School Climate & Safety

What School Is Like for LGBTQ Students, By the Numbers

By Eesha Pendharkar — October 25, 2022 4 min read
Image of a student with rainbow straps on their backpack.
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During the pandemic, school remained a hostile place for LGBTQ students. Rates of bullying and harassment stayed consistent from previous years, but supports such as gay-straight alliances, inclusive curriculum, policies, and supportive educators dwindled.

That’s according to the National School Climate Survey by the research and advocacy group GLSEN, released earlier this month. The biennial survey was administered online to more than 22,000 LGBTQ students across the country during the 2020-21 school year.

Over the past decade, there was a steady decline in homophobic remarks, harassment, and bullying of LGBTQ students for their gender identities, their sexual orientation, or other characteristics, according to past survey results. This year, that decline stagnated, according to Joseph Kosciw, the director of research for GLSEN.

An unusual consequence of hybrid education in the pandemic was that online learning made attending school safer for LGBTQ students who did not have to face in-person harassment in hallways, bathrooms, and locker rooms. But the survey respondents also said they lost out on peer support, which is an important element to fostering a sense of community, Kosciw said.

Here are some of the numbers and key findings about school safety, verbal and physical harassment, and support in schools based on the 2020-21 report.

School safety, verbal and physical harassment

More than 68 percent of LGBTQ students said they felt unsafe in school because of hostility to at least one of their actual or perceived personal characteristics, for example, their gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation.

Seventy-six percent were verbally harassed because of their identity; 31 percent were physically harassed, for example, by being pushed or shoved. More than 12 percent were physically assaulted, for example, punched, kicked or injured with a weapon.

And more than half of students experienced sexual harassment, such as unwanted touching or sexual remarks made by other students.

Homophobic slurs also remained common in school, and contributed to the distress LGBTQ students felt around their peers. Nearly all LGBTQ students—97 percent—heard “gay” used in a negative way at school. Almost 90 percent heard other types of homophobic slurs. Almost 93 percent heard negative comments about their gender expression, such as people stating that they didn’t act “masculine enough” or “feminine enough,” and 83 percent heard insults against trans people.

Because of the bullying and harassment, 40 percent of LGBTQ students said they avoided school bathrooms, locker rooms, and physical education or gym classes. Almost 79 percent avoided school functions or extracurricular activities because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable. Finally, 32 percent of LGBTQ students who responded to the survey said they had missed at least one entire day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.

Adult staff also contributed to this hostile environment, the survey found. Fifty-eight percent of LGBTQ students said they had heard homophobic remarks from their teachers or other school staff members, and 72 percent of students reported hearing negative remarks about their gender expression from teachers or other school staff. Only 10 percent of students said their teachers intervened when they heard other students verbally harassing LGBTQ students.

Lack of supports

More than a third of LGBTQ students—almost 35 percent—said that their school had an active GSA or similarly supportive student club in the 2020–2021 academic year. Students in in-school-only learning environments were less likely to have a GSA available than those in online-only or hybrid learning environments, the report found.

Those figures represent a significant drop from previous years, when more than half of LGBTQ students had reported having a GSA at school.

Inclusive lessons on LGBTQ topics were also not common. More than 71 percent of survey respondents said their classes did not include any LGBTQ topics.

The number of supportive school personnel was also lower in 2021 compared to the period between 2013 and 2019.

While 96 percent of LGBTQ students could identify at least one supportive staff member at their school, only 23.7 percent reported that their school administration was “somewhat or very supportive” of LGBTQ students.

Anti-bullying policies, another tool of support, lacked specificity to protect students based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Only 12 percent of students reported that their school had a comprehensive policy that specifically prevents bullying based on both sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, and only 8.2 percent of LGBTQ students reported that their school or district had official policies or guidelines to support transgender or nonbinary students.

The report also found that having any of these supports in place was linked to decreased verbal harassment.

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