Improving the School Experience for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Students (page 2)
Interest in meeting the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youth is growing, largely as a result of three general trends: (1) acknowledgment by educators that all identifiable groups of students need support unique to their situation; (2) the increasing number of students declaring their homosexuality; and (3) increasing victimization of lesbians and gays. Among the supporting arguments is that educators have a social responsibility to provide an environment that supports the ability of all students--including lesbians and gays--to learn and that is free from physical and psychological abuse (Sears, 1987).
Lesbian and gay student initiatives to date have been in urban areas, where these students feel most free to be visible and to request services, and where opposition to support is least likely. Also, cities have gay and lesbian service organizations for adults that include youth programs or that lobby boards of education to implement programs.
Barriers to Education
Studies have shown that gay and lesbian students are far more likely to have been abused or otherwise victimized, abuse substances, prostitute themselves, attempt suicide, and be homeless, than straight youth (Uribe & Harbeck, 1992). Many fear violence and harassment from their peers, and constant anxiety inhibits their ability to learn. Some try to make themselves invisible in school so their homosexuality will not be detected, and as a result, limit their learning experiences. Even gay students without such severe problems have a more difficult adolescence than straight students because they feel even more confined by the pressure to conform, and believe that an essential part of them is being dismissed, despised or deleted from school life (Khayatt, 1994).
Although these factors may cause poor school performance and high dropout rates, lesbian and gay students "are perhaps the most underserved students in the entire educational system...discrimination often interfere[s] with their personal and academic development" (Uribe, 1994, p. 112).
Homophobia also negatively affects straight students' education in ways that transcend simply the effects of hating. Fear of being considered gay can drive them to embrace narrowly defined and limiting sex roles. The decision about whether to participate in sports--real guys must; real girls won't--is a prime example (Grayson, 1987).
Opposition to Education Initiatives
Many policy makers oppose presenting homosexuality in a positive way, or even mentioning it at all, in school. Locally, groups have been quite effective in stopping school efforts to teach positively about homosexuality, or even to provide information about it. The most publicized example is the successful campaign against the New York City Rainbow Curriculum for elementary grades. Around the country, an increasing number of school board candidates are emphasizing their opposition to education on homosexuality in their campaigns.
Laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination against specific groups not only provide penalties for violators, but also dignify the existence of those groups and suggest that the climate is not sympathetic to people who express bigotry in even legally protected ways. There have been some government initiatives to protect the rights of lesbian and gay students (and sometimes teachers) in particular, a sampling of which is provided below. Some school districts and schools have developed specific policies, but local antidiscrimination legislation and policies that protect gays overall also protect gay students.
At the Federal level, activity has largely consisted of court decisions, which have generally been narrow, and apply only to districts in which the court is located. An early decision in Rhode Island (Fricke v. Lynch, 1980) can be considered one of the most radical: it allowed two men to attend their senior prom as a couple (Dutile, 1986).
A Wisconsin law, the first statewide legislation of its kind, mandates that every public school district adopt and disseminate a policy prohibiting bias, stereotyping, and harassment. Nevertheless, state support for lesbian and gay students has been limited to workshops for counselors and distribution of a pamphlet describing the policy and materials from private organizations.
Massachusetts has established the only statewide Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. Its first report reviewed the lives of Massachusetts lesbian and gay adolescents and presented a comprehensive set of recommendations that became the basis of the Massachusetts Department of Education's Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students, which includes workshops for school people and students (Governor's Commission, 1993).
One of the seven Los Angeles Unified School District commissions is devoted to gay and lesbian education. It makes recommendations to the Board of Education on meeting the needs of lesbian and gay students.
Urban schools around the country have implemented many different types of programs both to help lesbian and gay students feel included and respected and to educate other students about homosexuality and the achievements of gays throughout history.
Groups help lesbian and gay students, both those who are out and those who do not publicly acknowledge their orientation, overcome their fear and isolation, and encourage them to remain in school (Lipkin, 1992). Their services include counseling, peer support, health information (including safer sex), and referrals. Since some teens are estranged from their families, housing and legal services may also be provided. Some groups work with families and do antibias training with teachers. Groups can be funded by the government and/or private sources, and work city-wide (e.g., Hetrick-Martin Institute, New York; Project 10, Los Angeles; University of Minnesota Youth and AIDS Project, St. Paul) or in a single school (Project 10 East, Rindge and Latin School, Cambridge). The Bridges Project is a national network of groups serving lesbian and gay youth.
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.