Adolescence is a time of thinking about sexual development and sexual orientation (1). However, whether or not an adolescent has identified his or her sexual orientation, all adolescents share a strong need to belong (2). A sense of belonging is founded on social experiences that develop from interpersonal relationships among members of the school community, consisting primarily of students and teachers (3). Unfortunately, peer victimization of youth who identify their sexual orientation as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning (LGBQ) not only mutes their need to belong but also renders their safety and survival at school into a constant, conscious concern.
The School Experiences of LGBQ Youth: Past and Present
A sense of belonging is a basic human motivation and its deprivation has been linked to various negative consequences (2). Experiences of peer exclusion and victimization by LGBQ youth and their resulting lower levels of belonging and school attendance have been well documented (4, 5, 6). More recently, however, researchers have called for a change in the focus of this work, and have pressed for an examination of the characteristics of school contexts that promote the well being of LGBQ youth (7, 8). Looking for school characteristics contributing to the well being of LGBQ, recent studies have begun to examine the role of teachers, particularly, in promoting LGBQ youth’s sense of school belonging and safety (9).
LGBQ Youth: Where do They Stand?
The results of our study supported the existing research on the experiences of LGBQ youth in regards to bullying at school, and the emerging research on the positive role of adult support. Approximately 20,000 students took part in our study and around 96% of the participants self-identified their sexual orientation: 1% lesbian/gay, 3% bisexual, 8% questioning, and 88% straight.
Below is a summary of some of the findings:
- 26% of lesbian/gay youth, 6% of bisexual youth, 6% of questioning youth, and 2% of straight youth reported being physically bullied (e.g., hit, shoved, kicked) in school at least once per week.
- 33% of lesbian/gay youth, 15% of bisexual youth, 11% of questioning youth, and 6% of straight youth reported being verbally bullied (e.g., teased, threatened, and called names) in school at least once per week.
- 32% of lesbian/gay youth, 14% of bisexual youth, 8% of questioning youth, and 4% of straight youth reported being socially bullied (e.g., excluded, humiliated, gossiped about) in school at least once per week.
- 32% of lesbian/gay youth, 41% of bisexual youth, 44% of questioning youth, and 58% of straight youth agreed or strongly agreed that they felt a sense of school belonging.
- 52% of lesbian/gay youth, 24% of bisexual youth, 21% of questioning youth, and 7% of straight youth who felt a lack of adult support at school skipped school more than once a week.
- 81% of lesbian/gay youth, 87% of bisexual youth, 95% of questioning youth, and 93% of straight youth who felt there is availability of adult support at school never skipped school or skipped school only once in the school year.
The Protective Role of Adults at School
The safety and well being of all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, cannot be overlooked. Students cannot learn if they are preoccupied with their safety from peer harassment. Fortunately, as suggested by the findings of our study, the role of supportive adults at school can be a protective factor for LGBQ students. Also, it is important to highlight that youth are not simply born homophobic and they do not inherently see the world through the lens of heterosexism (a belief that heterosexuality is the only valid sexuality). Homophobia (fear and contempt for homosexuals) and heterosexism are beliefs that youth learn through their social surroundings. They internalize these beliefs after years of taking on the messages that society’s institutions disseminate. Little (10) explains that, whereas homophobia brings prejudice and potential cruelty, heterosexism keeps LGBQ youth muted and invisible. No doubt, school is one of society’s most influential institutions. Thus, as demonstrated through this study, the role of supportive adults at school can have quite a powerful impact on the positive experiences of LGBQ students. Teachers and other school staff need to have awareness and get training to assist them in being supportive of LGBQ youth (11, 12). In addition to their supportive role, adults at school can play a preventative role through allowing no room for tolerating homophobia as well as ensuring that the voices of LGBQ students are heard and expressed.
The role of supportive adults at school is vital for the mental and physical health of future generations. No individual, regardless of sexual orientation, should be denied his or her right to be safe from victimization and harassment.
- Williams, T., Connolly, J., Pepler, D., & Craig, W. (2005). Peer victimization, social support, and psychosocial adjustment of sexual minority adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34, 471-482.
- Baumeister, R. F. & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.
- Osterman, K. (2000). Students’ need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70, 323-367.
- D’Augelli, A. Pilkington, N., & Hershberger, S. (2002). Incidence and mental health impact of sexual orientation victimization of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths in high school. School Psychology Quarterly, 17, 148-167.
- Espelage, D. L., Aragon, S. R., Birkett, M., & Koenig, B. W. (2008). Homophobic teasing, psychological outcomes, and sexual orientation among high school students: What influence do parents and schools have? School Psychology Review, 37, 202-216.
- Swearer, S. M., Turner, R. K., Givens, J. E., & Pollack, W. S. (2008). “You’re so gay!”: Do different forms of bullying matter for adolescent males? School Psychology Review, 37, 160-173.
- Rivers, I. & Nolet, N. (2008). Well-being among same-sex and opposite attracted youth at school. School Psychology Review, 37, 174-187.
- Russell, S. (2005). Beyond Risk: Resilience in the lives of sexual minority youth. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Issues in Education, 2, 5-18.
- Goodenow, C., Szalacha, L., & Westheimer, K. (2006). School support groups, other school factors, and the safety of sexual minority adolescents. Psychology in the schools, 43, 573-589.
- Little, J. N. (2001). Embracing gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youth in school-based settings. Child and Youth Care Forum, 30, 99-110.
- Poteat, V. P. (2008). Contextual and moderating effects of the peer group climate on use of homophobic epithets. School Psychology Review, 37, 188-201.
- Russell, S., Seif, H., & Truong, N. (2001). School outcomes of sexual minority youth in the United States: evidence from a national study. Journal of Adolescence, 24, 111-127.
- Darwich, L., Hymel, S., & Waterhouse, T. (2008, March). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Questioning Adolescents: Their Social Experiences and the Role of Supportive Adults in High School. Poster presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence, Chicago, Il.
- Community-University Institute for Social Research (2003). The cost of Homophobia: Literature Review on the Human Impact of Homophobia on Canada. SK: CUISR. Suggested Resources Baker, J. M. (2002). How homophobia hurts children: Nurturing diversity at home, at school, and in the community. Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press Inc. Savin-Williams, R. (2005). The new gay teenager. MA: Harvard University Press.