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High School Is Still a Living Nightmare for Queer Teens

A new study found that LGBTQ students report being victimized for sexual orientation, gender expression, gender, appearance/body size, and disability more often than their non-LGBTQ peers. School environments may be so hostile that some students are...
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Despite changing attitudes that have resulted in more LGBTQ-inclusive policies across the country, a new report from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that LGBTQ students in middle and high school still experience more bullying and harassment, are more likely to skip school or drop out altogether because they feel unsafe, and are disciplined more than straight, cisgender students.


The report, From Teasing to Torment: School Climate Revisited, is a follow-up to a GLSEN study released in 2005—the first to analyze the differences in experience for LGBT and non-LGBT youth in schools nationwide. Findings in this year's study, which polled 1,367 secondary school students age 13-18, and 1,015 secondary school teachers, determined that "although the overall landscape for secondary schools in the U.S. is gradually improving in regards to school safety and climate, the current educational environment for many students remains troublesome."

"Society has changed in many positive ways," Emily Greytak, GLSEN's director of research, told The Atlantic, "and we assumed schools would follow suit."

Read more: Queer Teens Facing 'Unacceptable' Levels of Physical and Sexual Violence

But according to the report, schools are still "rife with bias," and bullying and harassment are still huge concerns. Almost 74 percent of students said they had been victimized by a peer in the past school year, and one-fifth reported verbal harassment based on gender expression or sexual orientation.

"LGBTQ students experienced more victimization based on sexual orientation, gender expression, gender, appearance/body size, and disability than non-LGBTQ students," the report's authors write. "They also more frequently experienced sexual harassment, having rumors/lies spread about them, property damage, and cyberbullying."


The school environment may be so hostile, in fact, that some students would rather skip classes, drop out, or discontinue their education after high school altogether. The report found that LGBTQ students were nearly twice as likely to say they did not intend to go to college (9.6 percent vs. 5.7 percent of non-LGBTQ students) or even plan to finish high school (2.7 percent vs. 0.8 percent of non-LGBTQ students).

Another troubling finding from GLSEN's research was that LGBTQ students were more likely to be disciplined than their non-LGBT peers: 63.8 percent of LGBTQ students reported getting in trouble with school authorities, as opposed to 45.8 percent. The disparity was similar among gender nonconforming students (55.2 percent) compared to gender conforming students (45.9 percent).

"Whereas LGBTQ students are disciplined for a variety of reasons, previous research from GLSEN's National School Climate Survey and others suggests that LGBTQ students may be disciplined for being open about their identity or breaking rules that are not enforced for their non-LGBTQ peers," the report states. "LGBTQ youth who are gender nonconforming may also be more likely to face school discipline due to school rules that prohibit some types of nonconforming gender expression, such as gendered dress codes."

On a brighter note, researchers also found that a majority of secondary teachers (83.3 percent) believed it was their responsibility to ensure "a safe and supportive learning environment for LGBT students." Yet when it came time to intervene when they witnessed bullying, they were the least comfortable when the harassment had to do with a student's actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.


"Many just at a very fundamental level don't know what to do," says Geoffrey Winder, co-executive director at the Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network (formerly the Gay-Straight Alliance Network). "Some of the most common excuses as to why teachers don't intervene that we hear are they are afraid of saying the wrong thing, they're afraid of getting in trouble with administration if they don't have that support, or they are afraid of being perceived as being LGBTQ themselves."

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Winders says in addition to confirming that the experiences of LGBTQ youth continue to be plagued with more violence than their heterosexual peers, the GLSEN report also shows that teachers lack the resources they need to properly intervene when necessary. "Both student and teacher efforts are needed in changing school cultures and climates," he says.

One solution the GLSEN report points to is the presence of a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), or a similar organization that addresses LGBTQ issue, in schools. (Other suggestions include better teacher training, more LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, and better anti-bullying policies.) Not only do GSAs offer LGBTQ students support, the mere visibility of such an organization was also found to be related "to greater safety and less victimization for the general student body," the report found.

Winder says "the presence of GSA sends a strong message about what is acceptable and who is welcome at a school. They are peer-led social justice clubs at a time when youth culture is increasingly embracing social justice and 'being woke.'"