During the past several years there have been major shifts in attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals throughout the United States.[i] At the same time, there has been a growing national conversation about how to address bullying in schools and make schools safer and more welcoming for LGBT youth.[ii] Nonetheless, many LGBT individuals still face incredible stigma and prejudice including biased language related their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression, which is particularly ubiquitous in schools.[iii] This can make schools unwelcoming to many LGBT students.[iv]
In order to capture and further understand the experience of LGBT students in schools, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) conducts the biennial National School Climate Survey (NSCS). The survey of LGBT middle and high school students explores the prevalence of biased language about sexual orientation, gender, gender expression, sex, and race; it also examines their rates of victimization, the effects of that victimization, and how to mitigate the negative impact of the stigmatizing remarks and behaviors.
The 2011 NSCS found that biased language toward LGBT students is highly prevalent throughout schools in the U.S.[v] Nearly three-quarters (71.3%) of LGBT students reported hearing students make derogatory remarks, such as “dyke” or “faggot”, often or frequently in school. More than a third of LGBT students (38.8%) reported that these types of derogatory remarks were made by most of their peers and more than half (56.9%) reported hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or school staff.
The phrases “that’s so gay” and “you’re so gay” are used to indicate that something or someone is stupid or worthless and easily dismissed. The 2011 NSCS found that 84.9% of LGBT students frequently or often heard “gay” used in a negative way at school. Although people who use “gay” in a negative way may not intend for it to be offensive, 91.4% of LGBT students reported feeling bothered by hearing this type of language.
“No homo”, another stigmatizing phrase examined in the 2011 NSCS, is employed to rid a statement or action from any homosexual connotation. For example, when two people of the same gender greet each other with a hug they might say “no homo” to convey that their hug was of a strictly heterosexual nature. Accordingly, “no homo” attaches judgment to homosexual behavior or same-sex attraction. Slightly more than half (53.8%) of LGBT students heard “no homo” used in their schools often or frequently, and although many people who employ this phrase do not necessarily use it to purposely denigrate LGBT individuals, more than 4 in 5 (84.8%) LGBT students reported that hearing “no homo” made them uncomfortable.
In addition, LGBT students commonly reported hearing other types of biased remarks in school. Nearly two thirds (61.4%) heard negative remarks about gender expression often or frequently (e.g., about someone not acting “masculine” or “feminine” enough), which serve to reinforce norms for what is considered an appropriate expression of gender. LGBT students also commonly heard sexist remarks (74.4% heard them often or frequently) and, to a lesser extent, racist remarks (41.6% heard them often or frequently).
The pervasiveness of biased language in our schools continues to marginalize sexual and gender minority students. However, GLSEN’s research has found that institutional supports such as supportive educators, Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) or other supportive student clubs, LGBT- inclusive curricula, and comprehensive school policies that include protections against bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression are associated with more positive school experiences for LGBT students. With greater attention being paid to bullying in schools and the isolation faced by LGBT students, the percentage of LGBT youth hearing homophobic remarks often or frequently has fallen from approximately 84% in 2001 to about 71% in 2011. As the country becomes mindful of the LGBT bias prevalent in our nation’s schools, we hope to see these numbers and the stigma experienced by LGBT students decline even further.
[i]Jones, R. P., Cox, D., & Navarro-Rivera, J. (2014). A shifting landscape: A decade of change in American attitudes about same-sex marriage and LGBT issues. Washington, DC: Public Religion Research Institute. Retrieved from http://publicreligion.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/2014.LGBT_REPORT.pdf
Pew Research. (2013). A survey of LGBT Americans: Attitudes, experiences, and values in changing times. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/06/13/a-survey-of-lgbt-americans/.
[ii] Bullying and LGBT youth. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/groups/lgbt/index.html.
[iii] Kelleher, C. (2009). Minority stress and health: Implications for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 22(4): 373-9.
[iv] Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Bartkiewicz, M. J., Boesen, M. J., & Palmer, N. A. (2012). The 2011 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.
[v] Kosciw et al., 2012.
Jordan Silverman is an Intern in Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) Research Department and a current MPH candidate at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. GLSEN is recognized worldwide as an innovative leader in the education, youth development and civil rights sectors fighting to end bias-based bullying, violence and discrimination in K-12 schools and promote a culture of respect for all.