Homophobia in Schools: Is It Getting Better?

What does the latest research say about homophobia in schools?

Posted May 13, 2011

May 17 is the International day against Homophobia (IDAHO) and this seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on what the current realities are for students and educators working in schools. I've blogged about this a lot here - it is one of the main themes of this space. But for some context, you can read some of my earlier posts such as:

To keep you updated on the latest information available, I wanted to write about two new studies that describe the experiences of students in schools in the USA and Canada that offer really valuable information for families, educators, and advocates working to improve school safety and respect for diversity. I'm also including the twitter usernames of some of these organizations so you can follow them there if you are interested in getting more regular information.

A Decade of Data from Schools in the USA

The first study was conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (@GLSEN).  They have been conducting school climate surveys in the US since 1999 and this year reported on results that look back over the past decade of data they have collected from youth across the country. They presented these findings at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (@AERA_EdResearch) in New Orleans, LA last month. Some key findings they reported include:

The situation has gotten worse in some areas:

  • The level of intervention in homophobic remarks has changed little since 2001, in 2009, we saw less reported intervention by both staff and students than in previous years.
  • The percentage of students reporting positive representations of LGBT people, history, or events in their curriculum did not change in recent years, but there was a slight decline between 2001 and 2005.

Some improvements, then backsliding:

  • The percentage of LGBT students in 2009 who reported hearing homophobic remarks from school personnel was lower than in 2007 (60.2% vs. 63.4%), but slightly higher than in 2005 (60.2% vs. 54.9%).

It is getting better! (in some ways):

  • Since 1999, there has been a decreasing trend in the frequency of hearing homophobic epithets.
  • The percentage of students reporting frequent verbal harassment was around 25%. Nevertheless, from 2007 to 2009, there were small but statistically significant decreases in the frequency of all three types of harassment and assault based on sexual orientation.
  • The percentage of LGBT students reporting that they had a GSA or other similar club in their school increased from less than 30% in 2001 to more than 45% in 2009.
  • In 2009, the average number of LGBT supportive school staff was higher than in all previous years.
  • The percentage of students who had LGBT-related resources in their school library continually increased over time, reaching the highest levels in 2009.

I find the data reported here really compelling. This review of the past decade demonstrates that although school climates in the U.S. continue to be hostile for BGLQT youth and anyone perceived to be BGLQT, the efforts of activists and educators to make improvements is measurable: more GSAs, more library resources, more supportive staff in schools and less harassment.

First study on homophobia and transphobia in Canadian Schools

The second study was conducted by researchers at the University of Winnipeg in conjunction with Egale Canada (@myGSA). This study provides the first comprehensive overview of the realities in Canadian schools and is disheartening. Although Canada has more comprehensive human rights protections and legal recognitions for bisexuals, gay men and lesbians, (such as the right to openly serve in the military, to right to marry, and adopt) the hostile climate in schools is still a reality.

Homophobic and transphobic harassment are prevalent:

  • 70% of all participating students, LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ, reported hearing expressions such as "that's so gay" every day in school and almost half (48%) reported hearing remarks such as "faggot," "lezbo," and "dyke" every day in school.
  • 74% of trans students, 55% of sexual minority students, and 26% of non-LGBTQ students reported having been verbally harassed about their gender expression.
  • 20% of LGBTQ students and almost 10% of non-LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed or assaulted about their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Over a quarter (27%) of youth with LGBTQ parents reported being physically harassed about the sexual orientation of their parents. They are also more likely than their peers to be physically harassed or assaulted in connection with their own gender expression (30% versus 13% of other students), perceived sexual orientation or gender identity (27% versus 12%), gender (25% versus 10%), and sexual orientation (25% versus 11%).

Sexual harassment is worse for trans students, students with LGBTQ parents, and bisexual students:

  • 49% of trans students
  • 45% of students with LGBTQ parents
  • 43% of female bisexual students
  • 42% of male bisexual students
  • 40% of gay male students
  • 33% of lesbian students

Inclusive policies have a positive impact:

  • 80% of LGBTQ students from schools with anti-homophobia policies reported never having been physically harassed versus only 67% of LGBTQ students from schools without anti-homophobia policies;
  • 46% of LGBTQ students from schools with anti-homophobia policies reported never having been verbally harassed due to their sexual orientation versus 40% of LGBTQ students from schools without anti-homophobia policies.

Supportive student groups make a difference:

  • Students from schools with GSAs are much more likely to agree that their school communities are supportive of LGBTQ people, are much more likely to be open with some or all of their peers about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and are more likely to see their school climate as becoming less homophobic.
  • Students from schools with anti-homophobia policies are significantly more likely to agree that their school administration is supportive of the GSA.

It is important to note that the social environment and the school climate are directly linked to life and death issues for youth. In a recent article published in Pediatrics, Hatzenbuehler found that bisexual, gay, and lesbian youth were more likely to attempt suicide that heterosexual youth (21.5% vs. 4.2%). What is even more interesting in this study is that a positive social environment (having a GSA, having school policies that protect from harassment based on sexual orientation) was related to fewer suicide attempts.

Although there are some discouraging trends in looking at this information, progress has been made in some areas. These studies indicate that although there have been many advances in the areas of equality rights for bisexual, gay, lesbian, queer, questioning and transgender people, these policy changes in the adult world haven't translated into a more inclusive and supportive climate in schools. Providing safe and inclusive spaces for all youth is about saving lives and protecting the interests of some of the most vulnerable, and most resilient, students in our schools.

IDAHO as a teachable moment

The International Day Against Homophobia is a wonderful teachable moment for parents and educators. Consider using this day as an opportunity to start a conversation with your kids, or integrate a lesson related to your curriculum about homophobia.

Conversation starters for teens:

  • Does your school ever talk about bullying, anti-gay name calling or civil rights issues? What has been said?
  • Do you have any friends who have told you they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual? How did that make you feel?
  • What did you think about that last episode of Glee? Do you have any kids at your school who want to take a same-sex date to prom? Would they be allowed to?
  • Does your school have a GSA? Have you ever gone to a meeting? Why/why not?

Conversation starters for younger kids:

  • Have you talked about different kinds of families at school? What do you remember talking about?
  • Read a relevant children's book such as: And Tango Makes Three or King & King and talk about it.

Secondary School curriculum suggestions:

Elementary Schools:

  • Try a lesson from the Human Rights Campaign's (@HRC) Welcoming Schools curriculum
  • Discuss diverse family structures
  • Talk about gender roles and reducing assumptions and stereotypes based on what "boys do" or "girls do" 

For a listing of events around the world please see: http://www.homophobiaday.org/default.aspx?scheme=3282


Hatzenbuehler, M. L. (2011). The Social Environment and Suicide Attempts in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth. Pediatrics, 127(5), 896-903.

Kosciw, J. G., Bartkiewicz, M. J., Greytak, E. A., & Diaz, E. M. (2011). A Decade of Data: School Climate for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth from 1999 to 2009. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. New Orleans, LA.

Taylor, C. P., T., with McMinn, T.L., Elliott, T., Beldom, S., Ferry, A., Gross, Z., Paquin, S., & Schachter, K. (2011). Every class in every school: The first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools. Final report. Toronto, ON: Egale Canada Human Rights Trust.