While commonly considered a way to divide the world into dichotomous and unambiguous categories of heterosexual/homosexual or gay/straight, sexual orientation is, in reality, a complex configuration of sexual attraction/ desire, sexual behavior, and sexual identity. For many individuals, these three aspects of sexual orientation are neither neatly aligned nor stable across the lifespan. For example, a young adolescent female may only engage in sexual intercourse with her boyfriend, may experience sexual/romantic attractions to both males and females, live in a heterosexual marriage for a number of years during early adulthood, and claim a lesbian or bisexual identity in mid-adulthood. Likewise, a young male may be aware from an early age that his attraction is oriented to other males; he may engage in insertive-only sexual behaviors with other male sex partners, and he may claim a heterosexual identity throughout adulthood. Therefore, those who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (GLB) or even heterosexual, do not form distinct, homogenous groups. Each of the three aspects of sexual orientation exist on a continuum, with fewer individuals endorsing exclusive attraction or behavior toward one sex, and with many other individuals endorsing some level of attraction to or behavior toward each sex.
Even this generally accepted tripartite conceptualization of sexual orientation vastly oversimplifies the human experience of sexuality. By focusing on the anatomy of the chosen sex partner(s) as the determining factor of sexual identity, the understanding of the complexities of sexuality and how it develops within the social context of family, peers, schools, and communities is truncated. Acknowledging this oversimplification of a complex phenomenon, the remainder of this article focuses on youth who are (or who are perceived to be) same-sex attracted.
Given this necessarily limited scope, readers are urged to consult other resources on transgender youth, another distinct and non-homogenous social identity. Transgender individuals represent the T in the common acronym GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender). However, transgender identities are constructed around the experience of the self as male or female rather than one's sexual orientation toward other persons perceived as male or female. That is, a trangender person may identify as either male or female (in contrast to the perceived and assigned sex) and then separately as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual depending on the perceived/assigned sex of those to whom the person is sexually attracted. Transgender youth share with GLB youth the experience of having to negotiate a stigmatized identity in often hostile or rejecting environments. However, their experiences and needs cannot be assumed to be the same. Further information and focused discussion of the important and unique needs of transgender youth in schools can be found in most of the resources suggested at the end of this entry.
As with other socially constructed categories (e.g. race, ethnicity, sex, age), sexual orientation categories reinforce power hierarchies within the culture. Heterosexual identities are privileged and non-heterosexual identities are invisible or even oppressed. For example, displays of heterosexuality in the form of social dating opportunities, proms, homecoming kings and queens, are “embellished, protected, and promoted” in schools (Leck, 2000, p. 344). In stark contrast, several states have passed legislation forbidding positive representations of homosexuality in schools (Kosciw & Diaz, 2006).
The realities of heterosexism and homophobia are the social context in which sexual minorities (the term commonly used to refer to all of those who are perceived to be or who claim to be non-heterosexual) develop their identities. In response to heterosexist and/or homophobic social contexts and social interactions, sexual minority adolescents and adults frequently conceal their same-sex sexuality (even on confidential research surveys), making it impossible to know with certainty the distribution of sexual minority identities in the general population. Additionally, for other individuals, the available categorical labels for those who experience same-sex attractions do not adequately describe their experience and thus they chose not to check a box on surveys or in their self-referent discourse (Diamond, 2005; 2006). With these caveats in mind, the best and most recent (as of 2007) population studies have determined that approximately 2 to 4 percent of the general population has a homosexual orientation (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994). In real numbers, this statistic implies that in a high school of 1,000 students, approximately 20 to 40 individuals will, by adulthood, identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. While a relatively small percentage of youth in any one school may identify as GLB, exponentially more heterosexually identified youth have at least one GLB parent, sibling, or other close family member.
School communities, thus, are filled with students, teachers, and staff who either are non-heterosexual themselves or have a close affiliation (friend or family member) to someone with a non-heterosexual identity. Public education that promotes democratic values and produces an informed citizenry that will positively contribute to a diverse, global society requires multicultural (rather than monocultural) competence that includes accurate information about and respectful interaction with sexual minorities. The respectful, professional, and inclusive treatment of sexual minority teachers, school personnel, and students provides a powerful opportunity for increasing multicultural competence among all. The absence of strong modeling of this kind of inclusivity perpetuates heterosexism and is detrimental to the goals of social justice and democracy. Having now emphasized that school communities include GLB teachers, GLB staff, GLB students, children of GLB parents, and family members of GLB individuals, the remainder of this article focuses on the needs of GLB youth in the school context.
Like all adolescents, sexual minority youth face the developmental task of consolidating their identities within the context of their families, peers, and communities. That is, like heterosexual youth, sexual minority youth are trying to answer the question of who they are in relation to others and the world around them. To the extent that youths live in a social context that is characterized by homophobic attitudes and the heterosexist assumption that all so-called normal youth are heterosexual, sexual minority youths must weigh the risks of disclosing their sexual orientation. Conforming feminine or masculine appearance may make concealment a realistic option for some sexual minority youths. In any case, the on-going decisions to disclose or conceal one's identity from various people in the social network (e.g., family members, friends, teachers, and other adults) can be a significant source of chronic stress for some youths, particularly for those from racial/ethnic groups, religious groups, families, schools and/or communities that are intolerant of same-sex sexuality. Such adolescents may remain closeted rather than risk the loss of family and/or community support. In some cases, disclosure could result in the threat of violence and/or homelessness. Overall, however, same-sex attracted youths (particularly boys) are acknowledging same-sex attraction, questioning their sexual orientation and/or coming out at younger ages than in past generations (D'Augelli, 2005), perhaps due to increasing visibility of sexual minority individuals and families in the media and in many communities.
Regardless of the decision to disclose or conceal samesex attraction, this milestone is considered the beginning of the coming out process for sexual minority youth. While identity models have portrayed a linear, lock-step process of gay and lesbian identity development that begins with acknowledgment and acceptance of one's same-sex sexuality and ends with claiming a stable identity and disclosing it to others, the actual experiences of this process have been demonstrated (most notably in young women) to be rarely this simple, tidy, and final (Diamond, 2005; 2006). Some youths altogether reject sexual identity labels and categories and others identify as queer rather than gay, lesbian, or bisexual as a way to reclaim or reframe a derogatory label as one of power and pride.
As noted above, sexual minority youths face chronic stressors that are typically not a part of heterosexual youths' life experience. These chronic stressors, referred to collectively as “minority stress” (Meyer, 2003) include experiences of discrimination and prejudice, anticipation of rejection, internalized homophobia (i.e., negative attitudes and feelings incorporated into the self-image), and, as mentioned above, disclosing or concealing one's identity in various social contexts and relationships. Perhaps the most pervasive and destructive minority stressor frequently experienced by GLBT students in schools is peer harassment, bullying, and violence (Russell, Franz & Driscoll, 2001; Human Rights Watch, 2001; Udry & Chantala, 2002). A 2005 national survey of sexual minority youths' perceptions and experiences of their school climate found that two out of three students had been verbally harassed because of their perceived sexual orientation. Half of the participants had been verbally harassed because of the way they expressed their gender. A full three out of four participants felt unsafe at school because of treatment they received because of one personal characteristic, usually sexual orientation or gender expression (Kosciw & Diaz, 2006).
Harassment affects the educational outcomes of sexual minority youth. Large population-based studies have found that sexual minority youth are significantly more likely than their heterosexual peers to be threatened or harassed at school and to skip school because they feel unsafe (Goodenow, Szalacha, & Westheimer, 2006; Robin et al., 2002). Sexual minority youth also report lower levels of school belonging (Galliher, Rostosky, & Hughes, 2004; Rostosky, Owens, Zimmerman, & Riggle, 2003) and more negative attitudes about school and difficulties in school (Russell, Seif, & Truong, 2001). Sexual minority students are also less likely to perceive that there is an adult at school that is available to them for support (Goodenow, Szalacha, & Westheimer, 2006). The combined effect of a negative school environment and meager social support increases the risk for poor educational outcomes (Kosciw & Diaz, 2006; Murdock & Bolch, 2005).
Strong social support from family, from peers, or from other gay-affirmative adults (including teachers and other school personnel) may buffer at least some of the effects of minority stress on sexual minority youths. However, sexual minority youths who do not enjoy adequate social support or who have difficulty coping with the levels of minority stress in their lives may be at increased risk for poor psychosocial outcomes. While the majority of sexual minority youths develop coping strategies and coping resources that help to minimize the effects of minority stress, the overall higher rates of psychological distress (Elze, 2002; Udry & Chantala, 2002) and substance abuse problems (Rostosky, Owens, & Zimmerman & Riggle, 2003; Russell, Driscoll, & Truong, 2002) among these youths are of serious concern. For example, research has established links between the school bullying and victimization experiences of sexual minority youth and their higher rates of suicidality and depressive symptoms (Bontempo & D'Augelli, 2002; Goodenow, Szalacha, & Westheimer, 2006).
Providing access to safe schools for all children and adolescents is a necessary requirement for positive educational outcomes. The increased risks of harassment and educational disruption and interruption for sexual minority youths must be addressed at multiple levels. First, state-wide legislation that comprehensively and specifically protects students of all socially disadvantaged groups must be enacted. The majority of GLB students in the United States are not protected, and research has demonstrated that blanket coverage through generic legislation that does not enumerate protected categories is no more effective in reducing harassment than no legislation at all (Kosciw & Diaz, 2006).
District-wide and school-level establishment and enforcement of strong anti-bullying policies that are comprehensive and inclusive of sexual orientation sends a strong message that all students will be protected from physical and psychological harm. Research findings indicate that GLB students in schools with comprehensive anti-bullying policies that include sexual orientation are more likely to report harassment, and teachers in such schools are more likely to intervene in such harassment than those GLB students and teachers in schools with generic anti-bullying policies (Kosciw & Diaz, 2006).
Safe schools create and adopt inclusive curricula that affirm the intrinsic worth of all individuals, including those who are sexual minorities. All students, including sexual minority students, have a right to a school environment that is safe and that facilitates rather than inhibits learning. Integrating sexual minority lives into classroom curricula models acceptance and appreciation of diversity. Resources on GLBT-related topics should be made available in the library and on the Internet. Students should be exposed to positive representations of GLBT issues, achievements and contributions, and current events.
At the classroom level, appropriate professional training on issues related to sexual minority youths and families should be provided since the majority of GLBT students indicate that they talked with a teacher at least once during the previous school year (Kosciw & Diaz, 2006). Unfortunately, many teachers and school staff lack even basic knowledge about sexual orientation and, therefore, are unprepared to provide information, protection, or support to their sexual minority students (Ryan & Rivers, 2003). Beyond providing support to these students, however, teachers and staff need to be trained in and encouraged to exercise skills in confronting the use of derogatory language and in effectively intervening in anti-gay bullying and harassment. Such training has been demonstrated to be significantly associated with an improved school climate (Szalacha, 2003).
School personnel should also be provided with resources (time, expertise, rewards) for grappling with their own assumptions about and biases toward others who are different from themselves. To provide effective multicultural education for students, school personnel must first have opportunities to address the ways they as individuals have personally benefited from and suffered from power hierarchies attached to social categories. This type of professional development requires a safe and trusting environment and investments of time, effort, and resources. However, the effect of this investment on school climate and educational outcomes can be significant.
At the student level, research has shown that sexual minority youths who perceive that their teachers are supportive of them and that their school environment is not rejecting of them report better school-related adjustment (Murdock & Bolch, 2005). Schools should be safe places for both GLBT students and teachers. In the 2005 school climate survey, over half of sexual minority students reported that they did not know an out teacher or school staff member (Kosciw & Diaz, 2006).
Finally, sexual minority youths in schools with gay/ straight alliances (GSAs) or other types of groups aimed at providing support and ending discrimination and prejudice are less than half as likely as sexual minority students in other schools to report school victimization or to skip school due to fear of victimization (Goodenow, Szalacha, & Westheimer, 2006). Attending a school with a GSA (or similar support group) or perceiving that one has access to a school staff person to whom one could go for support is associated with lower rates of suicidality (Goodenow, Szalacha, & Westheimer, 2006). Principals and other school administrations need to visibly and vocally support of these groups.
Safe Schools Coalition (http://www.safeschoolscoalition. org) has lesson plans and handouts for addressing issues of sexual diversity in age appropriate ways in the classroom. There are also many resources for sexual minority youths and their friends and allies, including greeting cards that can be downloaded.
The American Psychological Association's Healthy Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Students Project was founded “to strengthen the capacity of the nation's schools to prevent the behavioral health risks of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students through knowledge development, dissemination, and application, working with and through national organizations of school stakeholders.” Their Web site (http://www.apa.org/ed/hlgbaboutus.html) provides links to national education organizations' policies and the latest research on sexual minority youths, including a link to Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation & Youth: A Primer for Principals, Educators and School Personnel.
The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (http://www.glsen.org) “strives to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.” More than 1,000 resources related to current events and issues, tools for ensuring safe schools, policies and legal issues, and lesson plans and curricula for the classroom are available from its Web site.
Advocates For Youth Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (GLBT) Youth Initiative (http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/about/glbtq.htm) “works to address homophobia within communities, sensitize youth-serving professionals to the needs of GLBTQ youth and to encourage GLBTQ youth to become powerful advocates for themselves and other youth by sharing culturally relevant information and access to tailored services.” Available at this Web site are tips for teachers and teens for dealing with harassment and for creating inclusive programs. Several fact sheets and tip sheets are available for transgender youth and for the adults in their lives.
Parents, Friends, and Families of Lesbians and Gays (http://www.pflag.org) offers support and information for families of LGBT people with more than 400 chapters nationwide. PFLAG offers Safe Schools Training for school personnel.
Children of Lesbian and Gays Everywhere (http://colage.org/) was formed “to engage, connect, and empower people to make the world a better place for children of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender parents and families.” The Web site offers a link to “Tips for making the classroom safe for children with LGBT parents,” as well as lists of books and films.
Bontempo, D. E. & D'Augelli, A. R. (2002). Effects of at-school victimization and sexual orientation on lesbian, gay, bisexual youths' health risk behavior. Journal of Adolescent Health, 30, 364–374.
D'Augelli, A. R. (2005). Developmental and contextual factors and mental health among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths. In A. M. Omoto and H.S. Kurtzman (Eds.), Sexual orientation and mental health: Examining identity and development in lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (pp. 37–53). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Diamond, L. M. (2005). A new view of lesbian subtypes, Stable vs. fluid identity trajectories over an 8-year period. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29, 119–228.
Diamond, L. M. (2006). What we got wrong about sexual identity development: Unexpected findings from a longitudinal study of young women. In A. M. Omoto and H. S. Kurtzman (Eds), Sexual orientation and mental health: Examining identity and development in lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (pp. 73–94). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Elze, D. E. (2002). Risk factors for internalizing and externalizing problems among gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents. Social Work Research, 26, 89–100.
Galliher, R. V., Rostosky, S. S., & Hughes, H. K. (2004). School belonging, self-esteem, and depressive symptoms in adolescents: An examination of sex, sexual attraction status, and urbanicity. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 33, 235–245.
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, 573–587.
Human Rights Watch. (2001). Hatred in the hallways: Violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in U.S. schools. New York: Author.
Kosciw, J. G. & Diaz, E. M. (2006). The 2005 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation's schools. New York: GLSEN.
Laumann, E., Gagnon, J., Michael, R., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Leck, G. M. (2000). Heterosexual or homosexual? Reconsidering binary narratives on sexual identities in urban schools. Education and Urban Society, 32, 324–348.
Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 674–697.
Murdock, T. B., & Bolch, M. B. (2005). Risk and protective factors for poor school adjustment in lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) high school youth: Variable and person-centered analyses. Psychology in the Schools, 42, 159–117.
Robin, L., Brener, N., Emberley, N., Donahue, S., Hack, T., & Goodenow, C. (2002). Association between health-risk behaviors and gender of sexual partner in representative samples of Vermont and Massachusetts high school students. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 156, 349–355.
Rostosky, S. S., Owens, G. P., Zimmerman, R. S., & Riggle, E. (2003). Associations among sexual attraction status, school belonging, and alcohol and marijuana use in rural high school students. Journal of Adolescence, 26, 741–751.
Russell, S. T., Driscoll, A. K., & Truong, N. (2002). Adolescent same-sex romantic attractions and relationships: Implications for substance use and abuse. American Journal of Public Health, 92, 198–202.
Russell, S. T., Franz, B.T., & Driscoll, A.K. (2001). Same-sex romantic attraction and experiences of violence in adolescence. American Journal of Public Health, 91, 903–906.
Russell, S. T., Seif, H., & Truong, B. L. (2001). School outcomes of sexual minority youth in the United States: Evidence from a national study. Journal of Adolescence, 24, 111–127.
Ryan, C., & Rivers, I. (2003). Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth: Victimization and its correlates in the USA and UK. Culture, Health, & Sexuality, 5, 103–119.
Szalacha, L. A. (2003). Safer sexual diversity climates: Lessons learned from an evaluation of Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students. American Journal of Education, 110, 58–88.
Udry, J. R., & Chantala, K. (2002). Risk assessment of adolescents with same-sex relationships. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31, 84–92.
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