Can educators prevent anti-gay bullying?
A growing body of research tells us that teachers, school administrators, and elected officials have a major influence on the way lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, youths are treated at school, as reported in “Safe Schools Policy for LGBTQ Students” in a recent issue of the Social Policy Report, published by the Society for Research in Child Development. Schools that take explicit action to prevent bullying based on race, gender, or sexuality go a long way toward creating a positive climate for all students. Educators can create a safe environment for those students at risk of being bullied if we lay the legal groundwork.
I recently heard the story of Kim, a principal at a culturally diverse urban middle school, who did not have gay bullying on her mind when she became a principal a few years ago. But then a mother expressed concern about her son’s stress level over being the subject of gay-related teasing at the school. Because Kim had the advantage of working in a district with a policy that explicitly forbids gender-based discrimination, she was able to be proactive.
Kim supported the expansion of her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, including a hallway poster campaign with messages that took on anti-gay slang like “that’s so gay.” She organized a parent committee that ultimately created community buy-in, helping her launch inclusive after-school sports and activities, and establish teacher-mentors to provide extra support for students. Two years later, the same boy is occasionally teased for being perceived to be gay, but he now feels safe and welcome in his classrooms and the hallways. The student, who doesn’t identify as LGBT, knows his school supports him.
A decade of research shows that the problem of discrimination and harassment in schools needs to be addressed through policy."
Today’s youths are expressing their sexual identity at younger ages, and this self-awareness is bumping up against the pressure among early adolescents to conform to gender and sexuality norms. Attitudes about same-sex sexuality remain less favorable among early adolescents, yet tend to become more favorable as youths mature. For many LGBT youths, this means facing teasing and bullying at a younger age and enduring that harassment for years. In response, many administrators in elementary and middle schools are taking action to foster a climate of respect.
Some education officials, from classroom teachers all the way up to district-level administrators, have tried to remain neutral to avoid conflict within the school community, but this strategy does not promote a welcoming school environment.
Some have argued that challenging homophobia is an infringement on religious beliefs, and yet there is good evidence that students are able to distinguish between their personal values and a shared ethic of tolerance and inclusion. In other words, students can have a personal or family moral conviction that opposes homosexuality, and still be respectful and inclusive of their LGBT peers.
Over a decade of research shows that general nondiscrimination and anti-bullying laws and policies are not as effective at curbing discriminatory bullying if they don’t specifically enumerate status characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
The nation’s schools are a patchwork of approaches to dismantling school-based homophobia. Some state laws prohibit discrimination against and bullying of perceived sexual and gender identity, and yet others prohibit the discussion of homosexuality in the classroom. Some schools and districts oppose inclusive policies and may, as a result, create a dangerous atmosphere for youths who don’t conform to gender and sexuality norms. In a handful of states where positive portrayals of homosexuality are banned in schools, reports of victimization based on sexual orientation or gender expression are higher.
There are educators who are calling on Congress to pass legislation that evens the score by providing national standards to establish safer schools. Two such bills, the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act, continue to languish in Congress.
Youth suicides prompted by anti-gay bulling have brought unprecedented public attention to LGBT school safety. And while we need to make sure every individual student is safe, a decade of research shows that the problem of discrimination and harassment in schools needs to be addressed through policy. It is time to focus on state laws, and school and district policies that can make our schools safer for all children.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Changing Policy to End Anti-Gay Bullying