GLSEN’s latest biennial National School Climate Survey, released yesterday, looks at the challenges that LGBTQ students face in school, the effects of a hostile climate, and the supports that can offset those effects—while also looking back at trends over two decades.

GLSEN National School Climate Survey 2019

The study, conducted online from April through August 2019, included 16,713 students between the ages of 13 and 21, from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and Guam. Just over two-thirds (69.2 percent) was White, two-fifths (41.6 percent) was cisgender female, and 40.4 percent were gay or lesbian. Their average age was 15.5 years and they were in grades 6 to 12, with most in grades 9, 10, and 11.

Instead of throwing a lot of numbers at you, I’ll just share the highlights, though I encourage you to go read the full report or even just the executive summary if you want further details, breakdowns by LGBTQ identity, or other demographics. GLSEN states:

  • Schools nationwide are hostile environments for a distressing number of LGBTQ students, the overwhelming majority of whom routinely hear anti-LGBTQ language and experience victimization and discrimination at school. As a result, many LGBTQ students avoid school activities or miss school entirely.
  • A hostile school climate affects students’ academic success and mental health. LGBTQ students who experience victimization and discrimination at school have worse educational outcomes and poorer psychological well-being.
  • Students who feel safe and supported at school have better educational outcomes. LGBTQ students who have LGBTQ-related school resources report better school experiences and academic success. Unfortunately, all too many schools fail to provide these critical resources.

All of that is unfortunately similar to what was found in the 2017 iteration of the survey. Taking a longer view, however, shows that “Although school climate for LGBTQ students has improved overall since our first installment of this survey in 1999, school remains quite hostile for many LGBTQ students. In 2019, we saw more positive changes than we had in the 2017 installment of this survey, but not as much positive change as in prior years.” More specifically (and here I slightly edit GLSEN’s points for brevity):

  • Some homophobic remarks, like “fag” or “dyke,” and negative remarks about gender expression showed a decline in 2019, after no change in 2017. Transphobic remarks decreased from 2017 to 2019, but homophobic remarks like “that’s so gay” and “no homo” increased in 2019. In addition, intervention by staff or other students when hearing anti-LGBTQ remarks generally has not changed in recent years, except for student intervention regarding homophobic remarks, which was lowest in 2019.
  • There have been few changes in recent years regarding experiences of harassment and assault, though there have been some small but significant decreases in most types of victimization related to sexual orientation and gender expression. The most commonly reported type of victimization over the decades, however, verbal harassment based on sexual orientation, has not improved in recent years.

On the positive side:

  • There have been promising increases in the supports for LGBTQ students. LGBTQ students in 2019 were more likely to report having a GSA, school personnel supportive of LGBTQ students, access to LGBTQ information from school libraries and computers, and comprehensive antibullying and harassment policies. In 2017, in contrast, there were few positive changes with regard to school resources.

GLSEN National School Climate Survey 2019

Although we do not see an overall trend that schools have become appreciably safer for LGBTQ students in 2019, we do not see that they have become significantly worse.

The bottom line? GLSEN asserts, “In sum, although we do not see an overall trend that schools have become appreciably safer for LGBTQ students in 2019, we do not see that they have become significantly worse.” A tepid statement, perhaps, but under the current circumstances of  our country, that may actually be a better outcome than we might have imagined. GLSEN notes that LGBTQ students have been under attack from the Trump administration: the current U.S. Department of Education revoked the Title IX guidance protecting transgender students that had been promulgated by the Obama Administration, and it has failed to investigate complaints of discrimination by LGBTQ students. GLSEN therefore says, “The fact that we have seen increases in many LGBTQ supports in schools and that we have not seen a tremendous worsening of school climate may be a testament to the resilience and strength of our LGBTQ young people in this country, and to the resourcefulness and dedication of school personnel for continuing to offer support and resources to create safer and more affirming school environments for their students.”

The fact that we have seen increases in many LGBTQ supports in schools and that we have not seen a tremendous worsening of school climate may be a testament to the resilience and strength of our LGBTQ young people in this country.

Where do we go from here? GLSEN advises that schools:

  • Support student clubs, such as Gay-Straight Alliances or Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs), that provide support for LGBTQ students and address LGBTQ issues in education;
  • Provide training for school staff to improve rates of intervention and increase the number of supportive teachers and other staff available to students;
  • Increase student access to appropriate and accurate information regarding LGBTQ people, history, and events through inclusive curricula and library and Internet resources;
  • Ensure that school policies and practices, such as those related to dress codes and school dances, do not discriminate against LGBTQ students;
  • Enact and implement policies and practices to ensure transgender and nonbinary students have equal access to education, such as having access to gendered facilities that correspond to their gender; and
  • Adopt and implement comprehensive school and district anti-bullying/harassment policies that specifically enumerate sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as protected categories alongside others such as race, religion, and disability, with clear and effective systems for reporting and addressing incidents that students experience.

As I wrote in 2017 when the previous National School Climate Survey came out, I am often amazed at the resources and opportunities for young LGBTQ people today. But for every queer homecoming sovereign, there are other students who cannot come out for fear of their safety and well-being. The impact is not just on LGBTQ students, but also on those who are perceived to be. And, as GLSEN, Family Equality Council, and COLAGE reported in their 2008 study on LGBT parents and their children in K-12 schools (which I’d still love to see updated!), “Students with LGBT parents may also be subjected to and negatively affected by anti-LGBT bias in schools.” Not to mention that all students may feel the negative effects of such bias if LGBTQ classmates, teammates, band mates, cast mates, and friends are struggling under the weight of victimization. And all students can benefit from learning about the full lives and contributions of LGBTQ people to our society and our world.

Looks like there’s still some homework left for all of us.