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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Short and Long-Term Effects of Family Rejection on LGBTQ Youth

A family’s most basic functions include support, both emotional and financial. Our family are the first relationships we develop and are usually the ones that we hold onto the longest, from birth to death. These bonds are not only meant to integrate us into society but prepare us for our own families when the time or choice comes (Hammond & Cheney, 2009). What happens when these family units do not fulfill their most basic functions and cast out their family members for things that are often not a choice, such as gender or sexual orientation?

Family rejection can happen for a number of reasons from personal differences, religious problems, alcohol/drug use, arguments, and so forth. However, many times families can settle their differences and still continue to act as a unit, even if they do not necessarily get along. However there are occasions where this rejection is lifelong from the moment it happens. This can lead to short and long-term health effects, both mentally and physically, regardless of age. The impact is most significant if this rejection happens during youth and is over things that cannot be changed, such as gender or sexuality (Lowrey, 2010).

These effects can range from homelessness, increased depression, increased suicidal thoughts and tendencies, to higher accounts of HIV/AIDS and drug use/alcoholism (Ryan, Russell, Huebner, Diaz, & Sanchez, 2010). This rejection can also lead to being in and out of the criminal justice system due to the criminalization of homelessness as well as survival tactics such as the survival sex trade (Valentino, 2011). These problems are also affected by experiencing racism, transmisogyny (misogyny directed specifically at trans women), as well as sexism, heterosexism, and other institutional oppressions. For example, a Black trans women will face more problems on the streets than a White cisgender (meaning non-transgender) gay male (Grant, Mottet, Tanis, Harrison, & Herman, 2011). These impacts are both short and long-term, impacting a person’s life from the moment the rejection happens and beyond.

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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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Gender Stereotypes and Cisnormativity in Ads

Enculturation is the process in which an individual learns about their culture. The enculturation process teaches a person what is right and wrong, their roles and expectations in society, and how they should view others. It is no surprise that commercials are a key component of the enculturation process that is enforced through the media. We are exposed to hundreds of advertisements every day through the radio, magazines, television, newspapers, billboards and even buses. We are surrounded by an almost constant stream of advertisements about all kinds of products from household cleaners, diet supplements, restaurants, and even medications. While seemingly innocent and obvious on the outside, many commercials carry a loaded message about what a person is supposed to be based on their gender. While gender norms and stereotypes are slowly being eradicated, you’d be hard pressed to find an example in advertisements. Women still sell cleaning products, the sexual exploitation of women is still being used to pander to male audiences, and the existence of transgender and other gender minorities (especially trans women) are being mocked and deconstructed.

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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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The Power of Conformity

“What is dangerous is not the belonging to a group, or groups, but not understanding the social laws that govern groups and govern us” (Lessing 724). Western society prides itself on individualism. Our choices and thoughts are our own, free from outside influence. Or are they really? Social norms govern our daily lives more than we would like to believe. As Lessing said in her quote, the problem isn’t the want or need to belong, but the ignorance surrounding what comes along with this need to belong. Conformity is a powerful thing that rules lives on a conscious and subconscious level. Parents and teachers educate us on how to follow society’s rules, how to think about certain subjects. Religion dictates how we should act around others and what principles to abide by. Media teaches us what to look like, what products to buy, and what is considered normal and abnormal. We all conform to these societal standards in one form or another. Denying the fact we conform does us more harm than good, since we become blind to the ways we do not maintain our individualism inside of groups and how we can avoid saying black is white because everyone else is saying so. This type of ignorance to the powers of social influence can have disastrous effects, from something as small as lowering a person’s self-esteem to aiding in the Holocaust.

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