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New Report: Progress for LGBTQ Students Has Stalled After Years of Advancements

Examining two decades of research, new report unpacks key trends in LGBTQ student experiences from 1999 to 2019 

GLSEN, the nation’s leading organization on LGBTQ issues in K-12 education, announced new findings from the 2019 National School Climate Survey showing that the majority of LGBTQ youth continue to face harassment and victimization in school, but schools that provide support can improve student safety, mental health, and academic performance.

Since GLSEN launched this biennial survey in 1999, the National School Climate Survey (NSCS) has become the largest body of research that continually examines the experiences of LGBTQ youth in U.S. schools. The survey examines how negative experiences impact LGBTQ students’ well-being and achievement and how support systems and resources improve the lives of LBGTQ youth. With 2019 marking 20 years since GLSEN first conducted this landmark survey, this year’s report also unpacks key trends in the experiences of LGBTQ students in our nation’s schools over the past two decades.

“For two decades, the National School Climate Survey has been a powerful tool for change. When GLSEN launched the survey in 1999, no research existed that examined the experiences of LGBTQ students across schools nationwide,” says GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard. “This biennial survey has provided educators, policymakers, LGBTQ students, and advocates with the data and research needed to create safe and inclusive schools for LGBTQ students. We’ve seen significant improvement in the lives of LGBTQ students over the past twenty years, but progress has slowed. This year's report offers a clear blueprint for how schools can step up to help LGBTQ students reach their full potential."

Findings from the 2019 National School Climate Survey include the following:

  • Schools are not safe for LGBTQ students. The vast majority of LGBTQ students (86.3%) experienced harassment or assault based on personal characteristics. More than two-thirds report experiencing verbal harassment (68.7%) based on sexual orientation and more than one-half (56.9%) based on gender expression.
  • LGBTQ students of color and immigrants face additional harassment. Over one-half of LGBTQ students heard their peers make racist remarks often or frequently at school, and almost one-fifth of students heard negative remarks about students’ immigration status.
  • Bullying and harassment goes beyond the classroom. More than two-fifths of LGBTQ students reported experiencing some form of electronic harassment (“cyberbullying”) in the past year.
  • School staff don’t intervene enough to stop harassment. When asked to describe how staff responded to reports of victimization, LGBTQ students most commonly said that staff did nothing or told the student to ignore it; 2 in 10 students were told to change their behavior (e.g., to not act “so gay” or dress in a certain way). And 56.6% of students never reported victimization to staff, most commonly because they thought effective intervention wouldn't happen, or they feared intervention would make the situation worse.
  • School policies discriminate against LGBTQ students, especially transgender and nonbinary students. Most LGBTQ students (59.1%) reported personally experiencing LGBTQ-related discriminatory policies or practices at school. For instance, 28.4% reported being prevented from using bathrooms aligned with their gender identity. 
  • Anti-LGBTQ harassment directly harms mental health and academic performance. LGBTQ students who experienced higher levels of victimization based on their sexual orientation were nearly twice as likely to report that they did not plan to pursue any post-secondary education, had lower grade point averages, and were nearly three times as likely to have missed school in the past month.

This year’s survey report also unpacks key trends in the experiences of LGBTQ students in our nation’s schools over the past two decades, including the following:

  • Anti-LGBTQ language remains common in schools. The expression “that’s so gay” remains the most common form of anti-LGBTQ language heard by LGBTQ students, and its prevalence has been increasing from 2015 to 2019, after years of consistent decline. There was a sizable increase in the frequency of LGBTQ students hearing “no homo” at school in 2019, after a consistent pattern of decline between 2011 and 2017.
  • Transphobic language has decreased after spiking in recent years. The frequency of hearing negative remarks about transgender people decreased between 2017 and 2019, after a steady increase between 2013 and 2017.
  • School support for LGBTQ students is increasing. The percentage of LGBTQ students reporting that they have a GSA has continued to increase since 2007 and was greater in 2019 than in all prior survey years.

“Our research over the past two decades points to clear actions that schools can take to protect students who are facing anti-LGBTQ harassment and other forms of discrimination,” says Joseph Kosciw, director of GLSEN Research Institute. “It’s time for each and every school leader to understand the barriers that LGBTQ students face and to commit to making the changes necessary to protect all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”

The report also includes recommendations for schools to improve LGBTQ student well-being, including providing the following: 

  • Dedicated support from schools and staff. School staff need professional development to increase how many supportive teachers and staff are available to LGBTQ students and can offer effective intervention. 
  • Inclusive school policies and antibullying protections. Policies, such as dress codes and facility use policies, must not discriminate against LGBTQ students. Schools must implement comprehensive antibullying and antiharassment policies that affirm students' identities and offer clear and effective ways to report and address incidents. 
  • LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum. An inclusive curriculum should feature positive and accurate representations of LGBTQ people, history, and events. Schools must also provide LGBTQ-inclusive sex education.
  • GSAs in more schools. Students in schools with GSAs reported more supportive school staff and more accepting peers, and felt greater belonging to their school community.

Influencing International Advocacy for LGBTQ Youth
GLSEN has used the NSCS report not only to support LGBTQ youth in the United States but also to bolster international LGBTQ youth advocacy. Using its own survey as a model, GLSEN has advised international NGOs in 30+ countries on how to gather data about the needs and experiences of LGBTQ youth in their own countries and how this data can be leveraged for advocacy. For example, a partner organization in Ukraine used survey results to advocate for national antibullying policies, and a partner organization in Chile used data to push for school-level policies specifically protecting transgender youth. Over the past two decades, GLSEN has supported these partners and many more in convening regional networks and bringing new recommendations to multinational bodies such as UNESCO.

About GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey
The 2019 National School Climate Survey was conducted online from April through August 2019. To obtain a representative national sample of LGBTQ youth, GLSEN conducted outreach through national, regional, and local organizations that provide services to or advocate on behalf of LGBTQ youth and advertised and promoted on social media sites. To ensure representation of transgender youth, youth of color, and youth in rural communities, GLSEN made special efforts to notify groups and organizations that work predominantly with these populations.  

The final sample consisted of a total of 16,713 students between the ages of 13 and 21. Students were from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and Guam. Just over two-thirds of the sample (69.2%) was white, two-fifths (41.6%) was cisgender female, and 40.4% identified as gay or lesbian. The average age of students in the sample was 15.5 years and they were in grades 6 to 12, with the largest numbers in grades 9, 10, and 11.

Source: GLSEN