How to Really Help Gay Teens Thrive

LGBT high-schoolers are still getting bullied, but new research shows how schools can support them.

Charlie Riedel / AP

Even though acceptance is growing for LGBT teens, the world isn’t quite changing fast enough: Multiple recent studies show that LGBT teens have less life satisfaction and more depression than their straight peers, in part because so many face harassment.

LGBT teens are more likely to be suspended or expelled from schools, sometimes because they were trying to protect themselves from bullies. Other kids ​might drop out on their own or switch to a different school in search of a more welcoming environment.

But a recent study published in the Journal of Homosexuality found that gay, bisexual, and lesbian teens who simply switched schools or living situations did not fare as well as their peers who linked up with larger LGBT groups. For the study, the University of Arizona youth development professor Russell Toomey and his co-authors relied on a sample of people in their early 20s who were recruited from LGBT organizations near San Francisco. They examined the correlations between the kinds of strategies the young adults had used to cope with the stress of being a sexual minority in high school and their overall well-being in young adulthood.

They found that relying on LGBT-friendly organizations for support contributed to greater self-esteem and life satisfaction, and a smaller chance of being depressed or dropping out of high school. Meanwhile, using “alternative seeking” strategies, like switching to a new school, was associated with lower self esteem and life satisfaction, more depression, and a higher likelihood of dropping out of high school. Also ineffective were so-called “cognitive strategies,” in which the teens would try to distract themselves from their stress by becoming socially isolated or simply picturing a better future in adulthood.

Importantly, Toomey says his study did not find that the “It Gets Better Project,” a well-known gay support group, is ineffective, as some of the news reports about the study suggested. The study didn’t look at the project specifically, but, Toomey says, It Gets Better could actually function more like an LGBT-specific resource than an empty promise that things will improve. If teens “find and listen to some ‘It Gets Better’ stories [online,] that information may be enough to connect youth with the broader LGBT community,” he said.

His findings are in line with psychological research on “minority stress,” which suggests that people who feel left out of a group are better off if they join forces with others like them than if they try to cope on their own. LGBT teens’ “support needs are distinctly different from seeking general support from family members and peers,” the authors write, “most of whom are heterosexual and do not have consistent and regular experiences with homophobia or heterosexism.”

Of course, the very schools that create supportive groups for LGBT teens are likely to be the ones that LGBT teens don’t want to switch out of. While the “alternative seeking” strategies were associated with worse outcomes, the reason for the worse outcome was likely that the teen's situation was bad enough to seek a change.

The worst things schools could do, meanwhile, is punish LGBT teens for being themselves. A recent survey of some 8,000 teens and young adults found that about 18 percent of LGBTQ students had been hindered from forming a Gay-Straight Alliance or another pro-LGBT group at their schools, and another 18 percent said they weren’t allowed to attend a school dance with someone of the same gender.

One small study of 50 LGBT youth and advocates found LGBT high-schoolers are sometimes punished for kissing or holding hands in hallways, while straight teens are not. As one adult in Georgia put it to researchers:

A principal rolled up on two girls who were holding hands, took them to the principal’s office, and put labels on them. I don’t know if the students identified as being lesbian, but he called them that and he threatened to suspend them. And he called both of their parents and outed the students.

Instead, Toomey says, schools should work to incorporate LGBT-inclusive messages into the curriculum and provide supportive information in counselors’ offices. “The main takeaway of our study is that LGBT supports are critical,” Toomey said.