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Professional Development Opinion

Six Ways Educators Can Support LGBTQ Students During COVID-19

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 21, 2020 7 min read
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The question is:

How can teachers support LGBTQ students during the school closure crisis?

I’ve shared several posts discussing ways educators can support particularly vulnerable student populations, including English-language learners and those with special needs.

Today’s post will address reaching another vulnerable group: our LGBTQ students.

I’ll be adding it to All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

“For LGBTQ students, supportive teachers are a lifeline”

Caitlin Ryan, Ph.D., ACSW, is a clinical social worker, educator, and researcher who has worked on LGBTQ health and mental health for 45 years in diverse settings, including schools, and whose work on LGBTQ health has shaped policy and practice for LGBTQ and gender-diverse children and youths. She directs the Family Acceptance Project (FAP) at San Francisco State University—a research, education, intervention and policy project that helps ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse families to support their LGBTQ children.

Ricky Robertson, M.Ed., is an educator, author, and consultant. Ricky is the co-author of the book, Building Resilience in Students Impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences: A Whole-Staff Approach (Romero, Robertson, & Warner). Ricky supports schools and districts in developing multitiered trauma-informed systems of support that foster educator & student resilience.:

One of the immediate outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic is helping us recognize essential resources that bind us together and strengthen connectedness. Foremost among them are schools and teachers that throughout modern history provide critical structure to normalize children’s lives, including during wars and other catastrophic events. This time is no different as the pandemic that threatens our lives has forced us apart to protect one another. For children and youths who are more vulnerable, isolation significantly increases risk. This is especially so for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer-identified (LGBTQ) students.

Even in the best of times, LGBTQ youths are at higher risk for victimization and being bullied, for substance use, depression, and attempted suicide. In a national study, lesbian, gay, and bisexual students were 2.5 times more likely to report feeling hopeless or sad and 4.5 times more likely to attempt suicide during the past 12 months, compared with heterosexual peers. LGBTQ youth of color are at higher risk. Among LGBTQ students, about 1 in 3 had attempted suicide during the past 12 months (29 percent of LGB students and 35 percent of transgender students), compared with less than 1 in 10 non-LGBTQ peers.

For LGBTQ students, supportive teachers are a lifeline, and school is often the one safe place to connect with peers and adults that buffer rejection and provide affirmation. As information has become more widely available about sexual orientation and gender identity, more parents are supportive of their LGBTQ children. However, many parents don’t know specific ways to reduce their LGBTQ children’s risk or behaviors that strengthen relationships and promote well-being. And many don’t know about LGBTQ resources that are available online or in their communities. In addition, many students lack family support and may live with rejecting parents and caregivers. All students benefit from sharing information about how teachers and families can increase support and reduce serious health risks.

LGBTQ young people from families that are highly rejecting are more than eight times as likely to attempt suicide, nearly six times as likely to report high levels of depression, and more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs. The stress of being confined with parents and caregivers who engage in rejecting behaviors that communicate anger, hostility, and shame in response to the youth’s LGBTQ identity can become overwhelming without external supports.

The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) at San Francisco State University identified and measured more than 50 specific family-rejecting behaviors that parents and caregivers use to express rejection of their children’s LGBTQ identity. FAP’s research shows how behaviors such as preventing their child from having an LGBTQ friend or using religious or cultural beliefs to condemn or try to change their child’s LGBTQ identity contribute to serious health risks. FAP’s research also measured and shows how more than 50 family-accepting and -supportive behaviors—such as requiring that other family members treat their child with respect and supporting their child’s gender expression—help protect against health risks and promote well-being.

During this time of uncertainty and great hardship for young people and families, supportive teachers can make a critical difference in the lives of all LGBTQ students—especially those who are experiencing ongoing rejection from families and caregivers because of their LGBTQ identity.

How Teachers Can Help

  1. Identify yourself as an ally to all students. If you teach in a virtual setting, let your students know that you’re there to support them by sending a class email or mailing work packets home, even if you don’t mention LGBTQ students specifically. “Please let me know if you need to talk. I care about you and I’m here to support you.” If your school has a GSA adviser (school diversity clubs for LGBTQ students & allies), check in about ways to increase support for LGBTQ students.

  2. Refer to students using appropriate names and pronouns. This is a simple but powerful act that lets transgender and nonbinary students know they are seen and respected. Research shows that when others use the chosen name that matches a youth’s gender identity, transgender youths report 71 percent fewer symptoms of severe depression and 59 percent fewer suicide attempts.

  3. Learn ways to decrease rejection & increase family support. The Family Acceptance Project did the first research and developed the first evidence-based family-support model to help racially and religiously diverse families learn to support their LGBTQ children. FAP provides family services and produces multilingual resources to help youths and families understand how to reduce their children’s risk and increase support—even when parents and caregivers believe that being gay or transgender is wrong:

  1. Learn about virtual support. If your school has a GSA, host online meetings, if possible. The GSA Network’s Instagram posts information about virtual GSA meet-ups across the country. Gender Spectrum hosts online groups to support transgender, nonbinary, & gender-expansive youths. Gender Diversity has virtual groups for parents of transgender and gender-diverse children and youths. If there are organizations in your community that support LGBTQ youths, check their websites to see if they have virtual offerings.

  2. Get ideas for LGBTQ inclusive instruction. Students in schools and classrooms that prevent bullying and support all students, including LGBTQ students, have fewer mental-health problems, higher grades, and more positive outcomes. For ideas on creating LGBTQ-inclusive lessons in virtual classrooms, look at GLSEN’s guide to Developing LGBTQ-Inclusive Classroom Resources.

  3. Know about crisis & suicide-prevention resources. The Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386) has a 24/7 hotline and virtual chat for LGBTQ youths who are struggling emotionally and may be considering suicide.

Teachers are a lifeline, especially for isolated LGBTQ students. Your work is critical and has an emotional impact. Take care of yourselves and stay connected. Tell us about your experiences and resources so we can share them with others.

Thanks to Caitlin and Ricky for their contribution!

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