Status Update on LGBTQ Inclusion in K-12 Education: What Works and How Schools Can Continue to Improve

A group of multi-ethnic elementary students stand around a colorful gay pride poster. They are each holding an edge of the poster so it is out flat for the camera to see. Only the tops of their heads can be seen as the picture is taken from an aerial view. Each of the students are wearing casual clothing.

School communities have incredible influence over the lives and wellbeing of LGBTQ youth. For the 60 percent who are out at their school, being open about one’s sexual and gender identity comes with both benefits and risks, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). They are more inclined to report overall happiness and optimism about achieving life goals, to participate in LGBTQ organizations, and to have a strong support network of peers and adults whom they trust. They are also more likely to be bullied, with 17 percent saying they “frequently” face harassment at school, compared to 12 percent of those who are not out.

Among those who hide their LGBTQ identity while at school, a primary fear is that “teachers will treat them differently or judge them” should they come out, the HRC states. While research shows that LGBTQ youth feel more accepted by peers than in the past, less than 30 percent feel that their school is “very accepting” of LGBTQ people.

It is possible for educational communities to change this narrative. By showing support for LGBTQ organizations, employees, and curriculum, schools send the powerful message that all students are truly welcome and celebrated.

Gay-Straight Alliances
Research has long shown that gay-straight alliances (GSAs), also called gender-sexuality alliances, have far-reaching benefits for students of all genders and sexual orientations. 

Benefits
GSAs have been proven to improve school climate for all students. Specific benefits include the following:

  • Reduced suicidality
  • Reduced bullying
  • Greater feelings of safety
  • Lower substance abuse
  • Fewer instances of homophobic remarks and victimization

By reducing harassment, GSAs make it easier for LGBTQ students to focus on academic and extracurricular pursuits.

While most GSAs exist at the secondary school level, some advocates push for these groups starting in the middle grades to support LGBTQ youth who are discovering their sexual and gender identities. In a Pew Center survey of lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans, 41 percent said they were between the ages of 10 and 14 when they first realized they were attracted to people of the same sex; nearly 30 percent said they realized before the age of 10 that they were not straight. 

GSAs at Independent Schools
In a 2018 study of the experiences of 12 queer faculty members at independent schools, teacher and researcher Caroline C. Dunnell writes that LGBTQ faculty “felt unsupported in their work with GSAs” when school leadership ignored these alliances in relation to other school organizations and did little to facilitate meeting times or student participation. 

According to Dunnell’s research, independent school administrators can support GSAs by doing the following:

  • Creating time and space for meetings
  • Attending important GSA events
  • Giving recognition to GSA faculty and student leaders

LGBTQ Faculty at Independent Schools
Dunnell concludes that “school policies, given their lack of specific guidelines, appear to have little impact upon how queer educators navigate their professional lives.” 

The attitudes and support of school leadership, however, have significant impact on how supported queer faculty felt at their institutions. The consensus is that independent schools claim to promote diversity but have yet to fully understand or commit to inclusion for LGBTQ employees and students, according to the study.  

LGBTQ Leadership at Independent Schools
In a confidential survey of LGBTQ administrators at independent schools, 78 percent were employed in nonsectarian schools and 22 percent were at Episcopal, Quaker, or other religious institutions. Nearly three in four respondents reported being fully out to the school community. 

LGBTQ-Inclusive Classrooms
Four states now require middle and high schools to teach LGBTQ inclusive curriculum, such as recognizing historical figures who were LGBTQ as well as the struggle for LGBTQ rights. 

In New Jersey, 12 schools are currently participating in a pilot program that incorporates LGBTQ history with regular classroom teaching, according to a recent NBC News report. When learning about computer scientist Alan Turing and his role in World War II, for instance, students will learn “what’s left out of the history books,” including the fact that the British government chemically castrated Turing for being gay. 

Advocacy groups are working with New Jersey teachers to develop lesson plans and strategies before all schools there are required to teach LGBTQ curriculum starting in fall 2020. In addition to history, these plans include “a creative writing lesson on how to treat LGBTQ characters, a world languages lesson on gender-neutral pronouns, and biology lessons on sex and gender diversity,” NBC News reports. 

Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics; Center for American Progress; Education Week; EduTopia; GLSEN; Human Rights Campaign; National Association of Independent Schools; NBC News; “Out and queer: independent school teachers navigating the personal and professional”; Pew Research Center; Time

Mariah Bohanon is the senior editor of DiversityIS.