Far too many students have become targets of bullying and harassment based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Their pleas to teachers, principals, and university administrators for help — if they are brave enough to make them in the first place — too often go unanswered. They cannot access quality education.
They deserve better than that.
This toolkit is designed to help you understand and address the problem head-on. Federal legislation has been introduced to help create safe schools for all students. Herein we explain the two leading proposals and how you can help them become law, as well as how to raise safe schools awareness in your community.
The Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) supports the creation of comprehensive anti-bullying policies that “enumerate” – or spell out – specific categories of targeted students, including those targeted based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as data collection, public education, and grievance procedures. The Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) protects students from school-based sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, much like Title IX does for gender discrimination, and much like other areas of law do for various protected classes. SNDA recognizes bullying and harassment as discrimination, and it provides both for remedies against discrimination and incentives for schools to prevent it from happening in the first place.
By pushing for SSIA and SNDA, PFAW is part of the movement for safe schools, and we hope that this toolkit will help you join us. It’s time to stand up.
Check out PFAW’s website for more information about safe schools and other LGBT equality issues.
Ensuring the safety and well-being of our children is a battle worth fighting. Here’s why:
- Bullying and harassment in schools is a pervasive national problem.According to the 2013 National School Climate Survey (NSCS): 74.1 percent of LGBT students suffer verbal harassment, 32.6 percent physical harassment, and 16.5 percent physical assault because of their sexual orientation. 55.2 percent suffer verbal harassment, 22.7 percent physical harassment, and 11.4 percent physical assault because of their gender expression. In many cases, not surprisingly, this makes LGBT students feel unsafe; 55.5 percent reported feeling unsafe based on their sexual orientation, and 38.7 percent felt so based on their gender expression.
- Bullying and harassment are forms of discrimination, but we have left LGBT students unprotected. Federal law protects against discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, disability, and national origin. There are no federal laws protecting students based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Without legislation like SSIA and SNDA, LGBT students, those who are perceived to be LGBT, and their parents and allies are left with few places to turn in the face of bullying and harassment.
- When students lose their sense of safety, they lose their access to quality education. A student who feels unsafe due to bullying and harassment might choose to avoid the situation altogether, adding a loss of learning to the harms they already suffer. According to the 2013 National School Climate Survey (NSCS), “When asked about absenteeism, nearly one third (30.3%) of LGBT students reported missing at least one entire day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and over a tenth (10.6%) missed four or more days in the past month[.]” Even when they remain in class, targeted students lose nearly half a grade point.
- As Congress works to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it should address the bullying and harassment problem. Since 1965, ESEA has served as the fundamental blueprint for education in America. While it sets forth a broad range of requirements, ESEA doesn’t currently provide any protections against bullying and harassment. Building a strong sense of safety and fostering equality is just as important to education as teacher hiring, curricular standards, and student performance. ESEA is long overdue for an update and its reauthorization is an appropriate venue to address this pervasive national problem, including for students who are LGBT or perceived to be LGBT.
- Bullying and harassment aren’t just elementary and secondary education problems — they also extend to college campuses. The untimely death of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi was a tragic reminder that the end of high school doesn’t mean the end of bullying and harassment. According to the 2010 National College Climate Survey, 23 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer students, 39 percent of transmen, and 38 percent of transwomen reported harassment, with the overwhelming majority in all cases attributing that harassment to sexual orientation or gender identity.
- We cannot complete the work of LGBT equality without addressing the problems of bullying and harassment. These days we can’t seem to escape the stories of lives ruined, or even ended, by bullying and harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Even one death is too many. What is happening now is unconscionable and must stop. If it doesn’t, much of what we’re fighting for today will mean little, if anything, tomorrow.
I. Communicating with Members of Congress
Representatives and Senators rely on their constituents’ opinions and concerns when formulating positions and voting on legislation. Responding is an integral part of being a member of Congress, and whether they are seen as being responsive can affect how they are viewed by their constituents come Election Day.
Your communication with members of Congress should be concise, informed, and polite. Review information about them before you write or call and familiarize yourself with their committee assignments and staff. It is important to know something about them before you begin the exchange. A common interest or background should help you stand out.
Six different ways to communicate with members of Congress are listed below.
A personal visit with a member of Congress can be a good way to demonstrate your interest in an issue or bill. To make your meeting more effective, schedule an appointment with the member (or a staff member) and be sure to state the subject of your visit in advance. Review the area of discussion before the meeting so you have a thorough knowledge of the subject. During the meeting, speak clearly and be concise. Present the pros and cons of the issue, as well as detailed explanations as to why you support your view. Encourage questions from the member and be ready to answer them, but if you don’t have an answer don’t be afraid to say that you’ll get back to them with more information. At the end of the meeting, ask for favorable consideration of your issue and thank him or her for their time.
To address an issue with a member of Congress by telephone, call the US Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121, or use the main number listed for their House or Senate office. Speak to a staff member about your issue or concern; be sure to ask them to pass along your opinion. With patience, you might also be able to speak to the member directly.
United States Postal Service (USPS)
USPS mail was for a long time the most common means of communicating with members of Congress. Letters to them should be legible and concise. State the purpose of the letter in the first paragraph, support your positions in the rest of the letter, and conclude with a strong reiteration of your position. Stick to the facts, and if you are citing a particular bill include the name and number in the letter as:
House bills – “H.R. _______”
Senate bills – “S. _______”
Remember to address how the issue or legislation is likely to affect you and other constituents of the member. Make suggestions and ask for the member’s views or opinions on the matter. Include your name and return address and ensure that both are legible.
The Honorable ______
(Office Number) (Office Building)
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Representative ______:
The Honorable ______
(Office Number) (Office Building)
Washington, DC 20510
Faxing information is another common method of communicating with members of Congress. A fax receives the same attention as a letter sent by mail. Include your name and return address and ensure that both are legible. You should receive a written response from the member in the mail.
Today, many members of Congress encourage their constituents to correspond by email. Although a member occasionally responds via email, more often you will receive an automatic acknowledgement that your message has been received, and then a written response in the mail that addresses the substance of your issue. Email correspondence should address the member as Representative or Senator, and should include your name and address; be sure to type them accurately.
Many members use an online form for email instead of an actual email address. The form is a page on the member’s website that can be filled out and submitted electronically. The form enables the member to capture your name, address, and the subject of your message in a database for future correspondence. Often these forms rely on your zip code, and if you don’t reside in a member’s district or state, you may not be able to submit a message to that member – limiting email to constituents only.
Consult your member’s website for his or her email address or online form URL. Directories are available for the House and Senate.
Many members of Congress have social media accounts, and tweeting at them or posting on their Facebook walls has the added benefit of being visible to other people. Go to your members’ websites or search Twitter or Facebook for their names, and tweet at them by using their handles — for example, @SenatorJohnSmith — in your tweets. It’s also helpful to search Twitter for your issue or concern to find relevant hashtags or other Twitter accounts – like activists and organizations — that could be included in your tweets. Using hashtags and additional Twitter handles helps raise the visibility of your tweets.
II. Sample Letters
These sample letters provide you with a few general options for lobbying your members of Congress. The more personal and the more local your letter is, the more compelling it will be.
Today I write to you in strong support of the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) and the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA). I thank the sponsors and cosponsors therein for addressing what has become a pervasive national problem, and I urge you and all members of Congress to join them.
Following the increased media attention paid to bullying-related suicides in 2010, I took a strong stand on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students and those who are perceived to be LGBT. According to the 2013 National School Climate Survey (NSCS): 74.1 percent of LGBT students suffer verbal harassment, 32.6 percent physical harassment, and 16.5 percent physical assault because of their sexual orientation. 55.2 percent suffer verbal harassment, 22.7 percent physical harassment, and 11.4 percent physical assault because of their gender expression. In many cases, not surprisingly, this makes LGBT students feel unsafe; 55.5 percent reported feeling unsafe based on their sexual orientation, and 38.7 percent felt so based on their gender expression.
A student who feels unsafe due to bullying and harassment might choose to avoid the situation altogether, adding a loss of learning to the harms they already suffer. According to the NSCS, “When asked about absenteeism, nearly one third (30.3%) of LGBT students reported missing at least one entire day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and over a tenth (10.6%) missed four or more days in the past month[.]” Even when they remain in class, LGBT students targeted by severe victimization and discrimination lose nearly half a grade point. But as we know all too well, this isn’t just a question of education. It’s a matter of life and death.
Through SSIA and SNDA, Congress has recognized the need to reverse this trend. SSIA supports the creation of comprehensive anti-bullying policies that enumerate specific categories of targeted students – including those targeted based on sexual orientation and gender identity – as well as data collection, public education, and grievance procedures. SNDA protects students from school-based sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, much like Title IX does for gender discrimination, and much like other areas of law do for various protected classes. SNDA recognizes bullying and harassment as discrimination, and it provides both for remedies against discrimination and incentives for schools to prevent it from happening in the first place.
Ultimately, this is about stopping abhorrent behavior that gets in the way of quality education. All students deserve far better than that. And SSIA and SNDA deserve your consideration.
 2013 National School Climate Survey, Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, October 2014. http://glsen.org/nscs
 See above at http://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/2013%20National%20School%20Climate%20Survey%20Full%20Report_0.pdf, pgs. 22-23
 Ibid, pg. 12
 Ibid, pgs. 12-13
 Ibid, pgs. 47 and 49
I am writing as your constituent to thank you for supporting the inclusion of the Safe Schools Improvement Act in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization bill. I believe strongly in preventing bullying and harassment and ensuring that all students learn in positive, safe and healthy schools.
As you know, far too many young people experience severe and ongoing bullying and harassment that prevents them from achieving their highest academic and life potential. In fact, evidence shows that across the country bullying and harassment contribute to high dropout rates, increased absenteeism, and academic underperformance. In many instances, targets of bullying and harassment are simply unable to fully benefit from their schools’ programs and activities. Unfortunately, in many communities not enough is being done to help students, families and educators address the problem, such as informing them about best practices for prevention and intervention. This includes ensuring that school districts develop and implement enumerated bullying and harassment prevention plans and provide clear information to families about school’s grievance and resolution procedures.
Given bullying and harassment’s pervasiveness and significant negative impact on educational opportunities, I hope that Congress will swiftly act to address the problem as part of ESEA reauthorization. This will ensure that in the future all kids have an opportunity to learn in positive, safe and healthy schools.
I am writing as your constituent to thank you for supporting the inclusion of the Student Non-Discrimination Act in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization bill. I believe strongly in preventing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in public schools.
As you know, students who are (or are perceived to be) LGBT are subjected to pervasive discrimination, including harassment and bullying. The harassment youth experience in school deprives them of equal educational opportunities by increasing their likelihood of skipping school, underperforming academically, and dropping out. Left unchecked, this harassment can contribute to even more devastating consequences, including suicide. Furthermore, while discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, national origin and religion are expressly addressed in federal civil rights laws or the Constitution, they do not explicitly cover sexual orientation or gender identity. As a result, parents of LGBT students have limited legal recourse when schools fail to protect their children from discrimination.
I hope Congress will swiftly act to address discrimination of LGBT students as part of ESEA reauthorization. This will ensure that in the future all kids have an opportunity to learn in positive, safe and healthy schools.
I write to urge you to cosponsor the Student Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 846/S. 439) and support its inclusion in any reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
Students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) or perceived to be LGBT are subject to well-documented, pervasive discrimination, including harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence. These students are deprived of equal educational opportunities in public schools across our nation. Numerous studies demonstrate that discrimination at school has contributed to high rates of absenteeism, dropout, adverse health consequences, and academic under-achievement among LGBT youth. When left unchecked, such discrimination can lead to – and has led to – dangerous situations for youth.
Federal statutory protections currently address discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and disability. However, statutory protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity are limited. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would explicitly prohibit public schools from discriminating against any student on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The legislation also protects students who associate with LGBT people, including students with LGBT parents and friends.
As our nation’s primary statute promoting equal access to education, it is vital that ESEA ensures that every student is able to attend school in a safe, inclusive environment free from discrimination and harassment. Decades of civil rights history show that civil rights laws are effective in decreasing discrimination against specific vulnerable groups. It is time that we extend these laws to explicitly protect LGBT youth.
Again, I urge you to cosponsor the Student Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 846/S. 439) and support its inclusion in any reauthorization of ESEA.
I. Submitting Letters to the Editor
Writing a letter to the editor (LTE) is an effective way of raising awareness on an issue. Here’s how you do it:
- Be brief. As a general rule, you will want to keep your LTE under 200 words. However, be sure to review in advance the LTE guidelines of your newspaper of choice to double-check that 200 words is an acceptable length. Generally guidelines are posted online; however you can also find out by calling the newspaper’s office.
- Be surprising. The best letters to the editor make readers look at an issue in a new way — introduce interesting facts that weren’t in the paper’s coverage of the issue, or look at the same facts from a different angle.
- Make it personal. If you can tie your letter to the editor in to local events or connect it to local personalities, do that. The more personal and the more local your letter is, the more compelling it will be.
- Be polite. No matter how much you might disagree with the article or point of view to which you’re responding, be respectful — newspapers won’t publish letters they consider rude or insulting.
- Do not feel obligated to only submit LTEs to large newspapers. Your local paper is a great place to start the discussion. At the same time, do not hesitate to submit to bigger papers even if the chances of acceptance are slimmer.
- Be sure to include your contact information in your submission. Many newspapers will require their employees to contact LTE authors prior to publication. If you do not feel comfortable sharing your information publicly, be sure to make that stipulation at the bottom of your letter.
What to Write About
- Provide background information on the struggle for safe, harassment-free schools. Keep in mind that your audience will most likely have never heard of SSIA and SNDA, so your LTE should primarily be educational.
- Try to identify a target for your LTE. This could be your Representative or Senators, your state legislature, or a local school district or school board. By identifying a local target, you can make your LTE relevant to your community.
- Identify timely information in your LTE, such as:
- The Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) has been introduced in the Senate (S. 311). The Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) is up in the Senate (S. 439) and House (H.R. 846).
- It’s long past time to vote on anti-bullying and anti-harassment protections. The House and Senate should include SSIA and SNDA in the education reauthorization bill, or move forward on stand-alone legislation. These protections need to get to the President for his signature.
- Conclude with an opinion and/or call to action, possibly something along the lines of:
- Asking why LGBT students should have to suffer just to get an education.
- Making clear that this is about stopping abhorrent behavior that gets in the way of quality education. All students deserve far better than that.
- Calling for Congress to stand on the side of equality – stand up for safe schools.
After Submitting Your LTE
- Please let us know if your LTE has been printed. We’ll work to amplify your message and will make sure your public officials see it.
- If your LTE is not accepted, do not be deterred. There are many way you can contribute to the movement. A quick way you can make sure your hard work does not go to waste is by repurposing what you wrote and mailing it in to your Representative and Senators.
II. Sample LTE
Gay Teenagers’ Suicides, and a Call for Legislation
October 6, 2010
By Laura W. Murphy
To the Editor:
Re ” Several Recent Suicides Put Light on Pressures Facing Gay Teenagers” (news article, Oct. 4):
The recent tragic deaths of young gay people from across the country underscore the fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are an especially vulnerable population in our nation’s schools.
Discrimination and harassment, even physical abuse, are often a part of these students’ daily lives. This is unacceptable and must end.
While federal laws currently protect students on the basis of their race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin, no federal statute explicitly protects students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
But there is legislation pending in both the House and Senate — the Student Non-Discrimination Act — that would establish a comprehensive prohibition against discrimination and harassment in public schools throughout the nation based on a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Given recent tragedies, the need could not be more clear.
Congress should act to make sure that all of America’s children are protected.
Laura W. Murphy
Director, Washington Legislative Office
American Civil Liberties Union
Washington, Oct. 4, 2010
III. Submitting Op-Eds
Writing an op-ed is similar to writing a letter to the editor, but it can be a slightly longer and more in-depth look at the issue. Here’s how you do it:
- Find a news hook. Like with LTEs, your op-ed must be timely. You can have a great topic for your op-ed, but if it doesn’t relate to current news, an editor might not pick it for publication. Luckily, there are a lot of ways to make your topic relevant and newsworthy. You can include surprising new research or statistics that illuminate your topic; link your topic to a holiday or an anniversary of a historic event; connect your topic to popular culture; tie your topic in with a debate or trend that’s big in the news; show how the conventional wisdom about a topic is wrong; or any combination of the above.
- Make it compelling. Also like LTEs, if you have a personal story to tell about your topic, tell it! In addition, be sure to include a call to action clearly and early, and support it with compelling facts. Then carefully proofread it and make sure it fits in the word limit.
- Pitch it. Look for your target paper’s op-ed submission instructions on its website. If there is no submission form, you should send your op-ed in the body of an email, and include a brief note at the top introducing yourself, explaining the context for your op-ed and providing your contact information. If you don’t hear back from the editor in a couple of days, send another note or call the editorial department to follow up. If your first choice paper doesn’t accept it, don’t give up! Pick your second choice paper, and try again.
- Please let us know if your op-ed has been printed.
IV. Sample Op-Eds
Staying silent, standing together with LGBT students
April 19, 2013
By Gregory Donnellan
If 15-year-old Zach King had known what was waiting for him on the other side of the door, he never would have walked into his Ohio high school classroom that October day.
By now you may have seen the video. Millions of people have. Zach, an openly gay student, was thrown to the ground and repeatedly pummeled by a classmate. Zach tried to escape . . . he tried to reason . . . and then he just tried to survive. The brutal assault left him with a concussion, a broken tooth and a feeling of insecurity he will likely carry with him the rest of his school days — particularly after his school district allegedly tried to blame Zach and his sexual orientation for the attack.
Sadly, Zach is not alone. The deplorable bullying and harassment faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students like Zach is rampant in schools today. According to the 2011 National School Climate Survey [link replaced] by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), nearly 82 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed — and more than six in 10 LGBT students said they do not feel safe at school.
Ohio is hardly immune from the anti-LGBT bullying epidemic. Ninety percent of Ohio LGBT students who responded to GLSEN’s national survey said they regularly heard homophobic remarks and slurs at school — and nearly one in five said they heard these hurtful remarks from school staff.
The bullying of LGBT students in Ohio schools takes many forms. Students frequently are excluded by their peers, are subjected to cruel taunts in person or online, or are even physically harmed. Nearly 20 percent of Ohio LGBT students said they had been assaulted at school. Tragically, many of these cases of bullying and abuse go unreported, as LGBT students struggle with feelings of shame and fears of reprisal.
Bullying leaves lasting physical and emotional scars on thousands of LGBT students in Ohio each year. But today, students from every corner of Ohio will be taking a stand — through silence.
Today students across Ohio are participating in GLSEN’s annual Day of Silence, [link replaced] when students vow to take some form of silence to draw attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools. Founded in 1996, the Day of Silence has become the largest single student-led action toward creating safer schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
GLSEN Northeast Ohio will support efforts at area schools to help students participate in the Day of Silence in their own unique ways. Through our Facebook page, we offer resources to help students and schools get involved. We also provide speakers and exhibits to foster multigenerational understanding of LGBT issues.
Schools should be more than places of learning: They should be sanctuaries, where differences are valued and all students feel safe to thrive. We thank the schools in every corner of Ohio that will stand shoulder to shoulder today with LGBT students, and we ask for your help in ensuring that all students feel safe and welcome at school.
Gregory Donnellan is Jump-Start co-coordinator of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education NetworkNortheast Ohio, a local chapter ofthe Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, an organization which strives to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.
Gay suicide: Addressing harassment in schools
April 24, 2009
By Charles Robbins and Eliza Byard
The affect of language and behavior can be deadly, especially in a school environment where young people are already highly impressionable and vulnerable. Unfortunately, this difficult lesson has been conveyed many times when young people resort to drastic and permanent measures to escape the despair of enduring constant bullying and harassment at school.
It is deeply disturbing that on April 6, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old sixth-grader from Springfield, Mass., hanged himself with an extension cord in his family’s home after being subjected to continuous anti-gay bullying and harassment at his middle school. It is equally as disheartening that on April 16, less than two weeks later, Jaheem Herrera, an 11-year-old fifth-grader from DeKalb County, Ga., also hanged himself at home after being the subject of anti-gay taunts from his classmates. These were two completely separate and isolated instances, but the tragic and preventable nature of each unfortunate loss of life remains the same.
Neither Carl nor Jaheem identified as gay, yet their peers’ defamatory language and hurtful behaviors broke the barriers of sexual orientation and gender identity. Being taunted as “faggot,” “queer” or “homo” by classmates is offensive and demeaning to any student — straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning alike.
Carl is the fourth middle school student this year to complete suicide due to bullying, and Jaheem was still in elementary school. Older students are also at a high risk, as suicide is one of the top three causes of death among 15 to 24 year olds and the second leading cause of death on college campuses. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, and those who come from a rejecting family are up to nine times more likely to do so.
Two of the top three reasons secondary school students said their peers were most often bullied at school were actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender expression, according to a 2005 report by GLSEN and Harris Interactive. In addition, The Trevor Project fields tens of thousands of calls from young people each year, both straight and LGBT-identified, with rejection and harassment by peers being one of the top five issues reported by callers.
In the same GLSEN and Harris report, more than a third of middle and high school students said that bullying, name-calling and harassment is a somewhat or very serious problem at their school. Furthermore, two-thirds of middle school students reported being assaulted or harassed in the previous year and only 41 percent said they felt safe at school.
Enough is enough. It is time for school administrators, educators, parents, students and the government to work together to stop bullying and harassment in schools. Furthermore, we must teach young people to understand the profound impact of words and actions, and to recognize depression and suicidal ideations amongst their peers. By helping young people take responsibility for their actions and respect their peers, and simultaneously empowering them with the knowledge and skills they need to understand when their classmates are in crisis, we can work toward ending the dual epidemics of school bullying and youth suicide once and for all.
We as parents, teachers and concerned citizens can do our part to protect students by speaking out and demanding that anti-bullying and harassment programs and suicide prevention education are mandated in all schools. We can seek commitment from the government to end bullying by training educators on how to effectively intervene, teaching students to respect and help one another, and ensuring that all students know how to reach out to a peer who may be in crisis. We must lead by example and remember that the language we choose is easily repeated by young people. We must listen to children when they reach out for help, and demonstrate to them that we will be understanding and non-judgmental if they need to talk.
Days like the GLSEN-sponsored National Day of Silence bring attention to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools. On this day, thousands of students call for practical, appropriate interventions that work, hoping to move us closer to a future where every child can go to school free from fear. Weeks including the National Suicide Prevention Week encourage programs to increase suicide prevention efforts, including initiatives supported by The Trevor Project to protect LGBT youth.
It is our hope that in memory of Carl and Jaheem, and in honor of all young people who have completed suicide after enduring constant torment at school, we will be able to work together to promote school environments that celebrate diversity and encourage acceptance of all people. Only then will we be confident that our children are receiving the respect and education they deserve today in order to become the successful and equality-minded leaders of tomorrow.
Charles Robbins is the Executive Director & CEO of The Trevor Project and Eliza Byard, Ph.D., is the Executive Director, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
V. Sample Tweets
If you are looking for an even quicker way to lend your support to an issue, you can tweet about it!
Here are some sample tweets for safe schools:
- Bullying and harassment in schools is a pervasive national problem. Get the facts. @GLSEN bit.ly/164lNIn
- Did you know that #LGBTyouth suffer bullying, harassment, and assault in school? Let’s keep them safe: bit.ly/164lNIn @GLSEN
- #LGBTyouth feel unsafe at school. It’s time for that to change. @GLSEN bit.ly/164lNIn
- #LGBTyouth skip class and get lower grades when they feel unsafe. Stand up for quality education. @GLSEN bit.ly/164lNIn
- #LGBTyouth suffer bullying and harassment on college campuses. #TylerClementi @campuspride bit.ly/GNOpPk
- Powerful @HBODocs film @ValentineRdDoc highlights need for safe & welcoming schools for all. @GLSEN #LGBTyouth bit.ly/1fJKzGD
- Just watched an important documentary that lifts the veil on school #bullying. @bullymovie bit.ly/HChF7f
- .@bullymovie, a documentary that all kids, parents & teachers should have a chance to see. bit.ly/HChF7f
- The climate change we all should want: bit.ly/HwTy9c @bullymovie and bit.ly/1fJKzGD @ValentineRdDoc
When appropriate, don’t be afraid to tweet @ your Representative and Senators. Twitter and Facebook are great places to communicate with members of congress.
The Five Worst Religious Right Claims About Safe Schools Initiatives
People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch is an ongoing source of information on what the far Right is saying about the movement to make schools safe and welcoming for all. Relying on harmful myths depicting LGBT people as abusive and “perverse,” it is clear that the Religious Right is far more interested in pushing homophobic lies than in protecting and supporting all students through commonsense legislation. Our elected leaders face a stark choice between protecting students and siding with the dangerous and hateful lies of the far right.
Here are some of the most troubling claims from the Religious Right about safe schools initiatives:
5.Gordon Klingenschmitt: Al Franken is ‘Causing More Suicides’ by Backing Anti-Bullying Bill (January 2012)
Previously, Gordon Klingenschmitt accused Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) of “homosexualizing kids” and acting like late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il over his efforts to pass legislation geared at preventing bullying because Franken other progressives have “deified sin as their god.” Now, Klingenschmitt is accusing Franken of “causing more suicides” for sponsoring the anti-bullying bill. “Teen suicide is tragic enough without Senator Franken recruiting more kids into homosexuality, which causes depression, self-hatred, self-rejection and self-murder,” Klingenschmitt writes, “Franken’s plan will result in more teen suicides, not less.”
4. Linda Harvey Warns That Anti-Bullying Programs Will Turn Schools Into ‘Indoctrination Camps’ (November 2011)
Linda Harvey of Mission America is urging voters to oppose the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act, warning that such anti-bullying legislation is “using bullying prevention as a tool to force approval of homosexuality and gender bending on children, teachers and families.” On her radio show, Harvey urged members of her Ohio-based group to contact Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman to oppose what she called the “promotion of these lifestyles to kids brought into schools in the Trojan Horse of anti-bullying programs.” She went on to say that schools will be turned “into indoctrination camps” in order “to fulfill the fondest wishes of those who want traditional morality to disappear” if the safe school legislation passes.
3.Public Advocate: Congress Using Schools ‘To Force The Homosexual Agenda’ On Children (April 2011)
Religious Right groups are consistently trying to tarnish anti-bullying initiatives as “homosexual indoctrination” and “special rights,” among other absurd claims. A Religious Right group led by Virginia politician Eugene Delgaudio, the Public Advocate, launched the “Protect Our Children’s Innocence” petition to protest the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which it labels the “Homosexual Classrooms Act.”
2.Gordon Klingenschmitt Says ‘Sick and Perverse’ Student Non-Discrimination Act Will Legalize ‘Sexual Assault’ (April 2012)
After President Obama announced his support for the Student Non-Discrimination Act, Gordon Klingenschmitt went back on the attackagainst the anti-bullying bill, in an email message warning that the “sick and perverse” legislation will “give homosexuals and perverts protected status,” “mandate pro-homosexual recruiting of kids in public schools,” promote “child abuse” as “homosexuals will have full control of classrooms” and even allow for harassment and “sexual assault.”
1.Sandy Rios: Schools No Longer Teach Reading and Writing, Now Just Promote Homosexuality (April 2013)
The American Family Association’s Sandy Rios hosted Linda Harvey of Mission America to criticize the Day of Silence, the anti-bullying event which Harvey has previously described as dangerous and blasphemous.
Rios, who once said that test scores are dropping as a result of schools “teaching” homosexuality, kicked off the program by arguing that public schools no longer instruct students in subjects like “reading, writing, cursive, spelling, grammar [and] punctuation,” but are instead completely dedicated to “cramming, twisting, perverting all academic subjects to the way of supporting homosexuality.”
American Association of University Women (AAUW)
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) is a leading voice promoting equity and education for women and girls. Since its founding in 1881, AAUW members have examined and taken positions on the fundamental issues of the day — educational, social, economic, and political.
American Civil Liberties Union
The American Civil Liberties Union is a guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country. These rights include: your First Amendment rights – freedom of speech, association and assembly; freedom of the press, and freedom of religion; your right to equal protection under the law – protection against unlawful discrimination; your right to due process – fair treatment by the government whenever the loss of your liberty or property is at stake; and your right to privacy – freedom from unwarranted government intrusion into your personal and private affairs. The organization also works to extend rights to segments of the population that have traditionally been denied their rights, including people of color; women; lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people; prisoners; and people with disabilities.
American Counseling Association
The American Counseling Association is dedicated to the growth and enhancement of the counseling profession. Founded in 1952, ACA is the world’s largest association exclusively representing professional counselors in various practice settings.
American Federation of Teachers
The American Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, was founded in 1916 and today represents 1.5 million members in more than 3,000 local affiliates nationwide. Five divisions within the AFT represent the broad spectrum of the AFT’s membership: pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; and nurses and other healthcare professionals. In addition, the AFT represents approximately 80,000 early childhood educators and nearly 250,000 retiree members.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is the nation’s leading organization bringing together people across communities and backgrounds to understand and prevent suicide, and to help heal the pain it causes. Individuals, families, and communities who have been personally touched by suicide are the moving force behind everything we do.
American Psychological Association
The American Psychological Association is the world’s largest association of psychologists, with more than 134,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students as its members. APA’s mission is to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.
The BULLY Project
The BULLY Project is the social action campaign inspired by the award-winning film BULLY – a national movement to stop bullying that is transforming kids’ lives and changing a culture of bullying into one of empathy and action. The power of its work lies in the participation of individuals and its partners who collectively work to create safe, caring, and respectful schools and communities.
Campus Pride serves LGBT and ally student leaders and campus organizations in the areas of leadership development, support programs, and services to create safer, more inclusive LGBT-friendly colleges and universities. It exists to develop, support, and give “voice and action” in building future LGBT and ally student leaders.
Family Equality Council
Family Equality Council connects, supports, and represents the three million parents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender in this country and their six million children. The organization works to change attitudes and policies to ensure that all families are respected, loved, and celebrated—including families with parents who are LGBT. It is a community of parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren that reaches across this country.
Gay-Straight Alliance Network (GSA Network)
Gay-Straight Alliance Network is a national youth leadership organization that connects school-based Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) to each other and to community resources through peer support, leadership development, and training. GSA Network supports young people in starting, strengthening, and sustaining GSAs and builds the capacity of GSAs to: create safe environments in schools for students to support each other and learn about homophobia, transphobia, and other oppressions; educate the school community about homophobia, transphobia, gender identity, and sexual orientation issues; and fight discrimination, harassment, and violence in schools.
Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network
The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network strives to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. GLSEN believes that such an atmosphere engenders a positive sense of self, which is the basis of educational achievement and personal growth. Since homophobia and heterosexism undermine a healthy school climate, the organizations educates teachers, students and the public at large about the damaging effects these forces have on youth and adults alike. It recognizes that forces such as racism and sexism have similarly adverse impacts on communities and supports schools in seeking to redress all such inequities.
GLSEN Northeast Ohio
GLSEN Northeast Ohio is a chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Chapters play an important role in bringing GLSEN’s programs and visions to local communities. While some chapters have full-time or part-time staff, most are entirely volunteer-based.
Human Rights Campaign
As the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, the Human Rights Campaign represents a force of more than 1.5 million members and supporters nationwide — all committed to making HRC’s vision a reality. Founded in 1980, HRC advocates on behalf of LGBT Americans, mobilizes grassroots actions in diverse communities, invests strategically to elect fair-minded individuals to office and educates the public about LGBT issues.
As religion plays an increasingly prominent role in American politics, preserving the boundary between religion and government is more vital than ever. Interfaith Alliance works to ensure that faith and freedom flourish so that individuals can worship freely or not worship at all, so they can embrace matters of personal conscience without fear of government intrusion, and so that all can live in a vibrant, healthy society. Created in 1994, Interfaith Alliance today has 185,000 members across the country made up of 75 faith traditions as well as those of no faith tradition.
Founded in 1973, Lambda Legal is the oldest and largest national legal organization whose mission is to achieve full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, and those with HIV through impact litigation, selecting cases that will have the greatest impact in protecting and advancing the rights of LGBT people and those with HIV; education campaigns to help people exercise the rights they have and to build public support for equality; and public policy advocacy at the local, state, and federal levels to improve the lives of LGBT people, people affected by HIV, and their families and allies.
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States. Through advocacy and outreach to targeted constituencies, The Leadership Conference works toward the goal of a more open and just society – an America as good as its ideals. It was founded in 1950 and has coordinated national lobbying efforts on behalf of every major civil rights law since 1957.
Matthew Shepard Foundation
The Matthew Shepard Foundation was founded by Dennis and Judy Shepard in memory of their 21-year old son, Matthew, who was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in Wyoming in October 1998. Created to honor Matthew in a manner that was appropriate to his dreams, beliefs, and aspirations, the Foundation seeks to “Replace Hate with Understanding, Compassion, & Acceptance” through its varied educational, outreach, and advocacy programs and by continuing to tell Matthew’s story.
Founded in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. From the ballot box to the classroom, the thousands of dedicated workers, organizers, leaders, and members who make up the NAACP continue to fight for social justice for all Americans. The mission of the NAACP is to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination.
National Association of School Psychologists
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) empowers school psychologists by advancing effective practices to improve students’ learning, behavior, and mental health. Its vision is that all children and youth thrive in school, at home, and throughout life.
National Association of Secondary School Principals
In existence since 1916, NASSP is the preeminent organization of and national voice for middle level and high school principals, assistant principals, and aspiring school leaders from across the United States and more than 45 countries around the world. The organization’s mission is to promote excellence in school leadership. It provides its members with the professional research-based and peer-tested resources and practical tools and materials they need to serve as visionary school leaders.
National Center for Lesbian Rights
The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a national legal organization committed to advancing the civil and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education. NCLR litigates precedent-setting cases at the trial and appellate court levels; advocates for equitable public policies affecting the LGBT community; provides free legal assistance to LGBT people and their legal advocates; and conducts community education on LGBT legal issues.
National Council of Jewish Women
The National Council of Jewish Women has been at the forefront of social change for over a century—championing the needs of women, children, and families—while courageously taking a progressive stance on such issues as child welfare, women’s rights, and reproductive freedom. It is a grassroots organization of volunteers and advocates who turn progressive ideals into action.
National Education Association
The National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA’s 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of the LGBT movement. As part of a broader social justice movement, the Task Force to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all.
National Safe Schools Partnership
The National Safe Schools Partnership, a coalition of over 110 leading national organizations in the fields of education, health, civil rights, youth development, and religion that have joined together to support policy recommendations based on concrete research and experience, is committed to ensuring that America’s schools are safe for all youth, including those who are LGBT. Officially, the Partnership supports federal safe schools legislation, such as the Safe Schools Improvement Act, that will comprehensively address the issues of bullying and harassment.
National Women’s Law Center
National Women’s Law Center has worked for 40 years to expand, protect, and promote opportunity and advancement for women and girls at every stage of their lives — from education to employment to retirement security, and everything in between. The organization’s research, analysis, and advocacy take place when legislatures are enacting or amending laws; the executive branch and its agencies are writing regulations or otherwise enforcing laws and policies; and the courts are reviewing actions. It also conducts campaigns and public awareness efforts to educate and mobilize the public to press for policy changes to improve women’s lives.
Founded in 1972 with the simple act of a mother supporting her gay son, PFLAG is the original ally organization. Made up of parents, families, friends, and straight allies uniting with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, PFLAG is committed to advancing equality through its mission of support, education, and advocacy. Now in its 40th anniversary year, the organization has over 350 chapters and 200,000 supporters crossing multiple generations of American families in major urban centers, small cities, and rural areas in all 50 states, cultivated, resourced, and serviced by PFLAG National, located in Washington, DC, the national Board of Directors, and 13 Regional Directors.
School Social Work Association of America
The School Social Work Association of America empowers school social workers and promotes the profession of school social work to enhance the social and emotional growth and academic outcomes of all students. Its vision is that school social work is a valued, integral part of the education of all children, connecting schools, families, and communities.
Transgender Law Center
Transgender Law Center works to change law, policy, and attitudes so that all people can live safely, authentically, and free from discrimination regardless of their gender identity or expression. It envisions a future where gender self-determination and authentic expression are seen as basic rights and matters of common human dignity.
The Trevor Project
Founded in 1998 by the creators of the Academy Award-winning short film TREVOR, The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24.
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society
With headquarters in Washington, DC and New York City, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) is one of four international general program boards of The United Methodist Church. Its five areas of ministry include Public Witness and Advocacy; Administration; Ministry of Resourcing Congregational Life; United Nations Ministry; and Communications.
In 2008, eighth-grader Brandon McInerney shot classmate Larry King at point blank range. Unraveling this tragedy from point of impact, Valentine Road reveals the heartbreaking circumstances that led to the shocking crime as well as the aftermath.
The following safe schools toolkit was by no means a solitary effort. The authors are indebted in particular to the work of the American Civil Liberties Union, Campus Pride, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, GLSEN Northeast Ohio, the Human Rights Campaign, Interfaith Alliance, Lambda Legal, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the National Safe Schools Partnership, National Women’s Law Center, and The Trevor Project.
It’s like walking through a hailstorm...
—Polly R. (pseudonym), parent of gender non-conforming son, describing the hostile environment that LGBT children face in schools, Utah, December 2015
Outside the home, schools are the primary vehicles for educating, socializing, and providing services to young people in the United States. Schools can be difficult environments for students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but they are often especially unwelcoming for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. A lack of policies and practices that affirm and support LGBT youth—and a failure to implement protections that do exist—means that LGBT students nationwide continue to face bullying, exclusion, and discrimination in school, putting them at physical and psychological risk and limiting their education.
In 2001, Human Rights Watch published Hatred in the Hallways: Violence and Discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students in US Schools. The report documented rampant bullying and discrimination against LGBT students in schools across the country, and urged policymakers and school officials to take concrete steps to respect and protect the rights of LGBT youth.
Over the last 15 years, lawmakers and school administrators have increasingly recognized that LGBT youth are a vulnerable population in school settings, and many have implemented policies designed to ensure all students feel safe and welcome at school.
Yet progress is uneven. In many states and school districts, LGBT students and teachers lack protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In others, protections that do exist are inadequate or unenforced. As transgender and gender non-conforming students have become more visible, too, many states and school districts have ignored their needs and failed to ensure they enjoy the same academic and extracurricular benefits as their non-transgender peers.
This undermines a number of fundamental human rights, including LGBT students’ rights to education, personal security, freedom from discrimination, access to information, free expression, association and privacy.
Based on interviews with over 500 students, teachers, administrators, parents, service providers, and advocates in Alabama, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah, this report focuses on four main issues that LGBT people continue to experience in school environments in the United States.
Areas of concern include bullying and harassment, exclusion from school curricula and resources, restrictions on LGBT student groups, and other forms of discrimination and bigotry against students and staff based on sexual orientation and gender identity. While not exhaustive, these broad issues offer a starting point for policymakers and administrators to ensure that LGBT people’s rights are respected and protected in schools.
LGBT Experiences in School
Social pressures are part of the school experience of many students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. But the experience can be particularly difficult for LGBT students, who often struggle to make sense of their identities, lack support from family and friends, and encounter negative messaging about LGBT people at school and in their community.
As a result of these factors, LGBT students are more likely than heterosexual peers to suffer abuse. “I’ve been shoved into lockers, and sometimes people will just push up on me to check if I have boobs,” said Kevin I., a 17-year-old transgender boy in Utah. He added that school administrators dismissed his complaints of verbal and physical abuse, blaming him for being “so open about it.”
In some instances, teachers themselves mocked LGBT youth or joined the bullying. Lynette G., the mother of a young girl with a gay father in South Dakota, recalled that when her daughter was eight, “she ran home because they were teasing her. Like, ‘Oh, your dad is a cocksucker, a faggot, he sucks dick.’ … She saw a teacher laughing and that traumatized her even worse.”
Students also reported difficulty accessing information about LGBT issues from teachers and counselors, and found little information in school libraries and on school computers. In some districts, this silence was exacerbated by state law. In Alabama, Texas, Utah, and five other US states, antiquated states laws restrict discussions of homosexuality in schools. Such restrictions make it difficult or impossible for LGBT youth to get information about health and well-being on the same terms as heterosexual peers. “In my health class I tested the water by asking [the teacher] about safer sex, because I’m gay,” Brayden W., a 17-year-old boy in Utah, said. “He said he was not allowed to talk about it.”
The effects of these laws are not only limited to health or sexuality education classes. As students and teachers describe in this report, they also chilled discussions of LGBT topics and themes in history, government, psychology, and English classes.
Many LGBT youth have organized gay-straight alliances (GSAs), which can serve as important resources for students and as supportive spaces to counteract bullying and institutional silence about issues of importance to them. As this report documents, however, these clubs continue to encounter obstacles from some school administrators that make it difficult for them to form and operate.
When GSAs were allowed to form, some students said they were subject to more stringent requirements than other clubs, were left out of school-wide activities, or had their advertising defaced or destroyed. Serena I., a 17-year-old bisexual girl in Utah, said: “It’s mental abuse, almost, seeing all these posters up and yours is the only one that’s written on or torn down.”
Often, LGBT students also lacked teacher role models. In the absence of employment protections, many LGBT teachers said they feared backlash from parents or adverse employment consequences if they were open about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Discrimination and bigotry against transgender students took various forms, including restricting bathroom and locker room access, limiting participation in extracurricular activities, and curtailing other forms of expression—for example, dressing for the school day or special events like homecoming. “They didn’t let me in and I didn’t get my money back,” said Willow K., a 14-year-old transgender girl in Texas who attempted to wear a dress to her homecoming.
LGBT students also described persistent patterns of isolation, exclusion, and marginalization that made them feel unsafe or unwelcome at school. Students described how hearing slurs, lacking resources relevant to their experience, being discouraged from having same-sex relationships, and being regularly misgendered made the school a hostile environment, which in turn can impact health and well-being.
Acanthus R., a 17-year-old pansexual, non-binary transgender student in Utah, said it was “like a little mental pinch” when teachers used the wrong pronouns. “It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but eventually you bruise.”
Comprehensive approaches are urgently needed to make school environments welcoming for LGBT students and staff, and to allow students to learn and socialize with peers without fearing exclusion, humiliation, or violence. Above all:
- States should repeal outdated and stigmatizing laws that deter and arguably prohibit discussion of LGBT issues in schools, and enact laws protecting students and staff from bullying and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Schools should ensure that policies, curricula, and resources explicitly include LGBT people, and that the school environment is responsive to the specific needs of LGBT youth.
- Teachers and administrators should work to make existing policies meaningful by enforcing protections and intervening when bullying or discrimination occurs.
Successes, with Limits
LGBT communities in the United States have won a number of victories over the past decade. Among other milestones, advocates have successfully fought to include sexual orientation and gender identity in federal hate crimes legislation, repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that banned LGBT persons from serving in the US military, and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment by the federal government and its contractors and subcontractors. The US Supreme Court has also extended the constitutional right to marry to same-sex couples nationwide.
In contrast to these positive trends, many LGBT youth still remain vulnerable to stigmatization and abuse. In a survey of more than 10,000 youth conducted in 2012, a lack of family acceptance was the primary concern that LGBT youth identified as the most important problem in their lives. Due in part to rejection by families and peers, LGBT youth have disproportionately high rates of homelessness, physical and mental health concerns, and suicidality. Only five US states and the District of Columbia have prohibited “conversion therapy,” a dangerous and discredited practice meant to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
When LGBT youth experience family or community rejection, schools can ideally function as safe and affirming environments for them to learn, interact with peers, and feel a sense of belonging. Yet efforts to ensure such conditions for LGBT youth in schools have historically encountered strong political, legal, and cultural resistance, and continue to face such resistance today, often due to the charge that adults are “indoctrinating” or “recruiting” youth into being LGBT.
In 1977, Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign relied heavily on this type of child-protective rhetoric to repeal a Dade County, Florida ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and inspired a number of copycat campaigns around the United States.
Nearly 40 years later, many teachers who are visibly out as LGBT or actively support LGBT students still worry that they will be passed over for promotions, demoted, or terminated as a result.Such concerns are not unfounded; most US states still lack laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace.
In the late 1980s, lawmakers began amending sexuality education laws and inserting provisions that many educators read as prohibiting or restricting discussions of homosexuality in schools. Such laws have been decried as discriminatory and nonsensical, yet they remain on the books in eight US states.Attempts to repeal them have proved unsuccessful, and lawmakers in Missouri and Tennessee have pushed in recent years to adopt similar laws in their states.
When students themselves began organizing in the 1990s, many school administrators across the US unsuccessfully fought to restrict the formation and operation of gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in schools, arguing that the clubs were inappropriate for youth. Although courts have clearly and repeatedly affirmed that schools must allow such groups to form, dogged resistance to GSAs continues in many school systems.
And in 2016, anxieties about LGBT youth in schools emerged anew when lawmakers in at least 18 states sought to restrict transgender students’ access to bathrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities consistent with their gender identity. Despite significant changes in public opinion toward LGBT people, resistance to policies that render schools safe and affirming leave LGBT students and faculty vulnerable in too many schools across the US.
“No Promo Homo” Laws
In some instances, pervasive anxieties about indoctrination and recruitment in schools have prompted state and local efforts—some of them successful—to limit what teachers may say about LGBT topics in the classroom.
One of the most overt campaigns to keep LGBT topics out of schools was the Briggs Initiative, a ballot measure in California in 1978 that would have prohibited “the advocating, soliciting, imposing, encouraging or promoting of private or public homosexual activity directed at, or likely to come to the attention of, schoolchildren and/or other employees.”
Although the Briggs Initiative was defeated, laws prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality or restricting discussions of homosexuality in schools were enacted by state legislatures in the late 1980s and 1990s. Laws that restrict classroom instruction in this manner—or “no promo homo” laws—remain on the books in Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.
The provisions in Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas refer to homosexuality as a criminal offense under state law, ignoring that the Supreme Court deemed those criminal laws unconstitutional in 2003. Of the five states where interviews took place, Alabama, Texas, and Utah each have laws pertaining to discussions of homosexuality in schools:
- Alabama state law dictates that “[c]ourse materials and instruction that relate to sexual education or sexually transmitted diseases should include all of the following elements … [a]n emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”
- Texas state law specifies that the Department of State Health Services “shall give priority to developing model education programs for persons younger than 18 years of age,” and “[t]he materials in the education programs intended for persons younger than 18 years of age must … state that homosexual conduct is not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense under Section 21.06, Penal Code.”
- Utah state law prohibits public schools from using materials for “community and personal health, physiology, personal hygiene, and prevention of communicable disease” that include instruction in “the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation, or erotic behavior; the advocacy of homosexuality; the advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive methods or devices; or the advocacy of sexual activity outside marriage.”
They appear alongside more general restrictions on sexuality education, including provisions requiring or encouraging abstinence education. Although each of these restrictions specifically appears in portions of state law addressing instruction in sexuality education, their chilling effects often extend much further.
As Nora F., an administrator in Utah, said:
The law says you can’t do four things – advocate for sex outside of marriage, contraception, homosexuality, and can’t teach the mechanics of sex. It’s in the realm of sexuality education, but these four things transcend health classes. This is why history teachers might hesitate to teach an LGBT rights lesson, or why elementary school teachers might hesitate to read a book with LGBTQ themes.
As interviews with administrators, teachers, and students demonstrate, the practical effect of these outdated laws has been to discourage discussion of LGBT issues throughout the school environment, from curricular instruction to counseling to library resources to GSA programming. Many teachers avoided or silenced any discussion of LGBT issues in schools. At times, this was because they were unsure what it meant to “advocate” or “promote” homosexuality and feared they would face repercussions from parents or administrators if they were too frank or supportive of students. At other times, teachers refused to teach the antiquated, discriminatory messages that some no promo homo laws require them to convey when homosexuality is discussed, and so declined to address LGBT topics at all. Without clear instruction on what the laws permit, many teachers reported that they or their colleagues erred on the side of caution, excluding information that parents or administrators might construe as falling within their scope.
Impact on LGBT Students of Discrimination and Victimization
In 2013, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that discrimination and victimization of youth based on their sexual orientation or gender identity correlated with lower levels of self-esteem, higher levels of depression, and increased absenteeism from school.
GLSEN’s findings are consistent with governmental and academic studies that consistently show that LGBT youth are at elevated risk of adverse mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidality. According to a study by the Williams Institute, a research institute at the UCLA School of Law, a disproportionate 40 percent of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBT, due in large part to families rejecting their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In 2016, the federal government’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey asked for the first time nationally about student sexuality, and found the 8 percent of students who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual nationally experienced higher rates of depression and suicidality than their heterosexual peers. Data showed that an alarming 42.8 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth respondents had seriously considered suicide in the previous year, and 29.4 percent had attempted suicide, compared with 14.8 percent of heterosexual youth who had seriously considered suicide in the previous year and 6.4 percent of heterosexual youth who had attempted suicide.
A lack of support contributed to the prevalence of negative mental health outcomes; in one study, lesbian, gay, and bisexual students in environments with fewer supports like gay-straight alliances, inclusive anti-bullying policies, and inclusive non-discrimination policies were 20 percent more likely to attempt suicide than those in more supportive environments.Studies have suggested that “[a] higher risk for suicide ideation and attempts among LGB groups seems to start at least as early as high school.”
For LGBT youth, isolation and exclusion can be as detrimental as bullying and can aggregate over time to create an unmistakably hostile environment. In recent years, psychologists have drawn attention to these types of incidents—or “microaggressions”—and the way they collectively function to adversely affect development and health.
“Incidents build up and eventually you blow up. I think microaggressions are seen as not important or damaging as violence, but they are, just in different ways,” Kayla E., a 17-year-old lesbian girl in Pennsylvania, said.As Polly R., the parent of a gender non-conforming son in Utah, described the effects of a hostile environment in schools: “It’s like walking through a hailstorm. It’s not like any one piece of hail that gets you, it’s all the hail together.”
Amanda Keller, director of LGBTQ Programs and the Magic City Acceptance Center at Birmingham AIDS Outreach in Alabama, said students often told her they wished fellow students would “just hit them or lash out rather than just ignoring them, ignoring their identity, walking into them and pretending there’s nobody there.”Vanessa M., a counselor in Pennsylvania, said: “That stuff, it not only builds, but it takes a toll on their psyche where they don’t like themselves.”
The discrimination and victimization that LGBT youth face in schools is often exacerbated when they have intersectional identities based on race, ethnicity, sex, disability, and other characteristics. LGBT youth of color, for example, often report bullying based on race and ethnicity, closer surveillance by school personnel, and harsher disciplinary measures.
When students experience stigmatization, hostility, and rejection over years of schooling, the cumulative effect can be devastating and long-lasting. Psychological research has suggested that “circumstances in the environment, especially related to stigma and prejudice, may bring about stressors that LGBT people experience their entire lives.”
II. Bullying and Harassment
Pervasive bullying and harassment of LGBT youth has long been a problem in US schools. In 2001, Human Rights Watch researchers documented widespread physical abuse and sexual harassment of LGBT youth, and noted that “[n]early every one of the 140 youth we interviewed described incidents of verbal or other nonphysical harassment in school because of their own or other students’ perceived sexual orientation.”
Fifteen years later, bullying, harassment, and exclusion remain serious problems for LGBT youth across the US, even as their peers generally become more supportive as a group. The Human Rights Campaign has found that although 75 percent of LGBT youth say most of their peers do not have a problem with their LGBT identity, LGBT youth are still more than twice as likely as non-LGBT youth to be physically attacked at school, twice as likely to be verbally harassed at school, and twice as likely to be excluded by their peers.
In 2016, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 34.2 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents in the US had been bullied on school property, and that lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents were twice as likely as heterosexual youth to be threatened or injured with a weapon on school property.
The impacts of bullying on youth can be severe, and legislatures across the US have recognized that bullying is a serious and widespread problem that merits intervention. In 1999, Georgia passed the first school bullying law in the US.The rest of the US states followed suit, with the final state—Montana—passing its school bullying law in 2015.
Although provisions of these laws vary by state, they typically define prohibited conduct; enumerate characteristics that are frequently targeted for bullying; direct local schools to develop policies for reporting, documenting, investigating, and responding to bullying; and provide for staff training, data collection and monitoring, and periodic review.
At time of writing, 19 states and the District of Columbia had enacted laws prohibiting bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity statewide. Research indicates that laws and policies that enumerate sexual orientation and gender identity as protected grounds are more effective than those that merely provide a general admonition against bullying.Without express protections for sexual orientation and gender identity that are clearly conveyed to students and staff, bullying and harassment against LGBT students frequently goes unchecked.
Still, 31 states—including the five studied for this report— lack any specific, enumerated laws protecting against bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In Alabama, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah, some school districts and schools had taken the initiative to enact inclusive, enumerated bullying policies; in South Dakota, however, state law expressly prohibits school districts and schools from enumerating protected classes of students.
Schools that have enacted protections do not always clearly convey them to students, faculty, and staff. In interviews, many students and teachers expressed uncertainty or offered contradictory information as to whether their school prohibited bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, even in schools where enumerated protections were already in place.
Many students reported that school personnel did not raise the issue of bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity at assemblies and educational programming on bullying held at their school.
For policies to be effective, students, faculty, and staff also need to know how targets of bullying can report incidents, how those incidents will be handled, and the consequences for bullying. Few of the 41 school policies reviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report contain clear guidelines detailing the protocol for reporting and dealing with bullying, making it unclear to students whether or how any reported incidents might be dealt with in practice.
Interviewees identified multiple types of bullying and harassment that they encountered in schools, each of which has consequences for LGBT students’ safety, sense of belonging, and ability to learn.
Most students interviewed indicated that physical violence was rare in their school. Students attributed this in part to a decrease in anti-LGBT attitudes among peers, both as a generational shift and among their cohort as they aged through high school. Some students also attributed this partly to zero tolerance policies and the perception that, though other forms of harassment may go unpunished, physical assault could result in serious consequences for perpetrators.
Yet some students did face persistent physical violence at school and many said their schools took no effective steps to stop it. Sandra C., the mother of a 16-year-old gay boy in Utah, described a pattern of harassment that culminated in her withdrawing her son from the school:
My son was dragged down the lockers, called ‘gay’ and ‘fag’ and ‘queer,’ shoved into a locker, and picked up by his neck. And that was going on since sixth grade. They tried shoving him into a girl’s bathroom and said that he’s worthless and should be a girl.
Some students who experienced physical violence hesitated to tell adults for fear that reporting would be ineffectual or make the situation worse. Willow K., a 14-year-old transgender girl in Texas, recalled being abused by members of the football team in seventh grade:
I came out that year, as gay, before I knew I was transgender, and I went into the locker room and everybody beat me up. I didn’t feel safe telling people because I thought they’d beat me up more.
She added: “When I did tell somebody a kid was threatening to fight me, they did jack shit to stop it.”
In one incident in Montgomery, Alabama in 2014, a gay high school student was surrounded and assaulted by a group of male students who punched and kicked him repeatedly, breaking his arm and leg. As Paul Hard, a counselor in Alabama, recalled:
The counselor and others came in to address the matter with the principal, and his response was to the effect of, ‘If you’d butch it up, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen to you.’
Kevin I., a 17-year-old transgender boy in Utah, said:
I’ve been shoved into lockers, and sometimes people will just push up on me to check if I have boobs…. And I have reported… that I’ve been physically hurt because I’m trans, and I remember one of the administrators said, ‘It’s just because you’re so open about it.’ I’ve reported slurs and they say they’re going to go talk to them, but they never do.
When administrators react indifferently to bullying and harassment, it can deter students from coming forward. Alexander S., a 16-year-old transgender boy in Texas, said:
I’ve been bullied my whole life, since kindergarten. I didn’t want to play dolls, and play with the girls in the classroom. I was more comfortable with the guys…. When I was eight, I started getting beaten up. When I realized what was going on, I told my teacher about the verbal bullying, she didn’t believe me, she called me a liar, because one of the bullies was her son. And I figured bullying wasn’t a big deal. I was already starting to be depressed at six or seven and started having suicidal thoughts. By nine, I realized the school wasn’t going to do anything…. I just kept it all bottled in.
Alexander’s parents finally learned of the bullying after he attempted suicide. He has continued to struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, and has been repeatedly admitted to inpatient care for treatment.
Verbal Harassment and Hostile Environments
Almost all of the students interviewed for the report reported encountering verbal harassment in their school environment, even in the most LGBT-friendly schools. In some schools, derogatory phrases like “that's so gay” and slurs like “dyke” or “faggot” were used by students to belittle or taunt peers, whether or not the targets identified as LGBT. Students stressed that even these generalized slurs contributed to a sense of hostility and danger in the school environment.
In each of the five states where interviews were conducted, researchers encountered schools where slurs were ubiquitous. Katrina I., a 17-year-old gay girl in Alabama, noted: “All the time, I hear slurs. I hear ‘queer’ thrown around a lot, the F word [faggot] thrown around a lot.”Joel W., a genderfluid 17-year-old in Pennsylvania, said: “I hear slurs almost every single class.”Ryan K., an 18-year-old student in South Dakota, concurred: “I hear it like every class period.”In addition to “that’s so gay,” “faggot,” and “dyke,” transgender students reported encountering anti-transgender slurs like “tranny” or being referred to with dismissive, dehumanizing terms like “it” or “fe-man.”
Students also encountered anti-LGBT graffiti and slurs written on the school building, tests and papers, and personal property, and noted that their schools failed to investigate or rectify the vandalism. Kayla E., a 17-year-old lesbian student in Pennsylvania, said:
I’ve had to scrape ‘tranny’ and ‘faggot’ off the bathroom stall walls. I went to our center and told the secretary and she was like, ‘Oh, okay,’ but that was it.
Molly A., a 17-year-old LGBT-identified student in South Dakota, described pervasive anti-LGBT graffiti: “All the bathroom doors in middle school have the F and G [gay] and Q [queer] words written all over them.”
Lee W., a 15-year-old bisexual genderqueer student in Pennsylvania, said: “I’ve been called slurs in the hallway and I know teachers hear but they don’t say anything. I’ve been called a dyke and faggot.” Ursula P., a 16-year-old transgender girl in Alabama, said:
Every other day people will yell and say negative things to me, like ‘You’re a guy,’ and it just really upsets me. I tell the teachers or counselors and they talk to the kid, but the same thing happens and it doesn’t help at all.
Experiencing targeted verbal harassment had negative effects on student mental health. In addition to isolation, anxiety, and depression, harassment can exacerbate gender dysphoria, a condition where there is “a marked difference between the individual’s expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her” that “causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
Zack T., a 16-year-old transgender boy in Texas, said that “I mostly got verbal abuse, which was pretty degrading, and my dysphoria would go through the roof.” Some students developed defenses to wall themselves off from abuse. Jayden N. a 16-year-old gay boy in Texas, said:
I’ve had someone yell ‘faggot’ at me, ‘queer boy,’ you hear people say ‘that’s so gay’ all the time…. In the beginning it was hard, but you get kind of used to it after a while.
Students noted that some of the verbal harassment they encountered occurred in spaces that were unmonitored by teachers, administrators, and other staff, such as hallways, cafeterias, buses, and locker rooms. Yet even in classrooms and in communal spaces where school personnel were present, many students said teachers did little to intervene to stop slurs and verbal harassment.
Colin N., an 18-year-old transgender boy in Pennsylvania who heard slurs daily, said:
I think it’s a mix of, it’s not in the teacher’s earshot, or teachers don’t want to deal with it, or it’s around teachers who feel the same way. I’ve never been around where a kid has gotten called out for saying something like that.
Charlie O., a genderfluid 17-year-old in Texas, described a similar incident:
In sophomore history class, we had to stand up and say our name and one thing we’re part of, and I said ‘Charlie, and GSA,’ and a girl said ‘what’s GSA?,’ and a boy in the corner said, ‘That’s the faggot club.’ The teacher just kind of looked at him. The teachers turn a blind eye.
Noah P., a 14-year-old transgender boy in Texas, said: “A guy asked my teacher, ‘Right, gay people are going to hell, right?’ And she didn’t say a thing. They don’t do shit.”
Students said that when teachers did intervene, intervention was at times sporadic or inadequate. Daisy J., an 18-year-old student in Alabama, said, “A kid will say [a slur] like seven times, and if she talks to them, it’s after everyone leaves.”
Arthur C., a 34-year-old transgender teacher in Texas, recalled hearing slurs 10-20 times a day at the middle school where he taught. “If I sent them to the female AP’s (assistant principal’s) office, they’d be back in my classroom within five minutes. ‘Don’t write them up for this, it’s not worth my time.’” At the high school where he taught later, Arthur said, “I’d hear stuff in other teachers’ classrooms … but they just wouldn’t even acknowledge it.”
Other teachers also acknowledged that slurs were prevalent and used within earshot of school personnel. Monica D., a 37-year-old teacher in Utah, said: “I absolutely hear slurs. Frequently, kids still say, ‘That’s so gay,’ or I hear them say, ‘You’re a fag,’ or whatever.” Lillian D., a teacher and GSA advisor in Pennsylvania, suggested that non-intervention was a deliberate, if flawed, strategy for educators:
A lot of teachers ignore it hoping it’ll go away, but when they don’t speak up, students assume it’s okay with that teacher.... But this is an area where that strategy doesn’t work.
Interviewees indicated that teachers lacked training or support to know when and how to intervene when slurs were used. As Isabel M., a GSA advisor in South Dakota, said, “They’re just letting these things go over their heads. They don’t know how to deal with it, and they don’t recognize it.”
In some instances, teachers and administrators’ willingness to effectively respond to slurs was compromised by laws or policies restricting the discussion of LGBT issues in schools. Alice L., a 53-year-old mother of a transgender student in Utah, said: “I’ve talked to teachers who are like, ‘I’d like to stop it, but I don’t know what to say, and particularly in light of Utah’s laws where I can’t promote homosexuality.’”
In some instances, teachers responded to slurs in ways that affirmatively encouraged verbal harassment. Eric N., a 22-year-old transgender man in Pennsylvania, recalled: “In chemistry, students called me ‘faggot,’ and the teacher just laughed along…. it just sets the tone for the whole rest of the day.”Rebecca P., a 19-year-old pansexual woman in Utah, said:
They saw it as a joke, like, ha ha ha, you’re so gay, and the teachers would laugh along with it instead of stepping in. A few teachers here and there might have stepped in, but most were weirdly okay with it.
Lynette G., the mother of a young girl with a gay father in South Dakota, said the role of teachers in teasing was problematic as early as elementary school:
My daughter was eight, and she ran home because they were teasing her. Like, ‘Oh, your dad is a cocksucker, a faggot, he sucks dick.’ Just mean, nasty stuff…. [T]he teachers laughed, along with the kids teasing. She saw a teacher laughing and that traumatized her even worse.
In addition to tacit encouragement, some teachers themselves made dismissive or derogatory comments about LGBT people, sometimes passing off such remarks as jokes and on other occasions appearing to intend disparagement. Bianca L., a 16-year-old bisexual girl in Alabama, said:
My biology teacher my freshman year would bring in kids who were wearing short shorts or weird sweaters and say, ‘You’d better take that off, you’re going to look gay.’ But she’d say it in front of the whole class.
Michelle A., a genderfluid 18-year-old student in South Dakota, said: “I built something in a day … and I said it wasn’t really good, and he [the teacher] said, ‘Well, that’s lesbian construction.’”
Tristan O., a 21-year-old transgender man in Pennsylvania, recalled that when he was in school, many of his teachers made gay jokes with students, and “when teachers or authority figures make comments, you’re stuck with those people in school. And that chips away at you.”Kelly A., a 19-year-old gay cisgender woman in Utah, remembered: “Teachers said ‘that’s so gay’ – my gym teacher, a math teacher, and a science teacher.”Students also identified coaches and JROTC [Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps] personnel who called students “gay,” “fags,” or feminizing or sexist terms. Eliza H., an 18-year-old bisexual girl in Alabama, recalled: “[M]y girlfriend walked me to class and she came in and held my hand, and [the teacher] told me we’re going to hell because we’re together.”Cheyenne F., a 17-year-old transgender student in Alabama, recalled being told in class by a health teacher “that America’s acceptance of gays and abortion was the cause of the fall of the Twin Towers,” a reference to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Condemnation of students on religious grounds was particularly evident in interviews in Utah. Approximately 60 percent of Utah’s population belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church. Across the state, public schools give students release time in which the school disclaims responsibility for the student and allows them to leave the campus. During this period, students may attend seminary classes in church buildings adjacent to public schools for religious instruction. Students described strong pressure to attend seminary.
The de facto arrangement between public schools and the church can expose students to overtly anti-LGBT messages. Acanthus R., a 17-year-old non-binary transgender student in Utah, described seminary classes at their school as “a boiling pot of hate.” Frankie S., a 17-year-old pansexual student in Utah, said: “They’ll tell you God made male and female and we don’t violate that.”
When students presented a different point of view, they said they were rebuked. Brenda C., a 17-year-old pansexual student in Utah, described a friend being “called a heathen by a seminary teacher.”Lacey T., a 15-year-old bisexual student in Utah, said her brother was kicked out of seminary for disagreeing with students expressing anti-LGBT positions.
In interviews, teachers themselves recalled colleagues making derogatory comments to students. Arthur C., a 34-year-old teacher in Texas, said: “If a teacher ever told a kid they were damned for the color of their skin, they’d be fired instantly. But there’s no consequence when they say it to LGBT kids.”
LGBT students described a double-edged relationship with technology and social media, which allowed them to find communities online to explore their sexual orientation and gender identity, but also exposed them to bullying and harassment.
Students acknowledged that cyberbullying is a problem for middle and high schoolers generally, but said LGBT students could be particularly vulnerable to harassment. Miley D., a 17-year-old bisexual girl in Alabama, suggested: “Online, if you’re open about anything about yourself, you’re prone to be bullied. And if you’re LGBT, it’s 10 times worse.”
In some instances, students took advantage of anonymous apps to target and harass LGBT peers. Eliza H., an 18-year-old bisexual woman in Alabama, recalled: “I was cyberbullied by a few of the guys on the football team because they found out I liked girls ... they kept making fake accounts and saying things over and over.”
In other instances, students circulated unflattering photos or videos to misgender, mock, and embarrass LGBT peers online. Willow K., a 14-year-old transgender girl in Texas, described how other students constructed a website using “my real name … called ‘Kyle Sucks’ with a bunch of pictures about me, calling me an ugly fatass. And there’s a guy who always takes Snapchats of me and calls me a ‘he/she’ and shares them.”
The public exposure and ridicule that students face as a result of cyberbullying can have negative repercussions for their mental health and academic achievement. Carson E., a 28-year-old teacher in Utah, described an incident where students filmed one of his gay students rehearsing a role for the school musical and put it on Facebook, where it rapidly spread with mocking comments. “He stopped going to school for a while,” Carson said. “And his grades are just awful, and last year they were straight As.”
Yet when cyberbullying occurred, many students indicated that their schools were reluctant or ill-equipped to respond. Natalie D., a 17-year-old agender student in Utah, noted: “We’re told with cyberbullying that there is no proof so there’s nothing they can do about it.” Students reported that they had brought threats of physical violence, including death threats, to the attention of their schools, and nothing was done.
Alexander S., a 16-year-old transgender boy in Texas, said:
I started getting a lot of anonymous people telling me to kill myself, that it wasn’t worth living. I called the school and told them what was going on and they didn’t do anything. The crisis counselor … said we couldn’t do anything because we didn’t know who the kids were.
Unlike gay and bisexual boys, who were rarely treated as sex objects by their peers, lesbian and bisexual girls said they were regularly propositioned for sex by straight male classmates.
Bianca L., a 16-year-old girl in Alabama, explained: “I’m bisexual, and every time I come out to a guy, it’s always, ‘Can I see you make out with a girl, or want a threesome?’” Catherine G., a 17-year-old asexual girl in Alabama, said: “I started identifying as asexual last year, and all of a sudden everybody wants to be in my pants. I’m a challenge now.”
Other students described invasive questions about sexual practices and genitalia, which were most often reported by transgender and gender non-conforming youth. Kayla E., a 17-year-old lesbian girl in Pennsylvania, said:
People will ask really intrusive questions about your sex life when they find out you’re a non-straight woman. They ask questions you wouldn’t ask anyone else. I feel like queer women are oversexualized and that’s mistaken as acceptance.
Dominic J., a 13-year-old transgender boy in Pennsylvania said: “I get a lot of questions, like really inappropriate questions, like about my down there and my up here.”
In addition to sexual harassment, lesbian and bisexual girls and transgender and gender non-conforming students were subject to overt threats of sexual assault. Tracy M., an 18-year-old in Texas, said:
I’ve experienced a lot of verbal sexual harassment. I didn’t really accept the label lesbian, and I had one guy tell me he was going to rape me and change me.
Julian L., a 15-year-old transgender boy in South Dakota, described being threatened during his freshman year by a senior:
At one point he was like ‘What do you have between your legs,’ and I said, ‘Why do you need to know that,’ and he was like, ‘I need to know if I can rape you.’
Some lesbian and bisexual girls and transgender and gender non-conforming students were physically groped and touched by young men who learned they were LGBT. As early as middle school, lesbian and bisexual girls and transgender and gender non-conforming students described being targets for unwanted touching and sexual assault. Alexis J., a genderfluid 19-year-old in Texas, recalled “straight up sexual assault” by “people who would just grab my butt or my boobs or my crotch,” to see if they were “real.”
Students said some teachers failed to take sexual harassment seriously. Daniel N., a 17-year-old student in Texas, said: “You know teachers hear sexual harassment, and they take it as, oh, they’re just joking around, and kids will be kids.” Lacey T., a 15-year-old bisexual girl in Utah, recalled that when she was a freshman:
One guy would always ask my pansexual friend and I if we wanted to have a threesome. It got to the point where I had to tell the teacher about it, and she said, ‘Oh, he’s just messing around.
Exclusion and Isolation
Even in the absence of overt bullying and harassment, LGBT students in each state where interviews were conducted suggested they felt alone or unwelcome in their school environment. Schools are difficult environments for many youth, but for LGBT youth, isolation and exclusion are exacerbated by a lack of role models, resources, and support that other students enjoy. Lucia Hermo of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alabama noted the prevalence of these complaints even in districts where physical bullying was uncommon: “What we’re hearing is isolation, I can’t find anyone… and feel there’s something wrong with me.”
A lack of friends and feelings of loneliness were common for LGBT youth. Jonah O., a 16-year-old gay boy in Alabama, said:
There aren’t… many out kids, so that kind of gives a sense of loneliness. There was a rumor that spread that I had a huge crush on this guy in my grade, and all my relationships with other guys in the grade kind of halted at that point.
Isolation can begin as early as elementary school; Raven C., a 10-year-old gay student in Texas, said he was shunned by peers after he came out: “People are friends with each other, but they treat me like I’m a shadow.”
Isolation and exclusion were particularly difficult for many LGBT students because it was not something they felt they could report. Students isolated and excluded LGBT peers in ways that were apparent to those students but not so obviously egregious that teachers or administrators would take any one incident seriously. Tristan O., a 21-year-old transgender man in Pennsylvania, said: “It’s nothing you can hit with a hammer. You know what they’re doing, and it hurts you, but they know it’s just small enough that it’ll slide.”
A common example was belittling comments or exclusion from group activities. As Ginger M., a 17-year-old bisexual girl in Utah, asked: “[H]ow do you go to the administration with that? Someone laughed because I’m gay?” According to Dave W., a 44-year-old teacher and GSA advisor in Pennsylvania, such slights “make a difference after a while… People don’t look you in the eye, teachers don’t call on you in class, they have lower expectations of you.”
School policies and programs can contribute to the isolation and exclusion of LGBT youth, including holding school dances where same-sex dates are discouraged, and school spirit days like “gender switch day.” Ursula P., a 16-year-old transgender girl in Alabama, described how the school yearbook photographer “told me that if I appeared in the yearbook, they’d use my legal name. I asked him to use my real name and he said he wouldn’t, so I told him not to include me in it.” When teachers and administrators signal to students that they are not full members of the school environment, it can exacerbate the isolation and exclusion they already face from peers.
LGBT students responded to isolation and exclusion in different ways. Some recounted how they carefully policed their behavior, dress, and friendships to fit in and avoid harassment. Max R., a 13-year-old student in Pennsylvania, commented:
You almost have to be really cautious with what you do. You can’t be yourself. Even from allegedly straight students, any sort of weird thing they’ll do with each other, it’s like, ‘Whoa, that’s gay, man.’
Others responded by distancing themselves even further from their peers. Caleb C., a gay non-binary 20-year-old in Utah, recalled:
A lot of what I did to be safe was to be even more outrageous. If I’m so queer that nobody will talk to me, they won’t hurt me. I did things to make myself much more gay: play up my gay lisp, feminize my voice, feminize my speech, I had hella long pink hair. That was my thinking, become such an outsider they won’t even approach me.
Exclusion and Isolation by LGBT Peers
Even spaces created for LGBT youth at times failed to serve all youth equally. Some interviewees noted that the GSAs at their schools were inclusive only of students who identified as gay or straight, and had little to offer to students with other identities. Cassidy R., a pansexual agender 18-year-old in Utah, did not pay attention to their school’s GSA “because I felt like I wasn’t included in the conversation, and it really didn’t pertain to me.”
Other LGBT students described outright discrimination or hostility from LGBT peers. Christopher I., a gay transgender 18-year-old in Texas, explained: “The worst I got was from gay guys. Whenever I’d meet guys who were really proud to be gay, they’d be like, ‘Oh, I hate vaginas.’ And being a gay trans guy, I’m like, okay, bye.” Anthony G., a 16-year-old demisexual transgender boy in Texas, said:
The LGBT community is sometimes mean to each other. I met someone who’s pansexual, and we were just talking and getting to know each other, and that came up, and I said, ‘Cool, I’m trans,’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, do you have guy parts,” and they were like, ‘Then you’re a female.’
Furthermore, LGBT students of color experienced intersectional isolation as a product of their sexual and gender identities and racial, ethnic, and national identities. Nora F., a school administrator in Utah, said: “If a student is LGB or T and a child of color, these issues are different. They’re more likely to be harassed, they’re less likely to be intervened with, they’re more likely to face disciplinary proceedings in schools.” Students also noted that being LGBT and a person of color could prove isolating in environments where their LGBT peers were predominantly white and their peers who were students of color were predominantly heterosexual and cisgender.
Reporting and Retaliation
Schools typically encourage students to report when they are bullied or harassed by students or adults. Yet some students who did report physical bullying, verbal harassment, or sexual harassment were rebuffed.
Garrett B., a 16-year-old pansexual transgender boy in Alabama, described inaction when he reported threats of physical violence:
I got a death threat and they did nothing about it. There’s a guy who really hates me for being trans and he was like, ‘I’m going to shoot you in the face,’ and the administration said there was ‘conflicting evidence,’ which probably just means he said he didn’t do it.
Silas G., a 15-year-old transgender boy in South Dakota, said: “Bullying got to the point where someone told me to kill myself, and I told a teacher, and they didn’t do anything.”
Students reported being told their schools could not address bullying or harassment without proof, and used the fact that they lacked the evidence necessary to discipline a student to justify inaction. Furthermore, students who tried to document various forms of bullying and harassment with their phones or cameras found themselves being punished for using devices in school.
Noah P., a 14-year-old transgender boy in Texas, said:
I got in-school suspension for recording bullying on my phone… because you can’t film another person without their consent.
Students who engaged or fought back faced additional barriers or punishment, even when the instigator went unpunished. Ginger M., a 17-year-old bisexual girl in Utah, said:
I was sexually harassed for like five months.… And these text messages just kept going. And I started swearing at him. I screenshotted the messages, they were on Facebook Messenger, and I went to the school and the cops, and they said, ‘Well, you fought back.’
Jordan L., a gay 17-year-old student in Texas, said:
There’s one kid who goes to my school who wore an earring. And they’d be picking and picking, and he’d argue back, and he’d get in trouble but the other students wouldn’t get in trouble. One time a girl hit him and he hit back, and he got in trouble but she didn’t.