeful about their futures than their LGBT counterparts. The challenges faced by LGBT youth in school can have long-term consequences.

According to GLSEN’s latest findings, LGBT secondary-school students experience higher rates of bullying based on not only their sexual orientation and gender identity, but also their appearance and body size. They’re also more likely to experience sexual harassment, cyberbullying, and property damage, among other forms of intimidation and abuse.

“We see that LGBT youth are being deprived of an equal education based on these hostile school climates,” Greytak said. According to GLSEN’s report, LGBT students are three times as likely than their non-LGBT peers to report they do not plan on completing high school, and twice as likely to have skipped school in the past month as a result of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable around their peers.

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For Cara Donovan, now 24, skipping school became her only defense against rumors about her sexual orientation. Once a high-achieving student, Cara came close to failing three classes during her sophomore year of high school when the bullying and rumors were at their worst. Cara’s attendance and grades plummeted at the height of her bullying; she skipped 28 days her freshman year, 25 her sophomore year, 18 as a junior, and “only” 13 as a senior. As she explained in an interview, Cara’s bullies were mostly upperclassmen, and when they graduated, the rumors left with them. When those bullies left, however, things didn’t get much better: “I went back to hiding and ignoring my identity,” she explained.

At the age of 15, Cara began dating a female classmate at her high school—a relationship that lasted about six months and was marked by a sense of isolation and self-hatred. “I completely repressed it,” she said. “I hated myself so much that I couldn't talk about it, and I would have panic attacks if people brought it up.” Forgetting her first love has been a way of healing from the trauma and anti-LGBT bullying she faced from her peers. Cara had no access to a Gay Straight Alliance and never discussed LGBT themes, history, or people in her classes. What Cara did hear came from her classmates. “I remember walking into softball practice and hearing some girls whispering about me that I was gay. Before the softball team was a type of family. But after the rumors started, I would receive shady looks and some of the other players stopped speaking to me,” she said. “I started to think there was something really wrong with me … I wasn't normal.”

Now, Cara still struggles to feel comfortable with her sexual orientation. “I was uncomfortable then,” Cara said, “and maybe still am.”

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According to GLSEN’s report, half of teachers surveyed said that they haven’t done anything to support LGBT youth at their schools. In fact, teachers reported feeling the least comfortable dealing with LGBT students who’d been subject to harassment and assault; they were much more comfortable addressing those problems when they involved ability, sexism, and race.

Nearly all teachers—83 percent—reported believing that they have a responsibility to ensure a safe learning environment for LGBT students. The disconnect between what teachers believe is their duty and what they feel comfortable acting on may come down to training and preparation, Greytak suggested.

Less than a third of teachers reported receiving training on LGBT issues, and less than a quarter receive training on transgender issues. While all sexual minorities are vulnerable, transgender youth often face additional barriers. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, more than 75 percent of transgender youth report feeling unsafe at school, and 59 percent were denied access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity; those who do persevere through school also have significantly lower grades.

For Salem, navigating life as teen who did not fit society’s traditional notions of sex and gender required them to rely on hope and judgment each time they came out about their gender identity. “Teachers were hard to read,” they explained. “Some of them did use my preferred name and pronouns, which meant a lot to me. Others avoided using pronouns at all, which was at least better than being misgendered.”

Salem notes, too, that policies can push teachers into tricky situations. “Partway through my senior year, teachers were told that they had to call us [transgender students] by our assigned names.” As Salem remembers the policy, “the exception was if the student's guardian would come to school to sign a paper about our names.”

But “few of us had someone supportive enough to sign it,” Salem continued. “So I never really felt safe at school.”

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GLSEN’s report suggests that including LGBT history and issues into curricula may have a significant impact on the experience of LGBT students. LGBT students who were taught about LGBT people, history, or events in any of their classes reported experiencing lower levels of victimization. At the time of the study, however, only 20 percent of students reported learning about LGBT topics in any of their classes.

Queen Cornish, a 15-year-old sophomore at Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Delaware, feels that her school creates a valuable safe-space for LGBT youth. “A lot of teachers have ‘safe space’ stickers on their doors,” she told me in an interview. “Those little signs are great because they let you know that the teacher is going to respect your identity.” When I was in middle school, people heard that I had a crush on a girl and the rumors really started,” said Queen, who chooses not to label her sexual orientation. “People called me a lesbian and gossiped a lot … Someone even called me an ‘abomination.’”

As early as middle school, Queen contemplated suicide. “I felt very, very empty,” she recalled. “I was lonely every day.” Queen acknowledges that she still struggles with feelings of depression and emptiness but uses her own experiences to motivate her to aid others who are struggling. “On days I am really sad, I give myself five minutes to cry,” she explained. “Then I make myself do something proactive for the community. If I can help even one person accept themselves, then I know I’ve made a difference.”

Luckily, Queen has supportive parents, and although  she has nearly three years of high school left, she feels confident that her school and community are moving in the right direction for their LGBT youth. “We get to talk about LGBT issues in class,” Queen explains. “We can choose to do projects on topics like same-sex adoption or same-sex marriage which really helps normalize it.” In the coming years, Queen hopes to see even more inclusivity in the classroom, including LGBT-specific sexual education and discussion of gender dysphoria.

Greytak stressed that comprehensive preparation and education on LGBT topics should be built into every educator’s training. “The Constitution guarantees all students, including LGBT students, access to safe and equal education,” she said. “But right now, LGBT students across the country are deprived of equal learning. Even though it is 2016, it is not an equal playing field for all students.  We must keep working to educate and protect LGBT youth in our schools.”