5 Strategies for Supporting LGBTQ+ Youth in School

As educators, we must always be reflecting on and working toward supporting all of our students, including marginalized youth who may face additional barriers and challenges in and outside of school.

However, months of recognition — such as Pride Month — provide an opportunity for us to intentionally take time to celebrate and commemorate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender pride and to consider actions we can take to support LGBTQ+ youth and the broader LQBTQ+ community.

The tips and strategies I offer here are only a beginning. On my own journey, I have been fortunate to have opportunities that have helped me grow, to confront my privilege, to learn about gaps in my knowledge and skills, and to reflect on what I need to do to not only better meet the needs of marginalized youth but also to disrupt and (hopefully) dismantle systems that oppress young people.

This is lifelong work. It is challenging, uncomfortable, and often difficult. It is, I believe, an essential part of our work as health and physical educators.

LGBTQ+ Youth Need Teachers’ Support

The most recent data from GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey illustrates why this work is so critical. I encourage you to read the full report, but some highlights include:

  • 81.8% of LGBTQ+ students in our survey reported feeling unsafe in school because of at least one of their actual or perceived personal characteristics.
  • LGBTQ+ students most commonly avoided school bathrooms, locker rooms, and physical education or gym classes, with approximately 4 in 10 students avoiding each of these spaces because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable (45.1%, 42.6%, and 39.4% respectively).
  • 58.0% of students reported hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or other school staff, and 72.0% of students reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression from teachers or other school staff.
  • 76.1% experienced in-person verbal harassment (e.g., called names or threatened) specifically based on sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender at some point in the past year — 60.7% of LGBTQ+ students were verbally harassed based on their sexual orientation, 57.4% based on gender expression, and 51.3% based on gender.
  • 11.3% of LGBTQ+ students shared that school staff or coaches had prevented or discouraged them from playing sports because they identified as LGBTQ+.
  • LGBTQ+ students who experienced higher levels of in-person victimization because of their sexual orientation felt lower levels of belonging to their school community, performed poorer academically, (2.83 vs. 3.15 average GPA), and were nearly twice as likely to report that they did not plan to pursue any post-secondary education (e.g., college or trade school) than those who experienced lower levels (16.6% vs. 9.4%)

We also know that sexual health education often stigmatizes or completely excludes LGBTQ+ youth. Only 7.4% of youth in the GLSEN survey received LGBTQ+ sex education which included positive representations of both LGB and transgender and nonbinary topics and a majority (71.6%) of LGBTQ+ students reported that their classes did not include any LGBTQ+ topics in class (GLSEN, 2021).

The data clearly show the need for work to not only support LGBTQ+ students in school but to also work to change systems that are creating these conditions and experiences which are negatively impacting many LGBTQ+ youth.

How to Support Your LGBTQ+ Students

The positive news is that we canmake a difference for LGBTQ+ students in our classrooms and schools. Below, I share five strategies you can implement, pretty much right away, to make positive change.

Remember, this post may be coming in June, but the work needs to be happening all the time … every day … always.

1. Learn more.

None of us know what we don’t know. However, we can actively work to learn more and to begin to understand the gaps in our own knowledge and experiences. For example, I do not remember, at any point in my training, learning specifically about challenges that LGBTQ+ youth face or how to best support LGBTQ+ youth.

And, as someone who is not a member of the community, my experience and my lack of education led me to have a gap in my understandings and perspectives of the community which meant that I was less able to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ youth. On a more basic level, I learned while writing this post that Pride Month is celebrated in June to honor the Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan in 1969. Critical to this work is learning not just about the history of Pride Month, but about the systems that are oppressing LGBTQ+ youth and the historical factors that are coming into play today.

Importantly, we also need to learn about the history of resilience and resistance that the LGBTQ+ community has demonstrated and continues to demonstrate today. I think about it like this: We have to understand the root factors that are contributing to the oppression because if we don’t, we will never really address the problem and the plant will not thrive because the roots are “rotten.”

We also need to figure out the roots that are strong and will promote health and well-being — the roots that connect to the resilience and strength of the LGBTQ+ community that, with nurturing, will be roots that contribute to thriving. And, we need to expand our own perspectives to be more inclusive. We can do both by actively seeking out information from valid and reliable resources, by reading LGBTQ+ authors, and by engaging in conversations with members of the LGBTQ+ community, members of the school’s GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance/Genders & Sexualities Alliance), and other allies.

Importantly, we need to listen. We need to seek out our community, our partners in the work who we can listen to and learn from. We need to do the work with the community, not for the community.

2. Create or support a GSA in your school.

We know from the 2021 GLSEN data that students who had an active GSA in their school were less likely to hear homophobic remarks at school and were less likely to feel unsafe.

And, when compared to students in schools without GSAs, they also:

  • Felt greater belonging to their school community;
  • Performed better academically in school;
  • Were more likely to plan on pursuing postsecondary education;
  • Reported better psychological well-being, higher levels of self-esteem, lower levels of depression, and a lower likelihood of having seriously considered suicide in the past year.

Here are some websites that can help you to get a GSA going at your school if you don’t have one already:

3. Use inclusive curriculum.

Find and use curricular resources that include LGBTQ+ topics and positive representation of the LGBTQ+ community. The GLSEN data suggests that using inclusive curricular resources can make a difference, with positive outcomes that are similar to having a GSA.

Implementing this strategy may mean that you need to go back to the first strategy in this list (“learn more”) and do some research. It may also mean that you need to critically examine your curriculum and resources to determine the extent to which it is supportive of LGBTQ+ youth.

Here are some resources to support your journey:

4. Be a supportive adult.

You can be a supportive adult, an ally. Data shows that when LGBTQ+ youth hadmore than 11 supportive adults in the school, they reported better psychological well-being and were less likely to feel unsafe, less likely to miss school, and less likely to report a suicide attempt  (GLSEN, 2021; Trevor Project, 2019).

You may consider a more formal training such as The Safe Zone Project or The Trevor Project, or more informal self-assessment and personal development using tools such as the CDC’s LGBTQ Inclusivity in Schools Self-Assessment Tool.  

5. Create and implement inclusive policies and practices in your classroom and school.

Examine your current classroom and school policies and consider ways to create rights and responsibilities (rather than rules, norms or expectations) for your classroom- and school- level policies that support LGBTQ+ youth.

Here are tools to support the work:

I hope these ideas support you on your journey! Together, we can make a difference for our LGBTQ+ youth — not just in June, but every day.

Additional Resources

Sarah Benes

Sarah Benes, MPH, EdD, CHES, is an assistant professor and program coordinator of the School Health Education Program at Southern Connecticut State University. Sarah works in schools locally and nationally, and writes and presents on various health education topics. She currently serves as SHAPE America president. Reach her on Twitter at @sarahbenes12 or via email at beness1@southernct.edu.