Representation of the LGBTQIA+ Community in Schools, or Lack Thereof
By: Mint Suetrong, Contributing Writer
Edited by: Eve Nevelos, Editor in Chief
Why does representation matter? To put it simply, humans are perceptive beings, especially during early childhood. With limited sources of stimuli, it is no surprise that young children often mimic the actions or dialogue of their guardians. Ideologies or habits taught when you are young are often instilled and difficult to unlearn. Before you gain your sense of self-confidence, your self-perception would be heavily dependent on the perception that others have of you. Growing up in an encouraging and supportive society would much more likely produce a confident and self-accepting individual than those who constantly had their actions, feelings and identity invalidated.
Representation makes you feel less isolated. Humans are social beings: our lives are crafted from interactions we have with the world thus the opinion of others affects us in some way, no matter how much we would prefer it not to. Growing up and exploring your identity is already both difficult and nerve-wracking on its own. The fear of people, especially your loved ones, blatantly expressing their disapproval of your identity can detrimentally destruct one’s confidence. Through their research, The Trevor Project has found that the rate of youths who attempted suicide halved with increased support from their friends, special person and/or parents.
Representation can bring comfort. No one wants to be in an environment where they feel alienated- feel like they do not belong, or deserve to belong, there. Frustration due to the lack of acceptance is evident and disproportionately affects our LGBTQIA+ youths. According to The Trevor Project, 52% of transgender and nonbinary youths have considered suicide and 21% attempted suicide, compared to 34% of cisgender youths who considered suicide and 11% who attempted suicide.
Respect alone can save lives. Transgender and nonbinary youths whose pronouns were respected by all or most people in their lives reported half the rate of attempted suicide than those who did not have their pronouns respected, yet, according to The Trevor Project, only 1 in 5 transgender and nonbinary youths have their pronouns respected by all or most people in their lives. Youths whose schools were LGBTQ affirming attempted suicide at nearly half the rate of those whose schools were not LGBTQ affirming, 11% to 20% respectively.
Not every child has the privilege of returning to a safe, accepting home- that is the harsh reality. Of all LGBTQIA+ youths who attempted suicide, 19% experienced attempts to change their sexual orientation or gender identity while 8% experienced no attempts. 35% experienced attempts by their parents or caregivers, 28% from their friends and 22% by other relatives. 10% of youths reported receiving conversion therapy from someone who tried to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. Youths who undergone conversion therapy were 3 times more likely to have attempted suicide than youths who did not. 78% of youths who undergone conversion therapy were below 18 years old.
As stated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, “every child has the right to an education that develops their ‘personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.’” However, how can one feel safe when, founded by the American Psychological Association, nearly 9 of 10 LGBT students (86.2%) were harassed due to their sexual orientation at school? Schools are responsible for the safety of every child.
1 in 3 LGBTQ youths reported having been physically threatened or harmed in their lifetime due to their LGBTQ identity. With the current education system, school discipline disproportionately affects LGBTQ youths. According to the GLSEN report, cisgender LGBQ students who were gender nonconforming reported higher rates of school discipline compared to their cisgender LGBQ peers, 41.8% to 35.6% respectively. The inappropriate management of harassment has resulted in some LGBTQ students receiving discipline for reporting their harassment while their assaulters did not receive any discipline. In addition, harassment from school security officers, appointed to protect students, has inevitably contributed to the hostile environment. Nearly 15% of transgender and gender non-conforming respondents with security and/or police in their schools reported that they were verbally assaulted by them. Higher levels of victimization have led to lower educational aspirations, higher chances of dropping out and zero-tolerance policies have resulted in school to prison pipelines, reducing learning opportunities for LGBTQIA+ youths. Over half (53.6%) of students who had missed school because of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable had been disciplined at school, compared to just over a third (34.0%) of students who had not missed school for these reasons. GLSEN strongly urges schools to, “develop fair means of addressing bullying incidents,” and “do not blame LGBTQ students, or any student, for their own victimization.”
However, schools can make a difference. Representation and a more inclusive curriculum, such as incorporating LGBTQ people and topics, reported higher engagement as students feel more connected to their school community. Regular assessment of school policies to ensure that all youths receive equal opportunity to learn, combined with adopting non-discrimination policies and incorporating sexual orientation and gender identity/expression into anti-bullying policies could help LGBTQ youths feel safer and less likely to skip school. Furthermore, GLSEN suggests that rather than simply punishing the perpetrator and removing them from the classroom, the use of restorative justice models which holds them accountable for their actions as well as allows them to understand its impact on others, take action to correct their wrongdoings and prevent the situation from reoccurring. This mode of action appears to be more effective as it fosters trust and supportive relationships between the school community which can both reduce the use of discipline and promote positive behaviour.
Most importantly, schools can foster respect. Individual staff members can serve as role models but additional training for all educators and school staff on how to accurately assess and intervene with harassment targeted towards the LGBTQIA+ community and support them is ideal. Do not assume one’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Hold people accountable for using queer slurs or making inappropriate comments. Having a counsellor or a mental health care provider on site is also substantial as nearly half of LGBTQ youths who wanted psychological or emotional counselling from a mental health professional were unable to receive it. The top three barriers were affordability (50%), concerns about getting parent/caregiver’s consent (44%) and finding an LGBTQ competent provider (23%).
Representation embraces differences: it recognizes the hurdles and harassment that marginalized groups, like the LGBTQIA+ community, experience but more importantly, representation provides a platform for the community to express themselves beyond their gender identity and sexual orientation. Representation allows people to say, “Yes, this is me. This is my gender identity; this is my sexual orientation. I am proud of who I am. I have dreams and aspirations and am passionate about the things I love, just like you. We are all unique individuals and although we may not entirely understand each other, we can all respect and not invalidate one another. We all have our differences and we all belong here.”
Humans are naturally instinctive creatures: we fear things we do not understand. This is why education is crucial for building a safe, supportive environment that all of us deserve.