Laura's daughter Jess came out as a lesbian in seventh grade. Her counselors have been largely supportive. Laura remarks:
I've been absolutely astonished that she has not received the level of harassment that would have accompanied such an announcement during my middle school years. We are really happy for that. Her guidance counselors have been especially wonderful and might be a resource for parents if they were facing a homophobic teacher or administrator, since the counselors are better trained to handle these kinds of identity issues.
Still, there have been issues. The one time Laura did call her daughter’s school (located in the suburban midwest), it was about an incident that occurred at a school dance. A hired DJ mistook Jess for a boy and then proceeded to make fun of her — especially when she lined up with the girls as the kids were divided along gender lines for activities. Laura explains:
His assumption that girls would dance with boys just made Jess feel marginalized and unsure about how to respond. She tried to play along like it was funny, but it bothered her on a deeper level.
Laura got a positive response when she called the principal about it. She explained that the boy/girl divide at dances reinforces conventional expectations about gender and sexual orientation — pressures that are hard for Jess to conform to, but that also affect students who are grappling with their identities and who deserve a safe and inclusive school. The principal thanked Laura for bringing the issue to her attention, saying that the administration would address it and make changes for future dances and activities. The principal also indicated that she was open to more conversations if other issues arose in the future, and to feel free to speak with her again.
Homophobia in Schools
Despite Jess's relatively positive and supportive experience in junior high, she is still known at school as "the gay kid." While Laura is proud of her daughter for feeling empowered enough to come out in seventh grade, she did worry about the additional burdens that coming out would place on her, and the level of maturity that it would require of her.
Homophobia, unfortunately, persists as a major problem in schools. The issue arises not only among kids, but at times, even with adults — like the DJ at Jess’s dance. It’s important for teachers, mentors, and administrators to model tolerance and acceptance. They need not only to be allies to all students, but also to show them how to be supportive, as well. Such inclusion and acceptance benefit both straight-identified students and their LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer) classmates by creating an environment that is safe and comfortable for everyone.
When Teachers Don’t Intervene
Sadly, educators frequently contribute to intolerant school communities. A 2012 survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that only 24 percent of teachers had tried to create a supportive environment in their classrooms, though more than half of them had heard or witnessed homophobic behavior or language. This reluctance can be explained, in part, by another study that revealed that gay and lesbian teachers themselves feared retaliation if they fought back against prejudice based on sexual orientation. While 59 percent of these teachers had witnessed homophobic behavior among other educators, only about one-third reported that the actions had been challenged or censured. Moreover, a stunning 62 percent were concerned they might be fired if they came out at their schools.
Despite some improvement in recent years, homophobia among kids remains rampant in schools, with nearly 85 percent of LGBTQ students hearing homophobic language and almost 82 percent reporting harassment in their learning environments. This same study also found a correlation between how safe students feel and their academic performance. Not surprisingly, kids who suffer from homophobic harassment skip class more often and have lower GPAs than do kids who don’t suffer from such harassment.
As Michael Woodford, assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan, found in his 2012 study, being subjected to homophobic experiences can cause severe stress that results in an assortment of health problems, including headaches and eating issues. And tragically, the stress of harassment in school can become unbearable. LGBTQ youth are twice as likely as straight-identified kids to commit suicide.
How Parents Can Make a Difference
If you're parenting a child who identifies as LGBTQ, you may have concerns that she is not getting enough support at school. Ideally, LGBTQ children will have safe, supportive spaces in schools, with teachers skilled in managing any intolerance that may emerge in classes, in hallways, or on playgrounds. Since a supportive environment at school is crucial for your child’s academic and social development, what can you do if her teachers or school administrators exhibit homophobia?
1. Respect your child's privacy. Most experts agree that your child should not be outed by you — this is a decision that she will come to in her own time. That said, you can still advocate for the rights of LGBTQ youth, regardless of your child’s sexual orientation or identity.
2. Share educational materials with the school. Many LGBTQ organizations have free kits and materials that educate adults on the importance of creating safe spaces and supportive environments for LGBTQ youth. For example, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network publishes a Back-to-School Guide for Creating LGBT-Inclusive Environments, and Teaching Tolerance has material titled Tips for Teachers.
3. Urge your child's teacher to educate the class on anti-discriminatory and anti-harassment behaviors, and to confront homophobic behavior when it is witnessed. These lessons benefit every student and are crucial for healthy socialization.
4. Encourage the teacher to incorporate the work of prominent artists, writers, politicians, and other notable historical figures who identify/identified as LGBTQ. It is important to make the study of LGBTQ history a part of the study of history in school.
5. Advocate for a tolerant environment. Explain to school leaders and teachers that every student benefits from an anti-harassment policy and a learning environment free from intolerance.
6. Encourage the school to create and enforce an anti-bullying policy. Saying and doing nothing gives bullies tacit approval and actively harms victims, even if these effects aren’t immediately visible.
7. Encourage your child's school to create safe spaces for LGBTQ youth. These may take the forms of alliances or clubs.
8. Seek out the support of your child’s guidance counselor. A counselor can act as an ally who advocates on behalf of your child.
9. If your child's teacher is unresponsive, move up the hierarchy. Go to the principal, the superintendent, or even to your state’s department of education. Many communities have anti-harassment laws in place, and you’re likely to find allies among administrators and officials.
Find further support on this page about LGBTQ issues in education, where you can read expert-written articles and ask any questions you have.
Further Resources for Parents and Educators:
Ford, Z. (2012, August 29). STUDY: Hearing ‘That’s So Gay’ Causes Negative Health Effects. Retrieved September 16, 2015, from Think Progress.
Ford, Z. (2012, September 5). GLSEN Releases New School Climate Report: 82 Percent Of LGBT Students Still Encounter Verbal Harassment. Retrieved September 13, 2015, from Think Progress.
James, S. (2012, January 19). Homophobia Starts in Elementary School; Teachers Do Little. Retrieved September 14, 2015, from ABC News.
Kreider, H. (2013, August 1). Study: Gay and lesbian teachers fear retaliation in face of homophobia at school. Retrieved September 13, 2015, from GLADD.
Villarica, H. (2012, March 2). Professional Help: Tips for Parents of LGBT Kids on Preventing Suicide. Retrieved September 13, 2015, from The Atlantic.
Woodford, M., Howell, M., Silverschanz, P., & Yu, L. (2012). “That's So Gay!”: Examining the Covariates of Hearing This Expression Among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual College Students. Journal of American College Health, 429–434.