School Climate & Safety

Many Teachers Can’t Talk About LGBT Issues in the Classroom, Report Finds

By Kate Stoltzfus — December 15, 2016 4 min read
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In many school districts, the classroom is still a difficult place for LBGT students and teachers, according to a report released last week by the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch.

The report covers a variety of challenges LGBT students encounter, including restrictions on LGBT student groups, bullying, and discrimination from classmates and school staff members, and exclusion of LGBT topics from curricula—with an overall conclusion that many U.S. public schools are still unwelcoming to LGBT students and teachers.

This is despite a recent statement from GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) thanking the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights under the Obama administration for its work to protect all students, including LGBT students, and its progress toward educational equity in the last eight years. The new Trump administration may be less assertive about pushing civil rights laws and protections, even if it doesn’t create new interpretations of them, my colleague Evie Blad wrote in a recent Rules for Engagement post.

It is important to note that the report is not scientific—the findings are based on more than 500 interviews with 358 current and former students and 145 teachers, administrators, parents, service providers, and advocates in Alabama, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah—and Human Rights Watch takes a clear stance on LBGT issues.

Here are a few takeaways:

There are 31 U.S. states, including the five in the report, that do not have statewide school bullying and discrimination protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity, though some may have partial protections. For teachers and staff in 20 states and the District of Columbia, there are laws that prevent discrimination in employment based on both sexual orientation and gender identity. In the group of states covered for this report, only one of them (Utah) has such laws.

And in eight states, laws that prohibit teachers from discussing LGBT issues in the schools at the state and local levels have prevented inclusion of LBGT topics in classroom instruction, counseling, and library resources.

A Silent Topic

In all five states where interviews were conducted, most students said teachers, even supportive ones, never spoke about LGBT topics in the classroom, including in sexuality education, history, government, psychology, and English classes.

This silence stems from the restricting laws and little guidance about what the laws do and do not cover—which, in turn, promotes erring on the side of caution for fear of a backlash. Even in states that don’t have laws prohibiting discussion of LGBT topics in school, some individual schools limited talk about same-sex activity by monitoring curriculum and disciplining teachers who did address LGBT issues directly.

One teacher in Alabama, who is also an adviser for the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance group, said she holds back “from teaching too much LGBT content—and even gender content—in my English class because I know some students are just waiting and ready to say I’m pushing an agenda.”

Another teacher in Utah, where laws prohibiting discussion of LGBT issues in schools are in effect, said she is scared to upset parents and risk getting fired. “There are so many LGBT issues that are happening in the world, if I’m going to run an authentic English classroom, we need to be able to talk about it. And it’s asinine that as a competent teacher, I’m not given the leeway to have the conversations we need to be having.”

A Lack of Support

In some schools, LGBT student advocacy groups, commonly referred to as “gay-straight alliances,” look to provide a safe place for students. But teachers who want to be supportive and serve as advisers, especially those who are LGBT themselves, reported that it is often difficult to openly participate. Many advisors said they were able to serve in that role because they are straight.

LGBT or LGBT-friendly teachers said they are afraid that they will be fired or miss out on promotions because of their identity or supportive stance. This not only limits the teachers’ security and fair treatment, according to the report, but also prevents teachers from helping LGBT students who might need help or role models.

According to the interviews, many students said teachers did not often address verbal harassment directed at LGBT students or intervene in helpful ways, even if they heard it. Educators acknowledged that harassment was prevalent, but that they lacked training and support to know when and how to help.

Recommendations for Schools

The report offers recommendations to state legislators, state departments of education, and school administrators to make school environments more welcoming to LGBT students and staff, including repealing laws that prohibit discussion of LGBT issues in schools; enacting laws to protect students and staff members from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity; creating school policies and curricula that explicitly include LGBT people; and enforcing protections against bullying.

Kevin Jennings, founder of GLSEN, who has documented LGBT teachers’ coming-out experiences, said in a 2015 EdWeek Q&A that there isn’t always a correlation between policy and a teacher feeling comfortable coming out. In some states without protections, teachers decide to come out; in others that are thought of as LGBT-friendly, teachers face “tremendous problems.”

“The fact is, we should be respecting every kid that comes into the school,” Jennings said. “We should be hiring teachers based on how well they teach, not based on their sexual orientation.”

One teacher in Virginia, who shared her experience of coming out with Education Week Commentary earlier this year as part of EdWeek’s Beyond Bias series, said she came out in her school because it’s “hard to do anything when you can’t be yourself.”

Photo credit: Human Rights Watch

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.