Homophobia Is Alive and Well in Our Schools…
A 2021 Gallup poll indicated Generation Z is more likely to self-identify as LGBT than any prior generation. Could the burgeoning likelihood to identify as LGBTQIA+ in younger generations potentially translate to decreased homophobia and transphobia in schools? Unfortunately, not yet.
A 2021 report by a researcher at Western Sydney University found 9 in 10 LGBTQ+ students experienced homophobic language at school. Only 6 percent of adults intervened during these encounters. The report notes that how teachers talk about LGBTQ+ identities directly impacts students' academic self-concept or likelihood to say, "I am good at school."
Slurs at school can harm mental health
Hearing homophobic or transphobic slurs at school can have lasting consequences. Academically, such language can lead to decreased attendance, poor self-esteem at school and low academic achievement.
However, the impact doesn't stop at academics. Mental health is also on the line, with the likelihood of suicide increasing when LGBTQIA+ students experience homophobic language, especially without subsequent adult intervention. Amy Green, Ph.D., vice president of research at The Trevor Project, said LGBTQIA+ students who were bullied in the past year had a three times greater likelihood of attempting suicide compared to students who were not bullied.
While we all have internalized ideas of what bullying looks like, missing key behaviors can lead to leaving kids in need behind. GLSEN's senior youth programs manager, a.t. Furuya, said, "Anti-LGBTQ behavior comes in all shapes and sizes: biased language, name-calling, harassment and even physical assault."
The ramifications of bullying are widespread. According to GLSEN's 2019 National School Climate Survey, 77.6 percent of students avoided school functions and extracurriculars because they felt unsafe.
Fighting homophobic and transphobic language in schools requires a multipronged approach, from antidiscrimination written into school policy, correcting the behavior when it happens and support from parents and teachers.
How and when teachers should intervene
GLSEN's survey found that "less than one-fifth of LGBTQ students (13.7 percent) reported that school staff intervened most of the time or always when overhearing homophobic remarks at school."
According to The Trevor Project's 2019 research brief, LGBTQIA+ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year. It's not only an act of allyship when parents and teachers respond to homophobic language—it's imperative and could save lives.
With that in mind, when a teacher or school staff member hears homophobic or transphobic language in the hallway, on the school bus or in a classroom, what exactly should they do?
Furuya recommends stopping the behavior at the moment it's happening rather than waiting for a better time.
"Make sure that everyone can hear you. Never miss the opportunity to interrupt the behavior. Remember: No action is an action—if an incident is overlooked or not addressed, it can imply acceptance and approval," they said.
- Describe what you saw and label the behavior. For example, "I heard you use the word f*****, and that is derogatory and is considered name-calling. That language is unacceptable," Furuya said.
- Make sure to educate after stopping the behavior. Furuya recommends scheduling time to meet with the student(s) on the same day of the incident or as soon as possible. Ask the student why they said what they did and where they learned it from. "This will help get to the root of the issue," they said. "Maybe they did not actually know what it meant but heard someone else use it. It is important to give youth the opportunity to understand the impact of their behavior and transform. If you or your school has restorative practices, this is a great opportunity to engage the student in the process."
- Support the student who has been the target of name-calling, bullying or harassment. Furuya said it's crucial to follow up with the student who was victimized. Pull them aside one-on-one and ask if they are OK or what they might need. Give them the opportunity to express themself without forming assumptions about what they are experiencing. Furuya recommends an iteration of the following: "Hey, just wanted to check in and see if there is anything I can do to support you? I want you to know that what was said to you was not OK."
How can parents help?
When a child comes home and tells a caregiver about the homophobic language they experienced, it's crucial to listen and take it seriously. It's also essential to recognize that often, it's challenging for children to tell their parents about being bullied.
Furuya said, with permission from your child, document the incident and contact a school staff member. With your child's consent, talk to fellow parents to determine if other children are experiencing similar bullying or name-calling.
It's vital for parents to understand their child's experience and do the work of educating themselves to be more informed about their kid's identity. Allyship is more than love and support—it means considering subtle ways you contribute to homophobia at home. Model the world you want to see for your LGBTQIA+ child at home.
The majority of states in the U.S. fail to implement antidiscrimination laws to protect LGBTQIA+ students. In fact, acts like the "Parental Rights in Education" bill in Florida (dubbed by opponents the "Don't Say Gay" bill) propose that school districts "may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels." And recently, Texas governor Greg Abbott ordered state agencies to investigate "licensed professionals who have direct contact with children who may be subject" to gender-affirming care, which the governor calls abuse. The investigations may be conducted on doctors, nurses—and teachers.
In the face of turbulent state action, individual school policies can help unite staff and offer a shared framework for what to do when a student is the victim of bullying, at least by classmates.
Human Rights Watch reports that progress to protect LGBT students is uneven. Even among those school districts that have implemented antidiscrimination policies, some go unenforced, leaving LGBTQIA+ students vulnerable to bullying.
"Parents and teachers can help by advocating for policies that establish zero tolerance for anti-LGBTQIA+ bullying and harassment, implement cultural competence training for school staff, expand mental health counseling and suicide prevention resources, and promote LGBTQIA+ inclusion, particularly among transgender and nonbinary students," Green said.
She added that LGBTQIA+ students experience less bullying when their school is LGBTQIA+-affirming.
"We consistently advocate for LGBTQIA+-affirming school policies, not only to reduce bullying but also to increase support for LGBTQIA+ students and to foster positive health outcomes and academic success," she said. "It should give us hope to know that if we build supportive environments, LGBTQIA+ youth can feel safer and have the chance to thrive."
Furuya advocates for all schools to implement Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs), which can be a lifeline for LGBTQIA+ students to feel safer at school. GLSEN's National School Climate Survey found that compared to LGBTQIA+ students without a GSA, students with a GSA or similar student club were less likely to hear homophobic slurs and transphobic slurs; more likely to report that school staff intervened when homophobic language was used; less likely to miss school because of safety concerns; and felt a greater sense of belonging to their school.
Homophobia and transphobia create an unsafe school environment for teachers and students alike. "One of the most effective ways you can act in allyship is to respond to anti-LGBTQ behavior," Furuya said.
If your child is struggling or at risk of harming themself, Trevor Project is available 24/7 to support LGBTQIA+ youth.