LGBT Youth

There is no question that Lesbian,Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) youth in the United States are more likely to be mistreated at school than their Straight peers. Research confirms this. For one very thorough review of this research, see the special issue of School Psychology Review, Vol. 37, #2. It is well documented that, because of this abuse, LGBT youth are more likely to drop out of school, to see school as a threatening place, and to attempt many forms of self-harm.  Some have claimed that the difficulties that LGBT youth face do not result from others’ mistreatment of them, but from something inherently unhealthy about being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgendered.  However, a recent research study reported in Pediatrics : The Social Environment and Suicide Attempts in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth, by Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, PhD, makes it clear that this is not the case. Dr. Hatzenbuehler found that suicide rates of LGB youth were higher in communities and schools which did not provide them a supportive, inclusive environment and lower in communities and schools that did  provide a supportive environment.

In addition, it is well-documented that Straight youth are often hurt when people use language that demeans LGBT youth, and when name-calling about sexual orientation is used toward straight youth as a form of insult. Kimmel and Mahler’s review of the history of school shootings in the United States: Adolescent Masculinity, Homophobia, and Violence: Random School Shootings, 1982-2001 makes clear the connection between mistreatment based on calling Straight youth “Gay” and potentially violent reactions coming from those young mens’ attempts to re-establish themselves as masculine. Hatzenbuehler’s research cited above found that Straight youth in schools that supported diversity were also less likely to commit suicide than Straight youth in schools that did not support diversity. One key element in the inclusive, supportive schools that Hatzenbuehler identified was the presence of a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). GSAs are groups which offer support, inclusion, and a sense of community to youth who would otherwise feel that they did not belong in school. GSAs offer this support to LGBT AND Straight youth. The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) offers a wide range of excellent free materials to help schools become more inclusive and to help schools start GSAs. I also highly recommend the Welcoming Schools curriculum, which helps young students learn about family diversity and individual diversity in an age-appropriate way that has been well-received in a wide range of communities.

Dr. Warren Blumenfeld discusses these issues in depth in How Homophobia Hurts Everyone. I have asked Dr. Blumenfeld to contribute some of his thoughts for this page. He wrote:

“In truth, homophobia, biphobia, heterosexism, transgender oppression, and intersex oppression (HBHTI: prejudice and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex [LGBTI] people) are pervasive throughout our society and each of us, irrespective of sexual or gender identity and expression, is at risk of their harmful effects.

First, HBHTI conditioning compromises the integrity of people by pressuring them to treat others badly, which are actions contrary to their basic humanity. It inhibits one’s ability to form close, intimate relationships with members of one’s own sex, generally restricts communication with a significant portion of the population and, more specifically, limits family relationships.

HBHTI locks all people into rigid gender-based roles, which inhibits creativity and self expression. It often is used to stigmatize, silence, and, on occasion, target people who are perceived or defined by others as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but who are, in actuality, heterosexual.

In addition, HBHTI is one cause of premature sexual involvement, which increases the chances of teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Young people, of all sexual identities, are often pressured to become heterosexually active to prove to themselves and others that they are “normal.”

Societal HBHTI prevents some LGBTI people from developing an authentic self identity, and adds to the pressure to marry someone of the other sex, which in turn places undue stress and oftentimes trauma on themselves as well as their heterosexual spouses and their children.

HBHTI combined with sexphobia (fear and revulsion of sex) results in the elimination of discussion of the lives and sexuality of LGBTI people as part of school-based sex education, keeping vital information from all students. Such a lack of information can kill people in the age of AIDS. And HBHTI (along with racism, sexism, classism, sexphobia) inhibits a unified and effective governmental and societal response to the AIDS pandemic.

With all of the truly important issues facing the world, HBHTI diverts energy and attention from more constructive endeavors. It also prevents heterosexuals from accepting the benefits and gifts offered by LGBTI people, including theoretical insights, social and spiritual visions and options, contributions in the arts and culture, to religion, to education, to family life, indeed, to all facets of society. Ultimately, it inhibits appreciation of other types of diversity, making it unsafe for everyone because each person has unique traits not considered mainstream or dominant. Therefore, we are all diminished when any one of us is demeaned.

The meaning is quite clear. When any group of people is scapegoated, it is ultimately everyone’s concern. For today, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people are targeted. Tomorrow, they may come for you. Everyone, therefore, has a self interest in actively working to dismantle all the many forms of bigotry, including homophobia.

We are all born into an environment polluted by homophobia, biphobia, heterosexism, transgender oppression, and intersex oppression (among many other forms of oppression), which fall upon us like acid rain. For some people, spirits are tarnished to the core, others are marred on the surface, and no one is completely protected. Therefore, we all have a responsibility, indeed an opportunity, to join together as allies to construct protective shelters from the corrosive effects of bigotry while working to clean up the oppressive environment in which we live. Once sufficient steps are taken to reduce this pollution, we will all breathe a lot easier.”

I recommend the work and the materials of the Family Diversity Project  which has developed programs to teach youth and adults to understand and welcome diversity. I will end this page with the words of youth, writing about what they have wished their schools to do or what they appreciate about what their schools have done. These quotes are from the highly recommended collection of student writings: Queer Youth Advice for Educators: How to Respect and Protect Your Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender students.

[If I were bullied at school] I wouldn’t tell anyone else about it because I don’t think my teachers/parents would be any more accepting of my sexuality than the harasser. – Adam I have been to so many schools . . . I don’t know why, I just keep moving. I guess I was looking for someplace I would feel right. Not feel bad, freaked out. And someplace where the teachers would appreciate me. – Marcela

I have to stand up for my people when people start calling them out. And when the teacher says nothing, I’m like, “Miss? What? Are you ignoring this mess? Someone is being stepped on here for who they are and that is not right.”’Cause MLK and Rosa Parks are who got to fight for civil rights for African-Americans. Now for us, it’s getting to fight for LGBT rights at the same time. Even if you’re white it doesn’t matter. – deshaun

I had one teacher who specifically stood up for one guy being teased. He said to stop taunting him about being gay, and that it wasn’t anything wrong. It’s been four years, and I still remember that. It made aworld of difference to me to hear someone say that. – charles

My counselor is a huge sweetheart. She has all the conversations with my teachers and the principal, so I don’t have worry about it. I just adore her. – alexandria

Last week, my TA [teacher’s assistant] in my class stood up for me when my history teacher called me a gay and wrote So Gay on my paper. All theother kids were laughing at me and I was so upset I left school without permission. But my TA left the class too, she just like stood up and got her purse and left, and she was so upset she was crying. She wrote a letter to the principal saying that the teacher’s actions were unacceptable. I would have dropped out if not for her. I love her, she is my hero.– larissa

I think that they should make it a policy—intervening at least. Even though some people might not agree with being gay, it’s like their words are still hurting somebody and it’s putting somebody in the classroom, you don’t know who it could be, in an unsafe feeling. And at school that’s just not, anywhere, not okay. People are people and they deserve to feel safe and to be equal to other people. – amanda

For more information about what adults and peers can do, see Youth Voice Project: Student Insights Into Bullying And Peer Harassment


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