The Impact of School Environments on LGBTQ Youth

Abstract

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.

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Cis Privilege

Transgender (or trans) people face extreme degrees of discrimination and oppression, especially at interactions of identities such as race and sexual orientation. However, many people are not aware of the types of privilege they hold over trans people. For example, the majority of people do not know that the word cisgender exists. Cisgender is the opposite of transgender, meaning that someone who is cisgender (or cis) identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth, while someone who is trans identifies as something other than the gender they were assigned at birth (Serano, 2013). The majority would use words like real, biological, actual, or even normal, to describe cis people in relation to trans people, one of the examples of cis privilege. Thus, cisgender privilege is the unearned advantages afforded to people for simply being cis. It is similar to white or male privilege in the fact that is is unearned and granted to a majority group that is generally considered the default (Mio, Barker, & Tumambing, 2012). In this paper, I will outline ten more cis privileges and explain them, as well as provide examples of where and how this lack of privilege impacts trans people’s lives, sometimes to the point of psychological and physical harm, or resulting in the loss of homes, jobs, and freedoms.

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Words Matter: The Effects of Bullying on Queer Youth

There are very few people who have not heard the age old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. However, as the problem of bullying comes into the mainstream a very different picture is being painted. Words do hurt, in fact, they can cause severe harm to people. Words are some of our most important weapons against others. Bullying is a severe problem in today’s society, especially against queer youth. Queer in this paper is used as an umbrella term to mean non-heterosexual and non-cisgender youth (Mogul, Ritchie & Whitlock, 2011). Cisgender is used to define people whose gender and assigned at birth sex/gender match. This is the opposite of transgender which means that one’s gender identity and assigned gender/sex do not match. They is also used as a gender-neutral pronoun due to transgender identities that exist outside of the male/female binary (Stevenson, n.d.).

Projects such as the It Gets Better Campaign by Dan Savage attempt to address these issues and give hope, yet ignore addressing the problem at its core. Projects like the It Gets Better campaign focus on telling youth to hold on instead of trying to eliminate a climate of intolerance and hate that many youth face in their lives. For queer youth to feel accepted, we need to work on the root of the problem instead of just focusing on getting them through the more traumatic experiences of grade school. This includes getting parents, teachers, and other school staff involved and educated on the adversity their students face for being queer or being perceived as queer. For many, the bullying starts in elementary school and continues all throughout their lives (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). This means that programs that focus on education and prevention need to be started at younger ages and needs to be continued throughout the educational career, for both students and staff.

While queer youth experience more than just verbal harassment in numbers much higher than their non-queer peers, this paper will focus on verbal harassment and the lasting effects it has (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). Verbal harassment is much more frequent than any other form of harassment since words are much easier to use and have fewer repercussions than the use of physical or sexual assault. Words are not harmless and can leave lasting problems when continually used as weapons against queer youth. Bullying, especially verbal harassment, is a serious issue inside of schools for queer youth that can leave lasting negative impressions and is a problem that needs to be addressed at the core and actively worked against and prevented.

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The Homeless Epidemic Among Queer Youth

In the beginning of June, New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomburg, announced budget cuts that would remove 60 percent of funding towards homeless youth. As a result, 160 of the 259 shelter beds would be removed. Those hardest hit by this proposed tax cut would be New York City’s queer youth, which compromises 40 percent of the city’s homeless youth (Shapiro, 2012). Shelters and services tolerant and educated on queer youth, their problems, and their needs are already few and far between. These tax cuts would not only hurt the homeless youth population as a whole, but farther alienate these minority youth.

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Plight of Queer Youth

While the media, the president, and a good portion of America focus on marriage equality, there is a serious problem being overshadowed. Homelessness has always been a major problem in the United States. Lack of funding, education, and resources means many people go without beds, food, and shelter. The criminalization of homelessness makes these people vulnerable to incarceration for trying to find places to sleep or even attempting to get money to eat. However, one group of homeless are even more vulnerable than others. Twenty percent of all homeless youth are a queer individual. Compared to their cisgender and heterosexual peers,  homeless queer youth face higher rates of sexual and physical assault as well as higher suicide rates (“National coalition for,” 2009).  They face discrimination in shelters and agencies, as well as violence at the hands of both staff and others. These youth often lack support at home, school, and within society in addition to the of lack the ability to cope with the problems faced to them. queer youth require safe spaces with staff who understand their needs, problems, and who are supporting.

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