Diversity in Public High Schools:
A Look at the Experiences of Gay and Lesbian Students
Part I: Life in Public
High Schools for Gay and Lesbian Students
"I ended up dropping out of school
because of homophobia."
- Louis Y. (GLSEN-CO, 2000).
"I felt as though I was the only
gay person my age in the world. I felt as though I had no-where to go to
talk to anybody throughout eighth grade. I went to be every night praying
that I would not be able to wake up in the morning, and every morning being
disappointed. And, so finally, I decided that if I was going to die, it
would have to be at my own hands."
- Steve (Governor's Commission, 1993; Baily and Pharis, 1996)
"School was a definite hellhole.
H-E-L-L hole. No lie."
- Christi (O'Conor, 1995)
"Kids waiting for me at the front
gate. I can't make the two minute walk home unless I am surrounded by my
friends or picked up by my parents."
- Anthony Colin (Bull, 2000)
"They just started calling me 'faggot'
this and 'fag' that, and all of a sudden I didn't have any friends anymore...I
saw what happened to other kids who got called queer at school. I dropped
- Tommy (O'Conor, 1995)
"We were picked on. We were called
'queer' and 'faggot' and a host of other homophobic slurs. We were also
used as punching bags by our classmates, just for being different."
- A college student, remembering high school (GLSEN - CO, 2000b)
"I just began hating myself more
and more as each year the hatred toward me grew and escalated from just
simple name calling in elementary school to having persons in high school
threaten to beat me up, being pushed and dragged around the ground, having
hands slammed in lockers and a number of other daily tortures."
- A gay male high school student (GLSEN - CO, 2000b)
Researchers, based on the 1972 Kinsey report, generally accept that approximately 10% of the population is gay or lesbian (Grayson, 1987; Bailey and Phariss, 1996). This population represents every race, ethnicity, class, and ability that means there are a significant number of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in the education system. The Colorado Department of Health (1992) and Dunham (1989) estimate that there are 2.9 million gay or lesbian adolescents in the United States and because they are an "invisible" minority, they have, for the most part, sat passively though school - their identifies having been ignored or denied (Bailey and Phariss, 1996). Both teachers and students have remained "in the closet" because of the hostility they see others experiencing and because of internalized opposition which can lead (especially for adolescents) to self-doubt and fear (Harbeck, 1991). The United States educational system has not helped gays and lesbians to become visible. Cultural taboos, fear of controversy, and deeply rooted, pervasive homophobia have kept the educational system blind and mute (Uribe and Harbeck, 1991)
Gay and Lesbian Students in the School
Public schools are supposed to offer
young people "academic enrichment and a foundation for the future" (LaFontaine,
1999). Many gay and lesbian adolescents are being robbed of or are unable
to receive that academic foundation. As parent Julie B. states in GLSEN-C0
(2000),”Public Education in our democratic country implies/requires educating
all students. Each school district in this state [Colorado] has an obligation
to offer an equal education to all children. As a teacher and parent I
know that learning does not happen when anyone, young or old, feels unsafe.”
A 1997 survey by the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE) found that 22.2% of gay and lesbian students skipped school in the month prior to the study because they felt unsafe - a rate that is five times more that that of heterosexual adolescents. 31.2% of gay and lesbian students surveyed by the DOE in 1997 also said they were threatened or injured with a weapon at school in the past year, four times more that that of other students (cited in LaFonatine, 1999). Another survey, completed by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that gay and lesbians are the more frequent victims of hate crimes. School, unfortunately, is the number one setting for this type of violence (Henek, 1989; cited in O'Conor, 1995). The 1993 Governor's Commission on gay and lesbian youth stated that 80% of gay and lesbian youth report severe social isolation. 97% of students in public high schools report regularly hearing homophobic remarks from their peers (Hetrick and Martin, 1987 as cited in GLSEN-CO, 2000b).
Project 10, named for the Kinsey report estimate that 10% of the population is homosexual, began in 1984 to serve the needs to the gay and lesbian students in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) (Uribe, 1991). Project 10 reports the following information (although I could not find any statistics that supported these claims in the literature about Project 10). Gay, lesbian, and bisexual students, in comparison to their heterosexual peers, have higher levels of or experience more:
physical and verbal abuse
sexually transmitted diseases (Uribe and Harbeck, 1991)
Educators Feelings About Homosexuality and Homosexual People
Also making schools unsafe places for gay and lesbian youth is the silence and homophobia of teachers and administrators. Because students look to teachers and administrators for guidance on information, attitudes, knowledge, and feelings, educators have a significant impact on the feelings and experiences of students - including homosexuality. Students perceive their teachers' attitudes and feelings through verbal and non-verbal cues. Teachers’ attitudes can provide the validation a student needs to accept their sexuality. Teacher attitudes can also have the reverse effect (Lipkin, 1995).
Some teachers and administrators harass, ridicule, or unfairly punish gay and lesbian students. However, the most prevalent type of discrimination within the school systems is the failure of school officials and teachers to protect gay and lesbian students from harassment and violence (Dennis and Grayson, 1987; Bailey and Phariss, 1996). This includes the failure of educators and administration to intervene and confront students when jokes, name calling, or slurs are made. This leads to the failure to provide a safe learning environment for all students (Bailey and Phariss, 1996).
Studies and research on students,
prospective teachers, teachers, and guidance counselors obtained the following
- 53% of students report hearing homophobic comments made by school staff (Governor's Commission, 1993)
- 80% of prospective teachers report negative attitudes towards gay and lesbian people; of that 80%, one-third are categorized as "high grade homophobes" (Sears, 1991)
- 2/3 of guidance counselors harbor negative feelings towards gay and lesbian people (Sears, 1991)
- 77% of prospective teachers would not encourage class discussion about homosexuality (Sears, 1991)
- 85% teachers would oppose integrating gay/lesbian themes into their existing curriculum (Sears, 1991)
- 71.6% of teachers in Colorado expressed moderate to high levels of homophobia (Bailey, 1996)
- 87.6% of teachers in Colorado had moderate to high numbers of misconceptions - about homosexuality and homosexual persons; only 12% had fewer or no misconceptions about homosexualityless that 20% of guidance counselors have received any training on serving gay and lesbian students (Sears, 1991)
These statistics are only representing three states, and therefore, feelings and attitudes about homosexuality vary for teachers and guidance counselors across the United States.
To Part II