LGBTQ+ & Education

Kimberly Fuller

Youth spend more than 50% of their waking hours in schools throughout their childhood. Schools play an important part in the development of youths’ social skills, educational growth, and cognitive development. The climate of schools can shape the experiences that LGBTQ+ students have throughout their lives, and contribute to the overall well-being of their mental health. The differences between the experiences and outcomes of supportive schools is a stark difference from those that are neutral or rejecting.

 History of LGBTQ+ inclusivity in education

GLSEN marchers at Southern Maine Pride 2010. Their signs read “Anti-Gay discrimination is ILLEGAL in Maine schools and universities” and “proud lesbian teacher 29 yrs. Portland public schools.”

In 1984 Project 10, the first support group for LGBTQ+ students in a formal educational system, was started in a Los Angeles high school by a high school teacher and counselor, Dr. Virginia Uribe. Dr. Uribe experienced significant backlash from community members. Project 10’s mission was to create supportive, welcoming, and safe campuses for sexual minority youth. They helped established the first safe zones, developed trainings for schools on implementing policy changes to protect youth, and address the needs of LGBTQ+ youth. Similar efforts began on the East Coast several years later. The Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) was founded in 1990 by a group of teachers in Massachusetts with a passion for improving the quality of education for LGBTQ+ youth. GLSEN has become a leading national organization focused on ensuring safe and affirming educational systems for LGBTQ+ youth. Also, during the 1990s, the first Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) was established in Salt Lake City, Utah. Despite continued resistance from the community, administration, and parents, the GSA persevered, and schools all across the nation slowly began implementing similar support efforts. As of 2015, nearly 60% of students reported having GSAs at their school (GLSEN, 2015).

Almost more than 30 years later, legislation in the United States has been evolving towards greater levels of inclusivity in schools. Out of 7,000 LGBTQ+ students sampled by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)’s 2015 National School Climate Survey, about 20% reported positive inclusion of LGBT issues in curriculum, 20% reported LGBT-related content in textbooks at school, 40% reported access to LGBT-related library materials, and 50% reported access to LGBT resources on the school Internet. All of these areas increased slightly over the last 14 years of GLSEN’s data collection in schools. According to a comprehensive survey published in the Columbia Law Review, 20 states maintain statutes that “prohibit or restrict the discussion of homosexuality in public schools” (Rosky, 2017). Some laws prohibit teachers from “promoting” homosexuality or suggesting that there are safe ways to practice homosexual sex. Others demand that teachers disseminate misinformation, such as: “homosexual conduct is a criminal offense” and “homosexual activity [is] primarily responsible for contact with the AIDS virus” (Rosky, 2017). This argument has been present in sex education throughout the last forty years. Policies such as these promote peer discrimination, harassment, and assault of LGBTQ+ youth (GLSEN, 2018).

Sex Education

Signs by the “Cuban Day against Homophobia” supporting inclusion and LGBT+ positivity in the National Center for Sexual Education in Cuba.

Historically, sexual health education was primarily abstinence-based (AB) or abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM; Santelli et al., 2017). AB/AOUM sex education promotes sex as an act that occurs between two heterosexual cisgender persons after getting married. Further, same-sex attraction is feared and gender stereotypes are reinforced (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, 2008). Public health organizations and most parents agree that sex education should include discussions of LGBTQ+ identities. Eight-five percent of parents of high schoolers reported wanting sexual orientation discussed in sex education, while 78% of middle school parents wanted sexual orientation discussed in sex education (Let’s Talk Poll, 2015).

In reality, fewer than 4% of LGBTQ+ youth reported any mention of sexual and/or gender orientation in their health classes (Gowen & Winges-Yanez, 2013), and only 12% were told about same-gender relationships (Jones & Cox, 2015). The routine omission of LGBTQ+ issues from sex education curricula constitutes a violation of adolescent human rights (Miller & Schleifer, 2008), as it “robs youth of sexual agency by withholding information that is critical to health and well-being” (Elia & Eliason, 2010). Whether habitual or deliberate, the omission of LGBTQ+ topics from health curricula implies that sexual and gender fluidity are not part of the “natural” biological order, and are by default unnatural/perverse (Bay-Cheng, 2003). When discussions of LGBTQ+ issues do appear in health textbooks, language clearly shifts toward LGBTQ+ persons as the “other”, and makes it seem as though the sexual experiences of LGBTQ+ are vastly different than those of heterosexual and cisgender youth (Whatley, 1994). While LGBTQ+ do have some differences in sexual experiences, including information tailored to their needs can help to reduce the risk of STI transmission. LGBTQ+ affirming sex education:

  • Reduces unintended teen pregnancy
  • Reduces rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Reduces overall number of sexual partners
  • Reduces unprotected sex and increases condom and contraception use
  • Delays age of first sexual intercourse

Neutral/Negative Schools

As of 2015, only 13 states and the District of Columbia developed laws specifically addressing the discrimination, harassment, and bullying of students based on sexual orientation and gender identity (GLSEN, 2015). Lack of legislation means unclear interpretations of policies and leaves their development up to individual districts and schools. Students in schools without policies are at a greater likelihood of experiencing discriminatory practices, and are more likely to fear discrimination and bullying in the future. Even more troubling for LGBTQ+ students—six states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas)restrict presenting any content on LGBTQ+ issues and some even require teachers avoid portraying LGBTQ+ people in a positive light. (GLSEN, 2015)

Heteronormative socialization becomes more intense as youth age, and the earlier of exposure to discrimination has been shown to increase the likelihood of victimization for LGBTQ+ youth (Espelage et al., 2008; Horn, 2007). A 2015 analysis of the Youth Behavior Risk Surveillance Survey (YRBSS) found high rates of peer bullying behaviors towards LGB youth. The following is a list of the percentage of LGB students experiencing discriminatory behaviors:

  • 10% were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property
  • 34% were bullied on school property
  • 28% were bullied electronically through social media or other sites (tumblr, Reddit)
  • 23% experienced sexual dating violence in the prior year
  • 18% experienced physical dating violence
  • 18% were forced to have sex with a peer at some point in their lives

A study on transgender youth (Eisenberg et al., 2017) found even higher rates of discrimination and violence in several areas:

  • 25% experienced physical bullying
  • 52% experienced dating bullying
  • 35% experienced bullying specifically due to gender
  • 47% experienced bullying specifically due to gender expression

Gender non-conforming youth also experience frequent bullying, often more extensively than sexual minority and transgender youth transitioning from one binary identity to another (GLSEN & Harris Interactive, 2012).

GLSEN marcher holding sign saying “Stop bullying,” while dressed as traffic director.

School bullying has long term effects on the mental health and quality of life of LGBTQ+ students. Bullying has been shown to be associated with increased depression, anxiety, suicidality, and decreased self-esteem (D’Augelli, Grossman, & Starks, 2006; Espelage, Aragon, & Birkett, 2008; Kosciw et al., 2014). Bullying can also affect school outcomes by increasing negative attitudes toward schools, truancy, and disciplinary problems, while lowering GPAs, and decreasing interest in pursuing further education (Goodenow et al., 2006; Kosciw et al., 2014; Murdock & Bolch, 2005; Swearer, Turner, Givens, & Pollack, 2008).

Educators confirm witnessing discriminatory and violent behavior towards LGBTQ+ youth in their schools, even as early as elementary school (Dragowski et al., 2016). An alarming 70% of LGBTQ+ youth heard anti-gay speech at school (e.g. “That’s so gay, gay, you’re so gay”, 60% heard another type of homophobic remark (e.g. “fag”, “dyke”), and 56% heard homophobic remarks from their teachers (Kosciw et al., 2018). Additionally, youth heard comments about gender expression from at least 60% of the time and teachers and school staff 71% of the time (Kosciw et al., 2018). Many of these behaviors go unnoticed and undocumented. Some educators (between 31% and 42%) fail to recognize harassment by other students, such as the use of the word “fag” or the phrase “that’s so gay”, and do not intervene appropriately when it arises (Athanases & Larrabee, 2003; McCabe, Dragowski, & Rubinson, 2013; Mudrey & Medina-Adams, 2006). Forty seven percent of LGBTQ+ students who reported to a teacher or support staff homophobic harassment and over 90% of students who heard gender expression discrimination found the school staff to never intervene (Kosciw et al., 2018). Fifty-seven percent of LGBTQ+ youth never reported the harassment and assault out of fear of inaction by the school (Kosciw et al., 2014). Bullying isn’t just exclusively conducted by youth and adolescents within schools. Forty-four percent of educators report hearing other school staff make derogatory comments about or towards LGBTQ+ students, with the highest prevalence of educator and harassment bullying occurring in middle school (Dragowski et al., 2016). Thankfully, several states (Michigan, Maine, Virginia, Wisconsin, & Pennsylvania) have ruled that discriminating against transgender students is a violation of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in schools (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2018). Currently discussions at the federal level are determining whether this interpretation is too broad, and should be limited to discrimination against cisgender girls.

Supportive Movements in LGBTQ+ Education

Laws in certain states have been created to enforce inclusivity of LGBT issues across the curriculum. California, for instance, has implemented new legislation supporting inclusion of LGBT themes in the classroom (Kushner, 2011). SB48, The FAIR Education Act (Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act), was enacted in early 2012 enforcing inclusive and nondiscriminatory curriculum, including LGBT historical events (such as Stonewall Riots), with the intention to promote positive LGBT identities and educate on the value of LGBT identities. SB48 was passed with the intention of curbing LGBT suicides and alleviating bullying. Shortly after, passing in June 2010 and effective July 2012, New York and Washington adopted more inclusive laws for their school districts (DeWitt, 2012). Entitled, The Dignity for All Students Act, requires all public school boards to include language regarding sexual orientation and gender expression within their curriculums and school policies. A similar law was passed in early 2019 in New Jersey, requiring all New Jersey schools to teach LGBTQ+ history and achievements across the curriculum. An additional level of protection exists for transgender students–the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibits schools from disclosing a student’s transgender status. Additionally, FERPA allows youth to amend school records if information is “inaccurate, misleading, or in violation of the student’s rights of privacy” (34 C.F.R. § 99.7(a)(2)(ii)), which allows students who are interested in changing their name and gender marker on their transcripts to seek this amendment. The Office for Civil Rights can investigate complaints made by students and parents. In cases of discrimination, The Department of Education can sue the school district and deny federal funding. (NTCE, 2018).

Supportive Schools

A school bus decorated for a Gay-Straight Alliance at Seattle Pride 2008.

Over the last several decades, with sociocultural changes across the U.S. towards greater LGBTQ+ acceptance, some schools have increasingly become more positive spaces for youth (Black, Fedewa, & Gonzalez, 2012). Supportive schools typically have several key assets—an environment where youth interact with caring and accepting educators and staff who treat LGBTQ+ fairly (Espelage et al., 2008), have supportive school groups (Black et al., 2012, Goodenow et al., 2006), inclusive curricular, and comprehensive policies to reduce school harassment and bullying (Kosciw et al., 2014). Supportive schools set the standard for all youth to be more accepting and inclusive of LGBTQ+ students, and are less likely to tolerate discriminatory and violent behaviors between students. LBGTQ+ students in more supportive environments are less likely to have depression and suicidal ideation, use substances, and be truant (Birkett et al., 2009; Goodenow et al., 2006).

The Role of Educators and Other Support Staff

Educators play an integral role in healthy youth development and increase feelings of safety for LGBTQ+ students. Cisgender and heterosexual teachers who become allies, and advocate for and support LGBTQ+ students, increase academic achievement and increases quality of life for LGBTQ+ youth (McGuire et al., 2010). Some educators even advance their allyship further and mentor students, sponsor LGBTQ+ student organizations, connect LGBTQ+ students to community resources, and openly advocate for inclusion despite consequences imposed by employers (e.g. probation or loss of employment; Carroll & Gilroy, 2002; Gonzalez & McNulty, 2010; McGuire et al., 2010). Studies on transgender youth have found when school staff are more supportive, trans youth feel safer because the teachers are more likely to stop harassment as they see it (McGuire et al., 2010; O’Shaughnessy, Russell, Heck, Calhoun, & Laub, 2004; Russell, McGuire, Lee, & Larriva, 2008). Including content about LGBTQ+ lives in course content, such as sex education, can have a large impact on the mental and emotional well-being of LGBTQ+ youth. For more discussion on this topic, see “LGBTQ+ Inclusion in PreK-12 Teaching and Learning”.


Virginia Uribe, a teacher and counselor in the Los Angeles Unified School (LAUSD) district, talks about starting the program Project 10: a program to ensure safe, supportive and welcoming campuses free from discrimination and harassment for sexual minority youth.

LGBTQ+ Clubs

PRSYM, Proud Rainbow Youth of Southern Maine.

LGBTQ+ clubs, originally known as Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs), are school-based organizations developed to enhance the school community for LGBTQ+ youth and their allies and are often advised by an allied or self-identifying teacher in the building. LGBTQ+ clubs promote advocacy, encourage youth leadership, and allow youth to socialize with other youth in a supportive and non-discriminatory environment (Griffin, Lee, Waugh, & Beyer, 2004; Russell, Muraco, Subramaniam, & Laub, 2009). Developed in Massachusetts during the 1980’s, LGBTQ+ clubs originally focused on the needs of sexual minority youth. National organizations such as the GSA Network, Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educators Network (GLSEN), and several state focused organizations were influential is spreading LGBTQ+ clubs to more schools across the United States (Schindel, 2008). More recently, with the increasing emphasis on the needs of transgender youth, groups have been adjusting their focus to include the needs and rights of gender minority students in their missions. Some groups, for example, have altered their names to Gender-Sexuality Alliance or even Queer Student Alliance to encompass the broad spectrum of identities.

GSANetwork marchers walk with signs reading “Safe schools for all.”

Having a LGBTQ+ clubs in school is one of the largest protective factors for LGBTQ+ youth (Heck, Flentje, & Cochran, 2011; Poteat, Sinclair, DiGiovanni, Koenig, & Russell, 2013; Porta et al., 2017; Saewyc et al., 2014). Research focused on victimization (Portnoy, 2012; Toomey et al., 2012; Walls et al., 2010), drug use (Heck et al., 2014), and mental health concerns (Poteat et al., 2012; Walls et al., 2013) found reduced instances of victimization and harassment, and increased feelings of support and connectivity, leading to reductions in anxiety and depression. Youth felt more connected, empowered, and supported by their schools and other adults, and were less inclined to feel marginalized and victimized by peers and school-based adults (Griffin et al. 2004; Mayberry et al. 2013; Mayo, 2013).

While most LGBTQ+ clubs are embraced and supported in schools, some receive pushback from the administration, community, school boards, and parents fearing the club may encourage homosexuality. In the most extreme cases, some opponents have gone as far to ban all school clubs and pass importune observance of abstinence-only education and anti-obscenity laws (Mayberry et al. 2013; Mayo, 2013). Resistance occurs most often in school districts where LGBTQ+ students need these services the most. For example in 2003, in an effort to eliminate controversy after approving a LGBTQ+ student group at a Boyd County, Kentucky High School, a principal initiated a ban of all non-curricular clubs at the school for the remainder of the year (Boyd County High School Gay Straight Alliance et al. vs. Board of Education of Boyd County, KY, 2003).

Bathrooms and Locker Rooms

The sign from a gender neutral bathroom from an NASPA conference in Orlando 2013.

Over the last decade there has been growing contention about the use of bathrooms and locker rooms for gender minority youth. Over half the states in the U.S. are currently suing over the rights of transgender students to use the bathroom aligned with their gender (Emma, 2016). Youth perceive bathrooms as the most unsafe spaces within the school building (Porta et al., 2017). While not all schools can undergo a full renovation to include a new gender neutral restroom, schools can take a current restroom and relabel it as gender neutral which all students can use when needed. Gender-neutral or single stall bathrooms increase the sense of security of LGBTQ+ youth, and provide a safe space for youth to use the restroom without having to choose between which bathroom to use, or anticipating the negative backlash if someone who is unaccepting is inside. Unfortunately, gender minority youth are often the main advocates for bathrooms accommodating the needs transgender persons. Having other supportive systems in place, such as accepting educators or LGBTQ+ clubs often encourage gender minority youth to speak up and advocate for their needs.

Physical education courses are particularly difficult aspects of schools for LGBTQ+ students. More than half of LGBTQ+ youth had been assaulted or harassed in physical education classes at least once because of their sexual orientation (52.8%) or gender expression (50.9%; Lee, Burgeson, Fulton, & Spain, 2007). Often this is due to gender socialization about how masculine or feminine one should be presenting, and can often include difficulties for gender minority youth with utilizing locker rooms and other facilities aligned with their gender identity.

Contrary to media presentations about the danger of allowing transgender people to use bathrooms aligned with their gender, gender minority youth are at significantly greater risk for experiencing trauma and violence in these public spaces (Human Rights Campaign, 2017). Eleven percent of LGBTQ+ youth never feel safe in a locker room, with steeply increasing discomfort for gender minority youth in these spaces. Forty one percent of transgender boys, 34% of transgender girls, and 31% of non-binary youth never feel safe in locker rooms. Slightly more than half (51%) of transgender youth have never used the locker room aligned with their gender identity, and instead either use the locker room aligned with their sex assigned at birth, or do not participate in physical education activities (Human Rights Campaign, 2017). A national study conducted by HRC (2017) found that one-third of all LGBTQ+ students do not attend physical education courses, 39% avoid locker rooms, and 23% avoid all school athletic facilities and fields all of which can lead to further isolation and ostracization.

Challenges of Educators

Educators face several challenges with addressing the needs of LGBTQ+ students. A study involving pre-service teachers, school counselors, and school psychologists indicated emphasis on race, class, and (dis)ability in diversity courses in their training, but courses failed to mention the needs of LGBTQ+ students (McCabe & Rubinson, 2008). Ultimately, this leads to pre-service teachers, school counselors, and school psychologists feeling unprepared to work with LGBTQ+ students, adjust their interactions, and work to advocate with the academic system on these issues. Even after getting licensed, many professionals are not able to access comprehensive professional development opportunities and trainings, despite educator interest (Israel & Hackett, 2004; Whitman, Horn, & Boyd, 2007). Many professionals have to find the appropriate resources for themselves.

Community opposition can also have a significant influence on educators’ willingness to support youth. Despite personal acceptance of LGBTQ+ youth, some educators are reluctant to indicate any possible support of LGBTQ+ students out of fear of negative parental response, administrative backlash, and possible loss of employment (Dessel, 2010). In particularly conservative areas, and in religiously-affiliated schools, teachers may not have the support from constituents to demonstrate their support. Evaluations of teacher candidate trainings found despite research stating the importance of inclusion and school safety for LGBTQ+ students (Athanases & Larrabee, 2003), many would be unwilling to advocate for the needs of LGBTQ+ students (Larrabee & Morehead, 2010), and were unwilling to discuss sexual and gender minority (SGM) identities publicly in the classroom (Kumashiro, 2004). Although the culture of schools has been improving, schools still remain politically and religiously charged institutions, and a battleground for the rights of LGBTQ+ students.


Learn about Supporting transgender and gender nonconforming students in this GLSEN webinar.