Things Are (Sort of) Getting Better for LGBT Students

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Despite historically high acceptance of LGBT Americans, schools are still slow to adapt.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

With public attitudes toward gay and lesbian relationships at a historic high, one American institution essential for shaping the lives of LGBT citizens is slowly but steadily following suit: schools.

That’s the conclusion of a new report by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network released Wednesday, detailing attitudes toward gay and lesbian teenagers among secondary school students and teachers in the United States. The report, which surveyed students between the ages of 13 and 18 in 1,367 secondary schools and 1,015 teachers, was a follow-up to a previous GLSEN report from 2005.

The results of the data are promising: LGBT students report fewer experiences with biased language (i.e. homophobic remarks or offhand slurs like “that’s so gay”) and fewer instances of victimization or threatened safety. With a meaningful decrease in potentially traumatizing experiences for LGBT students — 65 percent of students reported hearing homophobic remarks in 2015 compared to 75.7 percent in 2005 — the message is clear: Things are getting better, slowly and surely. “Anti-LGBT remarks and slurs are still extremely high, but they are less so than a decade ago,” says GLSEN director of research Emily Greytak.*

Student-reported teacher interventions over homophobic remarks actually declined from 59.5 percent in 2005 to 50.3 percent in 2015.

While bullying based on sexual orientation has decreased since 2005, it is still extremely common—a fact that can have catastrophic results on LGBT kids’ psyches. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey data, LGBT students are far more likely than their heterosexual peers to abuse drugs and alcohol, suffer from sexual dating violence and physical threats, and attempt suicide. The GLSEN report reinforces the role of bullying and social isolation in catalyzing these negative health behaviors: LGBT students are more likely to miss school, get detention, and withdraw from the education system after high school due to their negative experiences.

Why aren’t U.S. secondary schools adapting to the new reality of LGBT equality faster? According to the GLSEN report, one the major issues isn’t students (88 percent of whom say they “did not have a problem” with their LGBT peers), but rather the teachers. The GLSEN report reveals that student-reported teacher interventions over homophobic remarks actually declined from 59.5 percent in 2005 to 50.3 percent in 2015; at the same time, students reported more instances of hearing homophobic remarks from teachers themselves, up to 9.8 percent in 2015 from 6 percent in 2005.

(Charts: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network)

To Greytek, these trends may signal a small backlash among some teachers. “Ten years ago, LGBT issues were virtually absent from American high schools,” she says. “As youth are more out and open in schools and as these schools are adjusting their policy, there’s more opportunity to backlash. In 2005, there often wasn’t a need to voice any opposition. Teachers aren’t necessarily getting less tolerant, but people who are less informed have more opportunities to make these feelings known.”

Teachers just simply don’t have the time or resources to invest in the appropriate training or programs to help LGBT students tackle daily issues of bias and victimization, Greytek says. Indeed, the GLSEN data shows that only half of surveyed teachers reported engaging with LGBT-related topics in the classroom, despite the fact that some 83 percent agreed that school personnel “have an obligation to ensure safe and supportive learning environments” for LGBT students. Only half said their school anti-bullying policies explicitly addressed LGBT-related bullying.

“Teachers are aware of the difficult times LGBT students experience in schools, but part of the problem is that it’s an increased responsibility for educators,” Greytek says. “Teachers are increasingly burdened with the challenges of school bureaucracy, training, and political pressures in terms of teacher assessment and accountability. There may simply not be as much of an opportunity to focus on things they won’t be evaluated on.”

That responsibility lands, then, on the shoulders of administrators. While the majority of teachers undergo professional development to address bullying, the GLSEN reports that only 32.9 percent received training on LGB issues, and less than a quarter were trained on transgender issues. This training—and the presence of clear policies regarding anti-LGBT harassment—matter, for such teachers “reported higher levels of comfort addressing bullying based on sexual orientation,” according to the GLSEN report. The absence of clear directions, training, and support for already-overburdened teachers only exacerbates the chances of harassment or abuse by those 12 percent of students who explicitly told GLSEN they weren’t OK with their LGBT peers.

There’s a bit of a silver lining in the GLSEN analysis of anti-bullying efforts: While teacher interventions declined from 2005 to 2015, students themselves were more likely in 2015 to intervene when they heard homophobic talk compared to 2005.

Of course, peer interventions aren’t enough. “Bystander and student intervention is incredibly important, and peer intervention can have a huge impact, but it’s staff and administration that sets the tone in a school,” Greytek says. “Student intervention isn’t a long-term solution. It’s the adult’s responsibility, not the students’ responsibility.”

*Update— September 28, 2016: This article had originally stated that 65.7 percent of students reported hearing homophobic remarks in 2005; that number was, in fact, 75.7.