The impact of negative school environments were examined on LGBTQ youth, focusing on the mental and academic areas. LGBTQ students who experienced higher rates of victimization experienced more frequent school and mental health problems. Students in supportive environments experienced less frequent school issues, especially if the school staff showed support and understanding. Studies show and support that negative school environments have long-lasting repercussions for LGBTQ students that influence later life choices such as higher education as well as reported self-esteem and depression.
The Impact of School Environments on LGBTQ Youth
In the United States, the majority of youth spend most of their time in the education system. In this environment students learn not only about math, social studies, and various other topics, but about how to interact with peer groups, form life-long social relationships, and learn about themselves, their identities, and their place in the world. While school is meant to be a mostly learning environment, the social aspects of the school experience cannot be ignored. Due to this social aspect of school, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) youth face special hardships due to their sexuality and gender that are not faced by their heterosexual and cisgender peers (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). These hardships are not caused by peers alone but also from faculty and staff as well which creates an even more negative environment for LGBTQ youth.
This victimization takes many forms from vocal, to verbal, to sexual. Students face anti-queer sentiments from simply hearing their sexuality used as an insult (“That’s so gay”) to having laws and lawsuits placed against their needs such as using the correct restrooms in the case of transgender students (Biegel, 2010; Kosciw, Greytak, Palmer, & Boesen, 2014). The harsher the responses and the source of the victimization have a direct connection with the response of the LGBTQ youth. The lack of support from faculty and staff in regards to peer issues leads to greater harm than students who face victimization but have the support of the school staff (Adelman & Woods, 2006).
These negative environments also lead to a decline in school attendance, lower GPA, mental health issues, and lack of goals for future education. The impact of the negative environment is harsh, taking its toll on not only on school based activities, but mental health as well. LGBTQ youth in unsupportive and negative school environments face lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression and even more suicidal ideations/thoughts that those whose environments are supportive of them (Adelman & Woods, 2006). This impact does not stop after the student leaves school but can leave lasting mental health issues that can lead to problems with substance abuse as well as problems with maintaining relationships later on in life (Grant, Mottet, Tanis, Harrison, & Herman, 2011).
The key is not only to tackle the negative environment but to make sure that the students also have a support structure as well. This includes clubs like Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), on the books anti-bullying policies, as well as training for faculty and staff in dealing with the specific needs of LGBTQ students (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). These support structures are crucial in taking the epidemic of problems faced by LGBTQ youth within the school system. Without these support structures, students have no way of creating an environment that is safe for them to grow, learn, and create lasting peer groups as well as positive self-esteem (Adelman & Woods, 2006; Biegel, 2010). Negative school environments lead to problems in school with attendance and GPA as well as mental health issues that last once the student leaves school. This paper will look over these negative school environments and these various impacts on LGBTQ students throughout their school careers.
Current literature on the impact of school environments on LGBTQ youth are mostly survey studies completed by self-identified LGBTQ youth grades K-12. The main focus is on high school but some studies, such as the National School Climate Survey conducted by the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, focus on all grades pre-college and focus on all students and their experiences with anti-LGBTQ sentiments in the school environment (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). This study, as well as others done by similarly large organizations, are broad in scope and focus on a mix of in school and online support to gather data and report their findings. Only one focuses on transgender people and their experiences, including issues in education, which is the Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Injustice at Every Turn (2011). In these studies, there have been several findings that all support the lasting impact on LGBTQ youth due to negative school environments. Each study finds similar problem areas due to anti-LGBTQ sentiments in peer and faculty actions and words which include attendance, grades, future academic goals, and mental health (specifically self-esteem and depression).
According to Kosciw, Greytak et al. (2014), students who experience higher levels of victimization based on their gender and/or sexual orientation are more likely to have reported missing school in the past month. For transgender youth, victimization may be so bad that in the study done by Grant et al. (2011), up to 15% reported dropping out of school entirely. This is a finding similar to those found by Adelman and Woods (2006) in which they found this number drops if the school has supportive environments such as a GSA or written anti-bullying rules that specifically mention gender identity and sexual orientation. Supportive environments are active environments for faculty, compared to the passive environments embodied by a negative school environment for LGBTQ youth. In the research done by Adelman and Woods (2006), students reported that non-actions of teachers led to the most negative environments, even going so far as to say that these passive faculty members helped create the hostile environments. Inaction is not a neutral stance in safe environments. Students need to feel actively supported by not only faculty but peer groups as well.
Attendance issues are not only related to students missing school due to harassment and abuse but also expulsion, suspension and other disciplinary actions based on their gender and/or sexual orientation. Five percent of transgender people reported being expelled for their gender identity (Grant et al., 2011). Two-thirds of LGBTQ students had reported being discriminated against for being openly LGBTQ or supporting LGBTQ peers and fellows in their schools (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). Disciplinary action based on LGBTQ status was also issued in a biased manner against students. For example, according to Kosciw, Greytak et al., (2014) LGBTQ students who engaged in public displays of affection (PDAs) were given warnings or other disciplinary actions while their heterosexual peers were ignored. Many students classified these discriminatory actions as part of the victimization they felt at the hands of faculty. This inaction or direct support of the negative school environment as reported by Adelman and Woods (2006) is something that students reported contributing largely to the negative school environments and harassment they received. Students feel like they have no recourse or way to defend themselves from peers, let alone faculty.
These issues were especially magnified in transgender students. While as previously mentioned, 5% reported being expelled due to their gender, many others faced issues in regards to accessing appropriate facilities, being allowed to wear clothing of the proper gender, or being recognizing by the proper name and pronouns (Grant et al., 2011; Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). These students reported being sent home due to their attire, ridiculed by staff and peers, as well as being made to go out of their way to use teacher restrooms as opposed to using the appropriate restroom for their gender (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). Transgender people often face ridicule outside of the school environment as well, facing issues at home due to their identity more often than their LGBQ peers (Grant et al., 2011). Unsafe and unsupportive school environments left transgender students with no place to be themselves or experience positive peer interactions. Without the support of faculty in respecting names, pronouns, dress, and other factors connected to the individual’s gender identity, transgender students report the highest amounts of victimization despite being one of the smallest parts of the LGBTQ population (Grant et al., 2011).
Supportive educators are found to help with attendance issues causes by anti-LGBTQ victimization. In study done by Kosciw, Palmer, Kull, and Greytak (2013), students whose faculty and staff were supportive and understanding of their situations and identities reported missing fewer days. This finding is backed by similar findings by Adelman & Woods (2006), who found that faculty who were openly supportive of their LGBTQ students were able to create safer environments than staff who were silent about their support for their students, even if they had given no indications they were unsupportive through words or action. Simply having one factor of support is not enough though. Students require active, and present supportive staff as well as positive portrayal in academics and extra-circulars in order to feel a positive connection with their school. Schools with GSAs reported lower rates of homophobic remarks (71.6% without vs 57.4% with), lower rates of feeling unsafe (64.4% without vs 46% with), and lower rates of high victimization based on gender (34% without versus 20.8% with) and/or sexual orientation (36.2% without vs 19% with) (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). The impact of inclusive curriculum dropped these numbers even more, halving the numbers of high victimization based on gender (30.5% without vs 14.1% with) and/or sexual orientation (31% without vs 14.1% with) (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014).
Adelman and Woods (2006) report that students feel the best when faculty, staff, and peers are not only open about their support but also actively participate in calling off anti-LGBTQ sentiments when they see them. For example, if a student uses gay in a derogatory way, students who witnessed teachers actively forbidding that type of language felt more supported (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). Students need to feel that staff is actively interested in making the school environment less hostile and more welcoming past just having policies in place. In the GLSEN National School Climate survey, almost half of students (49.5%) who had reported harassment and assault felt it was not effective (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). This finding is supported by a previous study done by Adelman and Woods (2006) in which students felt that reporting problems related to their gender and/or sexual orientation were pointless due to the general attitude of teachers and other faculty.
A negative impact on attendance also means a negative impact on grades. Students who miss more days of school tend to have lower GPAs due to missing work, assignments, and lectures (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). An increase in victimization was directly correlated to a lower GPA and lower academic achievement according to The National School Climate Survey (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). While the average GPA for students was 3.3, students who experienced high levels of victimization, whether verbal, physical, or sexual had an average GPA of 2.8 (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). These drops in GPA limit students even more when it comes to extra-curricular activities that participation is often based on due to GPA. The same trend was reported for students who experienced discriminatory practices from school faculty and policies based on their gender and/or sexual orientation (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014).
Positive representation in the school curriculum in relation to gender and/or sexual orientation does not only improve attendance and self-esteem but also helps improve a student’s GPA (Kosciw, Palmer et al., 2013; Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). Students are able to see themselves in their school work and are also able to apply their learning to their own lives. Students who have inclusive school curriculums can draw from their lives and place themselves in their school work without feeling excluded from it. As reported by Adelman and Woods (2006), issues faced by LGBTQ students are attributed to not feeling like they belong to their school or social groups and that this idea is supported by the lack of inclusiveness in the school education system. Students want and need to be able to see themselves in their learning environment for it to be considered a positive one.
These negative experiences in the school environment lead to a nearly double in percentage of students who were not planning to attend post-secondary school. For students who faced discrimination and victimization based on their sexual orientation the percentage jumped from 4.2% to 8.7% (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). For students who faced victimization and discrimination based on their gender identity, the percentage went from 4.4% to 8.2% (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). Victimization does not end at the end of high school either, as many LGBTQ people report problems in college and other post-secondary schooling based on their gender and/or sexual orientation (Biegel, 2010; Grant, et al., 2011).
These issues with schooling can lead to employment issues later in life. LGBTQ adults, especially transgender adults, experience higher levels of poverty when compared to their cisgender and heterosexual peers (Biegel, 2010; Grant et al., 2011). One of these contributing factors is a lack of education due to a lack of post-secondary schooling, low GPA, dropping out, or various other factors which can be contributed to hostile school climates (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012; Adelman & Woods, 2006). However, there are also many other contributing factors that can conflate the connections between school environment and future employment such as mental health issues, substance abuse, and family problems which are much higher in LGBTQ populations than the general population (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012).
Suicide attempts are four times higher in LGBQ youth, and up to eight times higher in transgender youth (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). Self-esteem issues and depression are also reported in higher rates in these populations. Students who experience victimization in their school environments report higher instances of depression and report lower self-esteem directly correlated with the amount of victimization they face (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). These impacts on mental health report back to issues with previously discussed topics such as GPA and attendance. Students who reported lower self-esteem also had lower GPAs and more missed days of school (Kosciw, Palmer et al., 2013). For transgender people who reported issues with school, especially physical and sexual violence, there were issues later in life such as higher levels of substance abuse, depression, and lower self-esteem (Grant et al., 2011).
Students who are out (meaning they are open about their gender and/or sexual orientation) experience a double-edged sword in their experiences. These students report a higher level of self-esteem as well as are more likely to feel they belonged to their peer group (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). However, these same students faced significantly more victimization for their sexual orientation and/or gender. Thirty-three percent of students who were out reported high rates of victimization based on their sexuality by staff (versus only 22.8% for those not out) and 31.3% reported this coming from peers (versus only 18.9% for those not out) (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). For transgender students, the numbers are not as drastic, changing only from 24.8% to 29.4% for staff and 24% to 28% for peers (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014).
Students who faced problems with faculty also felt lower levels of self-esteem due to a feeling of hopelessness in their situation (Adelman & Woods, 2006). Students who feel supported through hands on inclusion report higher rates of self-esteem as reported by Kosciw, Palmer et al. (2013). However, students who simply had inclusive anti-bullying measures or a GSA did not correlate with a reported higher self-esteem which shows that actions of faculty, staff and peers are much more impactful on the mental health of LGBTQ students (Adelman & Woods, 2006; Kosciw, Palmer et al., 2013).
All of these factors are directly connected with the amount of victimization based on the gender or sexuality of the student. Students who experience higher amounts of victimization face more issues not just in school but out of school with their mental health and into their adult life. It is important to note again that this victimization does not come just from peers but from faculty as well. The support of the faculty and the environment has a positive effect on the well-being of the students, not just those who are LGBTQ and helps create a better learning environment for all students (Adelman & Woods, 2006; Kosciw, Palmer et al., 2013). Negative school environments negatively impact LGBTQ students on both academic and personal levels.
Supportive faculty and staff are critical when creating positive environments for LGBTQ students. As previously discussed, students who experienced support from faculty and staff also reported drastically lower numbers of victimization, hearing slurs, and thus, had a better outlook on self and school in general (Kosciw, Palmer et al., 2013). In-school supports are the most important factor in removing negative environments and creating one of positive support. There are three major factors that are included in this as supported by the studies of Adelman and Woods (2006) and Kosciw, Palmer et al. (2013).
The biggest factor in the negative environments reported by students was the perpetuation of anti-LGBTQ sentiment by staff and teachers (Adelman & Woods, 2006). They also reported the non-involvement of the faculty as a major problem. These students discussed how staff would ignore their requests for help, or actively use or engage in homophobic or transphobic bigotry (Adelman & Woods, 2006). This creates a culture of anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the school, leaving students to feel powerless in their ability to find safety and support in their school environment.
This is supported by the studies of Kosciw, Greytak et al (2014) in nationwide surveys. Students reported that faculty and staff were often unresponsive or even engaging in these anti-LGBTQ victimizations as much as fellow students were. Students who reported victimization from faculty and staff, which included sexual and physical assault, reported much higher self-esteem and depression issues than those who were victimized at a lesser rate or by fellow students only (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). Faculty left few options of recourse for students, especially if they did not speak up about the victimization that would happen in their classrooms or under their watch. This study also found that students who had supportive teachers reported drastic decreases in these same issues, including a lesser extent of victimization (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014).
Students require the active and engaging participation of school staff in order to feel safe in their environments. This goes beyond simply having anti-discrimination clauses in the school rules. Adelman and Woods (2006) discuss the requirements of school curriculum with LGBTQ influences, LGBTQ focused clubs and education with teachers and all staff, as well as continued and vocal intolerance of anti-LGBTQ sentiment as used by peers. Kosciw, Greytak et al. (2014) go a step further, questioning the use of zero-tolerance policies, which often leave LGBTQ students without much recourse against consistent harassment from peers. These factors help remove the feeling of an anti-LGBTQ culture and the feeling that there is nowhere to turn for LGBTQ students who face consistent or even occasional problems at school for their gender and/or sexuality.
Transgender students face specific needs and problems that are not experienced by other students due to their gender and usually forcibly being out as transgender. Students who transition or attempt to transition while in school are not afforded the ability to hide their transgender status. This is further exasperated by faculty who treat the students different such as not being allowed to use the correct bathroom, changing room, or access other gendered areas due to their transgender status (Grant et al., 2011; Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). For transgender students, the importance of faculty support is amplified by these factors. Transgender students often face higher rates of victimization from both peers and staff, leaving them as one of the most vulnerable populations of LGBTQ youth (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). Due to higher rates of victimization from family support structures as well, it is vital that faculty and staff at schools create positive and safe environments for transgender students in regards to their gender (Grant et al., 2011).
School staff are a vital and the most important part in creating positive environments for LGBTQ students. Students learn acceptable behavior from authority figures in their lives, and teachers are one of those authority figures. Creating a positive and supportive example for students through staff and showing zero tolerance towards anti-LGBTQ sentiments creates a solid and positive experience for all students as it sets a precedence of respect and educational understanding (Adelman & Woods, 2006; Kosciw, Palmer, et al., 2013). By starting from the top and working down, LGBTQ students can create safe havens with their teachers who can give them access to resources they may require in their school careers. This is vital in creating an environment that fosters not only a good academic environment, but affects the self-esteem and mental well-being of the students as well.
School environments are where youth spend the majority of their time, not only learning, but also making friends and learning important social and cultural cues. These life lessons create a lifetime of impressions on the individual that influence not only their life choices, but their emotional and mental well-being later on in life. Without a safe and supportive as well as enriching and embracing environment, LGBTQ youth find that school creates more problems for their lives, both in and out of school, than educational possibilities.
While school can be difficult for everyone, especially with the current focus on anti-bullying measures, there is a special focus that needs to be created for LGBTQ youth. As previously discussed, LGTQ youth face severe problems not only with their peers, but with school staff as well (Kosciw, Palmer et al., 2013). This additional lack of support from school faculty and staff creates a unique element around the negative environments presented to LGBTQ youth. While non-LGBTQ youth may have the support of school staff for their situations, LGBTQ youth often do not even have this and have no way to report the harassment they feel in school since staff is often part of the problem (Adelman & Woods, 2006). Without the focus on LGBTQ youth specifically, these problems often fall through the cracks. Staff support is one of the most important factors in school safety, reported from all students, not just those who are LGBTQ (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012; Kosciw, Palmer et al., 2013).
Research into school policies is essential. School policies need to be implemented and enforced, as school policies directly impact the environment of a school, contributing to the safety of the environment. Students respond to feeling safer in environments with anti-discrimination rules, but also when teachers actively enforce these rules (Adelman & Woods, 2006). Due to the fact that teachers tend to leverage school policies against LGBTQ youth, it is important that future research looks into how school policies are being used to both support as well as harm LGBTQ students (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). Studies show how these policies can both help and harm these students, but studies do not show how the policies are being carried out or written so that they cannot be bent to harm LGBTQ youth or force them into the closet through policies such as zero tolerance and removal of all LGBTQ related attire, attitudes, and education (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014).
The lasting effects of negative school environments also disproportionately impact the futures of LGBTQ youth. The focus on higher education is important for all students but direct victimization creates problems for LGBTQ youth that are not faced by their cisgender and/or heterosexual peers. Negative school environments that are targeted at LGBTQ youth create a higher chance of no future plans for educational continuity (Kosciw, Greytak et al., 2014). While school counselors may focus on creating and helping students go to post-secondary school, negative environments make this increasingly difficult for LGBTQ youth specifically as the targeted bullying, harassment, and victimization does not end at high school (Grant et al., 2011). LGBTQ youth have unique needs such as finding schools that are accepting of them as well as supportive with measures such as gender-inclusive housing, bathroom access, and anti-discrimination rules (Biegel, 2010; Kosciw, Palmer et al., 2013).
Without focusing on the unique needs of LGBTQ youth in school, the problems that are created later in life cannot begin to be addressed. While institutionalized and societal anti-queer sentiments create high levels of mental health issues for LGBTQ people, these issues do not begin or end in a vacuum (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012; Grant et al., 2011). Students who report higher levels of in school victimization reported higher levels of self-esteem, depression, and substance abuse issues later on in life (Grant et al., 2011). This shows that the implications of negative school environments have a correlation with later issues in life. Creating supportive, accepting, and accommodating school environments affects LGBTQ youth not only in their education, but in their lives as a whole as well. School is meant to educate youth for their lives as adults, equipping them with necessary life skills in order to succeed. Without creating these environments for LGBTQ students, addressing their specific needs, schools are not fulfilling their duties to LGBTQ youth.
Future research needs to focus on what combination of supportive elements create the most beneficial environments for LGBTQ youth. Supportive school structures for LGBTQ youth also create supportive structures for cisgender and heterosexual students with more hands on staff, more supportive and informed staff, as well as an all-around more positive school environment (Adelman & Woods, 2006). This includes inclusive curriculum is important to the school environment as well, showing students support and education that is inclusive of them and their existence. Studies need to also look into educational materials for faculty and staff that can be also used for students and active programs, besides just GSAs, that can bring students and faculty together in support.
Negative school environments create problems with education as well as lasting mental health issues that last long after school ends for LGBTQ youth. Without addressing these issues not only in school environments but within students and staff, schools fail to create a positive and safe learning environment for all students. Without creating these positive environments, schools fail to create learning environments which empower students with knowledge and prepare them for their lives as adults.
Adelman, M., & Woods, K. (2006). Identification Without Intervention: Transforming the Anti-LGBTQ School Climate. Journal Of Poverty, 10(2), 5-26. doi:10.1300/J134v10n02•02
Biegel, S. (2010). The right to be out: Sexual orientation and gender identity in America’s public schools. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Cahill, S., & Cianciotto, S. (2012). Lgbt youth in America’s schools. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Grant, J. M., Mottet, L.A., Tanis, J., Harrison, J., & Herman, J.L. (2011). Injustice at every turn: A report of the national transgender discrimination survey. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Palmer, N. A., & Boesen, M. J. (2014). The 2013 national school climate survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.
Kosciw, J. G., Palmer, N. A., Kull, R. M., & Greytak, E. A. (2013). The Effect of Negative School Climate on Academic Outcomes for LGBT Youth and the Role of In-School Supports. Journal Of School Violence, 12(1), 45-63. doi:10.1080/15388220.2012.732546