What Challenges Do LGBTQ Students Face?

From bullying to finding a safe bathroom, LGBTQ students navigate a tough landscape at school.

Prisma Staff
September 20, 2022

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From bullying to finding a safe bathroom, LGBTQ students navigate a tough landscape at school.

For queer youth, school can be a uniquely challenging environment.

Bullying, harassment and discomfort at school are a near universal experience. According to the 2019 National School Climate Survey, ”[GLSEN’s] flagship report on the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools" a majority of respondents felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.  Even higher numbers report regularly hearing anti-LGBTQ language, both generally in the school environment and directed at them personally.

While the survey reports some areas of improvement over the course of its two decades of data collection, other areas show stagnation — or even worsening. Middle school students, in particular, reported higher levels of harassment compared to high school respondents. The challenges queer youth face in public schools are magnified for doubly marginalized LGBTQ kids: students with disabilities, students of color and non-native speakers of English.

The consequences of homophobia and transphobia are stark in terms of the measurable, negative outcomes: Many young adults report skipping school, avoiding same-sex spaces such as locker rooms, and limiting participation in extracurricular activities.

Worse, according to the respondents, incidents of harassment or assault in school go significantly unreported and, in the case where a student does make a report, often no meaningful action is taken. The education foundation, Edutopia, concurs: Schools are under-resourced when it comes to offering protections to ensure student well-being and prevent victimization; many teachers want to help LGBTQ students but do not know how.

With anti-lgbtq legislation on the rise across the United States, schools have become one of the most intensive battlegrounds, making the resources and support provided by advocacy organizations such as GLSEN, the Trevor Project, and the Human Rights Campaign more important than ever.

LGBT Youth Face Increased Risk of Negative Health Outcomes

According to the CDC, the discrimination faced by LGBTQ youth — whether it manifests as verbal harassment, disapproval from family members, social rejection, or physical violence — spills beyond the walls of the school building and leads to increased risk for certain negative health outcomes including:

  1. disproportionately high rates of HIV, syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in young gay and bisexual males
  2. increased likelihood of pregnancy for adolescent lesbian and bisexual females than their heterosexual peers
  3. increased suicide attempts by transgender youth than their cisgender peers.

Compared to their heterosexual, cisgendered peers, studies show higher rates of mental health issues (i.e. depression and anxiety), substance abuse and lower self-esteem among young people identifying as LGBTQ+. Housing instability and homelessness — which impacts 28% of LGBTQ people during their youth — is a major risk factor that increases the chances of negative health outcomes.


Additional Challenges Faced by LGBTQ Youth

From K-12 all the way through to higher education, LGBTQ students often have to devote additional energy to get what they need out of their education, let alone to thrive. What challenges do LGBTQ students face as they work to feel comfortable in their school environment?

1. Feeling respected. Students need to learn how to respond to forms of LGBTQ discrimination, from overt harassment to microagressions. Knowing how to face direct harassment is one kind of challenge; finding a way to address anti-LGBTQ language and behavior (disparaging comments like, “that’s so gay!) requires its own set of strategies. Transgender student may have to convince the school community to call them by a new name. Gender nonconforming students may have to convince teachers and peers to use their preferred pronouns. (This becomes less of an uphill battle when teachers and administrators normalize the inclusion of pronouns in personal introductions for all members of the community through their own example.)

2. Being represented. An inclusive curriculum with LGBTQ topics and queer role models is an important step in reducing disparities, diminishing harassment, and improving healthy developmental outcomes.

3. Deciding what to share. It’s a deeply personal choice how much to share about one’s gender identity and sexual orientation at school. While some students will choose to come out publicly about their LGBTQ identity, others will be more selective about whom to share that with and when. Each new friendship may require calculations about how — or whether — to come out and worries about how a relationship or friend group might change as a result of that information.

4. A gender transition comes with its own set of decisions, including how to inform (and elicit support from) peers and teachers. (This resource from the Human Rights Campaign offers detailed advice on the subject.)

5. Navigating tensions around gender expression. Gendered dress codes and other heteronormative traditions, like naming a Prom King and Queen, can become flashpoints for gender nonconforming or transgender students.

6. Feeling comfortable in same-sex spaces. The discomfort possibly provoked by locker rooms and restrooms has been amplified in light of legislation against transgender people — which has recently spurred lawsuits in states such as Tennessee and Oklahoma.

7. Participating in sports. Transgender students may struggle to have full access to sports teams that fit their gender identity — an increasing challenge in today’s legislative environment.

8. Finding the right support. In addition to needing peer, teacher, mentor and family support, LGBTQ students may struggle to access LGBTQ-affirming sex educators, healthcare providers specialized in supporting the lgbtq community, and student organizations that provide a safe space, such as a Gay-Straight Alliance or a Queer Alliance.

9. Staying safe on social media. A 2022 report from GLAAD, the Social Media Safety Index (SMSI), gave failing scores to all five major social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok) for their policies to facilitate LGBTQ safety, privacy, and expression.

As an inclusive community that strives to provide a holistic, flexible, challenging, interest-driven education for all young people, Prisma recognizes the specific challenges LGBTQ students face. In this post, we discuss some of the ways in which non-traditional school options, such as homeschooling and online school, can eliminate — or minimize — some of these challenges.

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