Think back to what really mattered during high school— sports, friendships, grades, college searches, fitting in and who’s having sex with who. Try to recall the different types of pressure coming at you from every angle. Remember the conflicting pressures from parents, peers, significant others, teachers and coaches? And then there was what you actually wanted to do. Imagine that you’re back in the thick of that chaotic blend of uncertainties, insecurities, expectations and hormones.
Now imagine going through it being gay.
There’s a chance you could’ve been accepted, supported, healthy and happy. There’s also a chance you could’ve been rejected, isolated, depressed and even homeless.
Although progress has been made on #LGBTQ rights throughout the years, queer students still struggle. The additional barriers that these students face, as compared to their straight, cisgender peers, are numerous. And many students are struggling.
About 8% of all U.S. high school students— about 1.3 million kids— report identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual, while almost 2% of all U.S. high school students identify as transgender, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those who love a student in the LGBTQ community have reason to worry: Queer youth are more than three times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers, and transgender youth are more than six times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual, cisgender peers, reports JAMA Pediatrics, a medical journal published by the American Medical Association. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that queer youth have mental disorder diagnoses at higher rates than their straight, cisgender peers. Queer youth are also 120% more likely to report being homeless at some point as compared to their straight, cisgender peers, reports the Human Rights Campaign, because they are at greater risk for being abandoned by their parents.
Teenagers’ brains are not yet fully developed, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and they’re already at high risk for mental illnesses and suicide attempts at a young age. Their mental and physical well-beings, along with their feelings of security, are in danger. We must help them through it.
Schools can support homeless unaccompanied youths by providing students surveys to help faculty identify those who are at risk, having a homelessness liaison and connecting struggling students to the necessary resources, says Lee Gaines in an NPR story.
Schools can also make sure their district has a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), defined by the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies as a school-based club that provides support for students in the LGBTQ community. It also calls attention to issues such as harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender expression.
Although GSAs provide a place of support for queer students, more can be done. School districts can look to Massachusetts as an example for implementing LGBTQ protections in schools. The Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students was founded in 1993 in response to concerns about queer youths’ high suicide risk. “The Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students provides training and technical assistance relating to LGBTQ students and staff. This includes addressing bullying, understanding sexual orientation and gender identity, and improving school climate,” the website reports. The program also provides LGBTQ-inclusive curricula that falls under state regulations, such as information on same-sex marriages, current LGBTQ issues and queer identities within the contexts of literature, the Harlem Renaissance and the Holocaust. It also provides an LGBTQ-inclusive reading list of books that represent diverse communities.
Integrating LGBTQ-inclusive information into the classroom both normalizes queer identities and provides a space for these students to feel supported and validated. Through curricula, student organizations and accessible resources, high schools can play a crucial role in supporting queer students who may be struggling emotionally, mentally and financially. Since schools may be the only place queer students can access these essential resources, we must arm them with as much information, assistance, kindness and validation as we can.
High schoolers are often dealing with more than they are given credit for. Any one of them could crack under the pressure. And for queer students, it can feel like added weight on their shoulders.
The least we can do is help them carry it.