On the third day of the workshop, panelists and workshop participants discussed how schools and the educational system can impact the health and well-being of LGBTQ youth, and they identified promising interventions to improve the school environment and to improve health and academic outcomes for LGBTQ youth.
In schools, LGBTQ youth experience higher levels of bullying, harassment, and victimization from both peers and educators, said Stacey Horn (University of Minnesota). There are disparities in access to affirming and supportive resources, such as inclusive curricula, comprehensive sexual education, use of preferred names and pronouns, and access to bathrooms that match gender identity. LGBTQ youth also experience high levels of exclusionary and punitive discipline, which particularly affects youth of color, and transgender and nonbinary youth. Emerging research, said Horn, documents a link between being bullied and being punished; more research is needed in this area.
Paul Poteat (Boston College) elaborated on issues of harassment and bullying, belonging and inclusion, and discipline. In the past two decades, there have been some tempered improvements in the extent to which LGBTQ youth report harassment, bullying, and discrimination at school, said Poteat (Poteat et al., 2020; Goodenow et al., 2016; Birkett et al., 2015). However, he cautioned, it is not clear that there is a linear trend toward improvement;
he noted that sociopolitical events can lead to significant spikes in victimization of LGBTQ youth (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019; Gower et al., 2018). For example, the current wave of anti-trans legislation in multiple states can impact the school environment. He also cautioned that these data tend to reflect LGBTQ youth as a monolithic group; there is an absence of research examining the school experience for trans and nonbinary youth and LGBTQ youth of color. Youth of color experience multiple oppressions at the same time, he said, and discrimination can be experienced intersectionally (Kosciw et al., 2020; Hatchel and Marx, 2018). Poteat emphasized the importance of recognizing these unique challenges while also recognizing that LGBTQ youth of color “hold exceptional strengths and resilience and have unique sources of social support.” Another area in which consistent disparities exist between LGBTQ youth and their peers is in their reports of school safety, belonging, and inclusion. For example, inclusivity can be evaluated by the heteronormativity and cisnormativity of curricula, whether LGBTQ topics are systematically excluded from curricula, and the visibility (or lack thereof) of LGBTQ people in school spaces (Kuhlemeier et al., 2021; Kosciw et al., 2020; Snapp et al., 2015). Disparities in school safety, belonging, and inclusion are wider for trans youth and LGBTQ youth of color, said Poteat (Coulter et al., 2021; Kosciw et al., 2009; Russell and McGuire, 2008). Finally, LGBTQ youth are disproportionately disciplined and punished at school, and there are heightened disparities at the intersections of sexual orientation, gender, and race. LGBTQ youth are more likely to be punished, and to be punished more severely, for the same infractions as their heterosexual and cisgender peers; punishments may include office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions (Horn and Schriber, 2020; Mittleman, 2018; Poteat et al., 2016; Chmielewski et al., 2016; Snapp et al., 2015; Himmelstein and Brückner, 2011).
The health and academic consequences of these disparities are clear, said Horne. She argued that “hostile and toxic” school environments lead to negative outcomes, including compromised mental health, negative coping mechanisms, risk-taking, and poor education outcomes such as lack of engagement. Poteat elaborated on the evidence regarding academic consequences for LGBTQ youth (Day et al., 2018; Sansone, 2019; Kosciw et al., 2013; Poteat et al., 2011; Pearson et al., 2007). LGBTQ youth have higher absenteeism than their peers, said Poteat, with levels further elevated for transgender and nonbinary youth. Often, this is because LGBTQ youth feel unsafe at school, and being absent is one of the few strategies available to avoid victimization and discrimination, said Poteat. There is also evidence suggesting that LGBTQ youth enroll in fewer advanced math and science courses and receive lower grades overall. Despite this, he said, the standardized test scores of LGBTQ students are not necessarily lower than those of their peers. LGBTQ youth are more likely to leave school at least once
before attaining a high school degree or equivalent, and they are less likely to apply to college, attend college, or complete college (Sansone, 2019; Pearson and Wilkinson, 2017; Aragon et al., 2014). There are limited data on long-term outcomes, said Poteat, but there is evidence of workplace discrimination and income inequities for LGBTQ individuals (Cech and Rothwell, 2020; Sears and Mallory, 2011; Carpenter, 2007).
While the disparities are wide and persistent, said Poteat, there is a robust body of research on interventions that can ameliorate some of these disparities (Ioverno et al., 2021; Poteat et al., 2020; Kull et al., 2016; Marx and Kettrey, 2016; Hatzenbuehler et al., 2015b; Snapp et al., 2015; Russell et al., 2010). Poteat highlighted four main categories of interventions:
- Inclusive and enumerated policies1 that cover issues such as discrimination, bullying, harassment, and inclusive access for transgender and nonbinary youth;
- Ongoing educator professional development to teach about sexual orientation and gender identity, the biases that LGBTQ youth face and the consequences of these biases, and how to intervene and improve school climate;
- Student-based support groups such as GSAs; and
- Inclusive curricula and school resources.
These interventions have been shown to reduce disparities and improve the health and well-being of LGBTQ students, said Horn. LGBTQ-inclusive and enumerated policies are associated with a more positive school climate, decreased bullying and harassment, and increased student well-being and success. LGBTQ-supportive teachers are associated with an increased perception of safety and belonging, better attendance, and higher academic performance. Educator professional development around LGBTQ issues is associated with decreased bullying and harassment, more positive school climate, and increased student well-being and success. Participating in an LGBTQ school support group or GSA is associated with an increased sense of school safety and belonging, higher academic performance, increased civic involvement and participation, and more positive mental and physical health. Even for students who do not participate in the school GSA or club, the mere presence of the club is related to an increased sense of school safety, said Horn. LGBTQ-inclusive curricula lead to decreased bullying and harassment, a more positive school climate, increased sense of school safety, and higher levels of school attendance. Other resources inclusive of LGBTQ identities (e.g., sex education, library information) have led to
1 Sexual orientation and gender identity are included as categories, and the policies enumerate protections for these specific categories.
more positive school climate, perceptions that adults are supportive and fair, and increased student well-being. In short, said Horn, reducing bullying, harassment, and discrimination, and increasing access and support lead to a more positive school climate and an increased sense of safety and belonging. In turn, these outcomes are related to increased overall well-being, more positive mental and physical health, and higher levels of school engagement and academic success. While Horn noted that this may not seem like a complex set of interventions, implementation can be complicated. This is in part because schools are state governed and there are few federal policies addressing issues of school safety and belonging. As a result, school contexts can vary significantly across states and school districts.
To complement these formal interventions, said Poteat, there is a need to recognize the value of practices and relationships within the school environment; a respectful and affirming school climate is key to ensuring LGBTQ youth safety (Poteat et al., 2021; Kosciw et al., 2020; Colvin et al., 2019; Day et al., 2019; Gower et al., 2018). Encouragingly, said Poteat, research indicates that a large majority of LGBTQ youth can name more than one adult at school who is supportive and willing to help. In addition to teachers and staff, LGBTQ youth look to their peers for mutual support.
Horn identified several knowledge gaps that would benefit from more research. Compared to lesbian and gay youth, less is known about types of interventions that can improve the well-being of trans and nonbinary youth, bisexual youth, and LGBTQ youth of color. Most available evidence is on interventions to reduce negative outcomes; less is known about interventions that enhance positive youth development. More research on the ways school-level supports relate to other system contexts (e.g., juvenile justice), and the impact of macro-level strategies, such as state policies on training, would also be valuable. Poteat noted that there is a gap in research on the ways policies and practices work in combination to shape the school experiences of LGBTQ youth. He concurred with Horn about the need to identify ways to adapt or tailor interventions for specific groups of LGBTQ youth, such as youth of color or trans and nonbinary youth. Finally, said Poteat, targeted research is needed on academic outcomes for LGBTQ youth, including learning processes, academic performance, and career preparation and advancement.
In closing, Horn identified several promising approaches for implementing interventions and furthering the evidence base, including whole-school and whole-district strategies, multisector collaborations, and practice-to-research-to-practice partnerships. These approaches require courageous leadership at all levels, she said.
Kezia Gilyard is the LGBTQ coordinator for Broward County Public Schools. Gilyard noted that Broward County was the first district in the state of Florida, and one of the very first in the nation, to dedicate a full-time, paid position to supporting LGBTQ students. Gilyard shared their experiences in this role. They highlighted how important it is for those who are working to support LGBTQ students to become knowledgeable about their privilege and the people that they serve. Gilyard noted that, while many advocates aim to dissect and dismantle systems of oppression, it is also valuable to be aware of one’s own privileges and how they “show up when we are trying to serve others.” Gilyard also highlighted the value of offering a full-time paid position for staff supporting and advocating for LGBTQ students. Gilyard was previously a classroom teacher and was doing work to support LGBTQ youth as a volunteer before their current full-time role was created.
Gilyard emphasized the importance of training teachers, staff, and administrators for improving the health and well-being of LGBTQ students. Professional development can be tiered, they said, with a small group of professionals receiving the most advanced training, a larger group receiving a medium amount of training, and everyone receiving basic training. Staff benefit from courses that are available at various times of the day and the week, and incentives can encourage participation (e.g., direct payments, certificates, awards, additional resources). Gilyard emphasized that all staff benefit from training, including school resource officers and other security staff; and noted that a variety of roles benefit from training that is specific to their responsibilities in schools
Supporting trans students is an important part of advocating for LGBTQ students, said Gilyard. As LGBTQ coordinator, Gilyard develops a trans accommodation plan for any student who needs one. This plan includes details about the bathrooms and locker rooms that the student will use and ensures that staff understand the student’s rights and privileges. Students are given the option to involve their parents; “we never out students,” Gilyard said. Gilyard holds a meeting with the student, counselors, social workers, parents, and other involved parties, and they discuss a breadth of topics, from mental health to survival sex work to involvement in sports. The record of the meeting usually “only sits with one person” and privacy, confidentiality, and safety are paramount concerns in the meeting process and in records management.
Gilyard encouraged those who work with youth to “advertise that you are an ally.” They noted that many young people they work with
assume that all adults are homophobic or transphobic, and said that allies who want to create safe spaces need to “queer up” their spaces. For example, Broward County offers badges, posters, stickers, and other resources for people to show their allyship. Another of Gilyard’s responsibilities is coordinating the youth-led district GSA summit. Gilyard stressed that they do not plan the summit and highlighted the importance of youths planning events for youths because youths know best what other youths need to get out of the events and programs.
Gilyard also emphasized the importance of engaging with leadership, both in schools and in the community. As a school district employee, Gilyard said, red tape prevents them from doing certain things. Likewise, the work of community organizations is restricted because these organizers do not operate in schools. Gilyard holds meetings that bring together the school superintendent, parents, students, principals, teachers, counselors, and community organizations to discuss how to collaborate to best support students and fill gaps in support between school, family, and community. For example, the school district partners with an organization that matches LGBTQ mentors with LGBTQ mentees, similar to the Big Brother/Big Sister program. Another collaboration includes the Safe to Be Me Coalition, which engages students, educators, families, community partners, healthcare professionals, faith leaders, and other professionals who work directly with children and want to ensure that LGBTQ students thrive. Gilyard noted that the LGBTQ coordinator position has no budget. As a result, Gilyard has to be creative with grants and find innovative ways to pay for events and resources, including through the previously mentioned community collaborations. Gilyard said it is very important that events are free and accessible to all, with an emphasis on ensuring that the most vulnerable members of the population are centered. Finally, Gilyard pointed workshop participants to the Broward County LGBTQ Critical Support Guide,2 a free resource to help schools improve the health and well-being of LGBTQ students.
Alison Macklin (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) focused her presentation on comprehensive sex education (CSE), a programmatic K–12 framework that focuses on developmentally and age-appropriate sex education and information. Macklin explained that CSE involves more than talking about reproduction and disease prevention, it also covers soft skills such as communication and decision making, and engages students with information “outside of the typical heterosexual
lens,” including information on gender identity and sexual orientation. As a K–12 framework, CSE is implemented through a scaffolding process. For example, younger children learn basic information about consent by talking about hugging; this information can be built on as a student grows up.
To support the implementation of CSE, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) developed and published the National Sex Education Standards in conjunction with sexual health experts and child development experts. Like math or literacy standards, these standards can assist schools in designing and delivering sex education at every grade level, said Macklin. In addition to developing the national standards, SIECUS advances CSE through policy, advocacy, education, and communication. Currently, 33 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education; however, 13 of these states do not require the education to be age appropriate, medically accurate, culturally responsive, or evidence based. Only 9 states require culturally responsive sex education and HIV/sexually transmitted infection (STI) instruction, and only 10 states have policies that include affirming sexual orientation instruction on LGBTQ identities or discussion of sexual health for LGBTQ youth. Macklin also noted that 7 states explicitly require instruction that discriminates against LGBTQ people.
Macklin emphasized that when young people receive sex education, they have better sexual health outcomes, such as fewer unintended pregnancies and STIs. However, said Macklin, CSE encompasses much more than pregnancy and STI reduction. Research demonstrates that youths who engage in a CSE curriculum have better social and emotional well-being. CSE is holistic, inclusive, trauma-informed, and focuses on reproductive justice. Further, Macklin explained, CSE can help create a culture shift on issues including LGBTQ equality, sexual violence prevention, gender equity, reproductive justice, and dismantling white supremacy. CSE shifts the sex education dialogue away from heteronormativity, said Macklin, and acknowledges and affirms sexual orientation and gender identity in a positive way.
Education policy is largely made at the state and local level, noted Macklin. At the federal level, there is opportunity for positive change in terms of promoting existing civil and human rights; in addition, the Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act was recently introduced. This law would ensure that all public schools receive CSE based on the national framework, and would provide funds to school districts for implementation, training, and purchasing of curricula. At the state level, there is model legislation called the Healthy Youth Act, which would ensure that comprehensive curricula are taught in schools that offer sex education. As of the date of the workshop, the Healthy Youth Act had been passed in Colorado, California, and Illinois. On the local level, SIECUS works with school boards to assure that policies are inclusive and supportive of all young people, regardless of orientation or identity.
Macklin identified several interventions that would help advance CSE. First, she said, CSE is best supported when community members, parents, and students understand what is being taught in their schools. Second, CSE can be better supported when the sex-education conversation acknowledges that CSE can also create culture change, create safe spaces for students, and help students become more respectful and inclusive. Third, CSE can be advanced when the public participates in policy-related discussions about changes to sexual education, whether the proposed changes are positive or negative. Fourth, CSE can be advanced in an incremental way, said Macklin. For example, last year, language was removed from an Alabama bill that would have criminalized homosexuality, impacting the ability of sex education programs to address sexual orientation and gender identity in their curricula. Finally, Macklin called on advocates to work against the well-funded opponents of CSE. This vocal minority’s goal, she said, is to stop comprehensive sex education “because they know how powerful it can be in changing not only school culture and climate but the societal culture.”
GSA Network works to support GSA youth clubs in California and across the country, said Geoffrey Winder (GSA Network). GSA clubs were previously called Gay Straight Alliance clubs and are now referred to as either Genders and Sexualities Alliance clubs or just GSA clubs; some have creative names such as Rainbow Club or Diversity Club. In California, the majority of the students in GSA clubs are youth of color. However, said Winder, there are limitations on how GSAs support trans and queer youth of color. GSA Network’s tagline, said Winder, is “Trans and queer youth uniting for racial and gender justice.” This motto acknowledges that outcomes and conditions for LGBTQ youth of color cannot be improved without addressing the systemic issues that face youth of color in general, for example, the school-to-prison pipeline. LGBTQ youth of color are impacted by racism, homophobia, and transphobia, said Winder, and the intersection of these oppressions has unique consequences. Many LGBTQ youth of color are “pushed out” of the traditional education system and end up in alternative education settings or the juvenile justice system. In the California juvenile justice system, about 20 percent of male-identified youths and 40 percent of female-identified youths are LGBTQ.
Research demonstrates that GSA clubs improve the school climate for students, but Winder noted that they do not necessarily improve school climate in the same way for all students. GSAs can either support or further isolate trans and queer youth of color. For example, in schools where the student population is majority youth of color and the GSA reflects this diversity, the GSA may improve outcomes. However, in schools where
youth of color are a minority in both the school and the GSA, the GSA may not feel like a welcoming space, he said.
One role of GSAs is to hold schools accountable for implementing inclusive and supportive policies. For example, the California Healthy Youth Act was passed several years ago, but many school districts still do not teach comprehensive and inclusive sex education. GSA clubs can use their positions to encourage their schools to follow the law. Another role for GSAs is addressing health and wellness for students, for example, reducing stigma around seeking mental health support. This has been particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Winder, as many students have coped with prolonged isolation while potentially living in home environments that are not welcoming or affirming.
Winder identified three policies that increase disparities and endanger LGBTQ youth of color. First, zero tolerance anti-bullying policies can be problematic because the person who bullied and the person being bullied are treated the same. For example, a student of color or LGBTQ student may be disciplined for a conflict that built up over time, or for “the one time that they responded to the bullying.” Such policies punish students without addressing the root cause of the bullying, said Winder, and can contribute to the perpetuation of the school-to-prison pipeline. He described a common situation in which a student bullies other students as a way to distance themselves from an LGBTQ identity, before eventually identifying as LGBTQ. Dress codes are another type of policy that can contribute to disproportionate punishment. Some dress codes are gender specific, leading to obvious problems for gender-nonbinary youth, while others are gender neutral but are implemented in a way that disproportionately affects LGBTQ students. Finally, Winder noted that punitive and exclusionary discipline practices can push trans and queer youth of color out of educational environments; these policies are designed to remove students from schools, and he said trans and queer youth of color are often the first to be removed.
Following the panel presentations, planning committee member Jessica Fish (University of Maryland) led speakers and participants in a reflective discussion. Workshop audience members were invited to submit questions for panelists via the virtual livestream. Fish began by asking speakers to talk about their experiences with resistance to the initiatives and interventions presented, and to describe how they overcame that resistance. Gilyard began by stating, “There is resistance to everything that is LGBTQ-related in school.” For example, a parent in Gilyard’s district complained about gender-neutral restrooms. Gilyard “gave her the respect of listening first,” and then explained that the single-stall restrooms were already gender
neutral, and the only change was adding a sign to reflect that. Gilyard said that respectful listening worked to overcome the woman’s resistance, and she “calmed down.” In the realm of sex education, said Macklin, a minority of people are opposed and are quite vocal about it. Their arguments, said Macklin, are difficult to refute because they are based on misinformation and they use fear-based language that appeals to some people (e.g., the language of “parental rights”). While this is a constant battle, most students and parents want comprehensive sex education, Macklin said.
Fish followed up with a question about what type of supports—whether resources or people—are necessary to do this work well. Macklin noted that, in her experience, “parent power” has been the most helpful in supporting LGBTQ youth-affirming programs. Young people often bring attention to things that need to change, and when parents get involved, change tends to happen, particularly at the local level. Those interested in supporting the well-being of LGBTQ youth would benefit from engaging with parent-teacher associations and similar groups to mobilize grassroots support in favor of LGBTQ-affirming policies and practices. Winder said that some of the “easiest wins” happen when the school principal or superintendent is on board with an intervention. In certain cases, rather than mobilizing community support, “we just take the case to the decision maker,” Winder explained. Gilyard said that the most important support in their work is a large and diverse group of stakeholders who are on the same page; Gilyard works with superintendents, board members, parents, students, nonprofits, community partners, and others to collaborate for the health and well-being of LGBTQ students.
A workshop participant asked speakers to comment on best practices for working at the elementary school level. Gilyard replied that much of their work is in elementary schools. They explained that when there is a queer or trans student in an elementary school, the school reaches out for help, “usually in a panic.” In middle or high school, a gay or trans student is less of a surprise, and the school tends to “let them mind their business unless something is going wrong.” Gilyard noted that they have seen significant pushback when parents try to start GSAs in elementary schools. They noted that a local nonprofit hosts support groups for LGBTQ elementary school children, and Gilyard usually encourages parents and children to go there rather than dealing with the school. Gilyard noted this type of situation as a reason to seek out and remain engaged with community partners. Macklin said that elementary school is the perfect place to start the education about bodies, sex, gender, autonomy, consent, and other topics in CSE. Young children “don’t have a filter” and are generally not embarrassed when talking about these concepts, she said, so starting early presents an opportunity to normalize topics of sex and sexuality and create meaningful culture change.