School as a Safe Space: How LGBTQ+ Students Will Get Their Community Back

Getty / Thitikarn Paothongthai / Thitikarn Paothongthai

Image Source: Getty / Thitikarn Paothongthai

Nearly every student in America has been negatively affected by the coronavirus pandemic, but the impact on LGBTQ+ children has not only been more severe but has proven to be more complicated as well. There are nearly two million LGBTQ+ youth in middle school and high school in the United States. Many have suffered disproportionately by losing physical support networks they’d built and being forced to isolate in unsafe home environments, where they are not accepted for who they are: facing rejection, neglect, and abuse. Some have come out or transitioned during this time and face uncharted territory as classrooms reopen their doors. And still, others who have found security in the absence of a traditional school setting are now preparing for a distressing return to the way things were, a “normal” to which they’d always felt excluded.

Esperanza Orozco, a 15-year-old Latinx trans girl, spent her first year of high school completely remote. Although she transitioned in the sixth grade and ran a Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA) organization at her middle school, when the pandemic forced students to only connect virtually, she struggled. So did her fellow queer classmates. The GSA crumbled. After just two weeks, attendance at digital meetings dropped – just two or three kids would sign-on. Eventually, it was shuttered.

“They’re already existing in a fragile space where if you start taking away support structures and coping mechanisms and systems that benefit those identities, then those folks are less likely to thrive.”

“I didn’t do relationships in middle school at all,” she told POPSUGAR. Although she was looking forward to making friendships as an incoming freshman at her new school, she found it too difficult in an all-remote environment. The multicultural club was put on hold, as was the high school’s GSA. Thankfully, her home life has improved in this time.

“Me and my mum, we’re more able to talk to each other now,” Esperanza said.

She made a point to note how she has done a great deal of work on her identity and is eager to return to in-person school in the fall despite some fears over the adjustment period.

“Because I’ve been remote, nobody at the high school really knows that I’m trans. Teachers, I hope they know how to notice microaggressions. Like if someone says, ‘Oh, I couldn’t tell you used to be a boy,’ and stuff like that. But, to be honest, I don’t think they even noticed major aggressions in the past, too.”

Esperanza remains hopeful that “after everything that’s happened in the world, schools will be a better place,” but whether these institutions will be able to serve as the safe spaces they once did for queer students – or become a more inclusive environment to those they have long failed to support – is still uncertain. And much of what they do now depends on what this community has been through over the past 16 months.

Where They’ve Been

Since the pandemic began, The Trevor Project – the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth – has seen more than just an uptick in calls and texts to its roster of trained counsellors.

“There have been days when we have literally seen double our volume of incoming contacts than during a non-pandemic time,” Chris Bright – who is genderqueer, uses he/she/they pronouns, and is the Trevor Project’s director of public training – told POPSUGAR.

Considering mental-health-related visits to hospital emergency departments increased by 20 percent during 2020 among those under the age of 18, it’s no surprise to Bright that they’re encountering a first-hand increase in suicide risk among the queer youth community.

Many calls have been for universal frustrations, like the difficulty of virtual learning or loneliness as a result of remote schooling, but Bright has also witnessed teens who have been forced to hide their true identity, who are suffering through economic strain and no longer have access to secure housing, or who aren’t able to reach school counsellors or therapists with whom they’d previously been making progress.

“The reason why the pandemic is disproportionately affecting LGBTQ+ youth is because, already, less resources are allocated to those identities, and they’re already existing in a fragile space where if you start taking away support structures and coping mechanisms and systems that benefit those identities, then those folks are less likely to thrive,” Bright said. “Their ability to navigate that crisis is even more reduced than the general population. And so when we think about LGBTQ+ youth, if they had a school community, maybe they had a GSA or a teacher or school counsellor who was supportive. Even if all of their friends were supportive, their ability to find that one adult person who’s saying, ‘I accept you,’ will greatly reduce their risk for suicide. These sorts of things have a big impact on mental health.”

Teachers who always had students physically in their presence five full days per week began to only observe two-inch pixelated squares of them – if their video feeds were even turned on. “It’s really hard to observe someone’s mood through the lens of a laptop camera,” Bright said. “When you think about protecting the mental health of vulnerable individuals, the tangible thing you look for is a change in behaviour or attitude, but it’s really difficult to spot this way.” Queer students who may have reached out to a trusted teacher in person simply are not doing so now, she said, either because they haven’t been able to foster a relationship or verify they would be met with acceptance.

“When students don’t have access to the things that they enjoy, they also don’t have access to community, to spaces where they can express their identities and find acceptance.”

For many LGBTQ+ youth, mental health benefits also hinged on school clubs. These had long proved to be an ultimate safe space – and not just GSAs or other identify-affirming organizations, as important as those are. Any group that offered a sense of community around a shared interest served a similar purpose to queer students. That is, until those too were upended by the pandemic.

“While it may seem like it’s not a direct cause, when students don’t have access to sports that they identify with or theatre or art classes or sewing club, when students don’t have access to the things that they enjoy, they also don’t have access to community, to spaces where they can express their identities and find acceptance,” Bright said.

Although Bright was quick to praise the merits of virtual clubs, they understand why Zoom-style meetups didn’t last – some programs just didn’t translate to an online platform, and students certainly felt the burnout of so much time spent on screen for classwork. Another reason – and perhaps why GSA engagement has declined so dramatically this year – is likely because many students are still hiding who they are at home.

“A lot of times, they have families that aren’t accepting. Or they might be in a situation where they’re being rejected by the folks that they live with,” Bright said.

Sarah Harte, a licensed social worker who serves as the director of The Dorm, a treatment community for young adults going through challenging times, echoed these sentiments. She explained how in the early teen years, expanding relationships outside the nuclear family is a key developmental milestone, which is why, for LGBTQ+ youth, the pandemic-mandated isolation hit so much harder.

“People are often out more to their friends than they are to their own family at first,” Harte told POPSUGAR. “So when people lost the opportunity to spend a lot of time with direct relationships outside of the home, it did put them back in an environment where they may have not had a supportive family situation. And many of them do have very supportive families, with parents who love their children and want the best for them, but they also have their own internalized, heteronormative ideas about sexuality and gender that can be damaging and destructive to young teens.”

But not all queer students felt stifled by unsupportive parents. Not all missed the supposed safe spaces their schools once provided. On the flip side, others had the unprecedented opportunity to escape troubling school environments when in-person learning was shut down. The reprieve provided by remote schooling proved especially welcome to LGBTQ+ students who are Black or people of colour, who have disabilities, or who are transgender or gender-nonconforming, as these groups are already more likely to face violence, punitive discipline, and discrimination within the education system. In fact, LGBTQ+ youth’s higher likelihood of victimization – from bullying incidents, for instance – may put them in greater contact with school authorities, which has shown to actually increase their risk of punishment. Prepandemic, this often led to missed school and consequences for truancy: an issue that all but evaporated when attendance could be taken from home.

For much of the past year, many LGBTQ+ students no longer feared for their safety, and some were able to come out or transition without the added pressure of doing so in plain sight of their school community.

“They were able to be in their cocoon at home, and they didn’t feel like they had to face what it’s like to navigate the world in their authentic gender or sexuality,” Harte said. “But what that’s done is created the delay of the process. As people are reengaging, they’re left to wonder, ‘What do I do now?’ or ‘How am I going to engage with my world with the processing or the understanding that I have gained over the last year about who I am and who my true self is?'”

Further proof that the effects on the queer community are not one-size-fits-all? “The misconception is that everyone was virtual, but actually a large number of students were sent back in person this year,” Harte said. Because COVID-19 transmission concerns were greater for middle-school and high-school students than elementary-age children, these hybrid or fully in-person programs most likely came with strict protocols that didn’t allow for access to critical mental health care, after-school clubs, or even the time or physical space to safely socialise with peers. And with many educators struggling to enforce the constantly changing and often conflicting guidance from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, as well as their district administrators – not to mention simultaneously teaching students in their classroom and on their computer screens – there is little hope that their marginalized students received the care they need.

Will this change come fall? As the upcoming academic year, which will most likely return to a fully in-person environment across the nation, looms just a few months away, it’s still anyone’s guess how LGBTQ+ students will fare.

“It sounds so obvious, but when youth come into this new environment of change and back in person, they’re not going to need less support,” Bright said. “They’re going to need more support.” And, historically, that hasn’t always been easy to provide, global pandemic aside.

Where We Go From Here

While all this tension has been broiling, A.T. Furuya – the senior youth programs manager at GLSEN, the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students – has also seen a real culture shift in terms of queer awareness.

“As folks are awakening to a lot of the issues of systemic oppression and what that means for communities that are targeted and marginalized, we’re now going to go through this phase of people who are aware and don’t know what to do,” said Furuya, who is trans and nonbinary. “There’s promise in that, but that doesn’t mean there’s immediate resources and opportunities right now.”

Having spent 20 years working directly with LGBTQ+ youth, Furuya has learned to focus on the intersectionality of students – not just their gender or sexual identity – when serving them.

“It’s not just, ‘Here’s how to understand someone’s pronouns.’ It’s, ‘Here’s the real impact of a kid walking through your classroom who is affected by systemic racism, homophobia, and transphobia, who has class disparities and limited access to resources.'”

“Historically, we focused just on LGBTQ+ identities and not the holistic student,” they said. “So that means figuring out what their experience is from the time they get to school to the time they leave to when they’re at home. It’s not just, ‘Here’s how to understand someone’s pronouns.’ It’s like, ‘Here’s the real impact of a kid walking through your classroom who is affected by systemic racism, systemic homophobia, and transphobia, who has class disparities and limited access to resources.’ That’s really taking care of LGBTQ+ youth.”

Furuya gave an example of “navigating a mix of needs” for any given teen: they might be wondering if they have permission to dress the way they want to while simultaneously worrying about losing their housing.

“That shouldn’t be left up to kids to prioritize,” Furuya said. “It’s up to us to understand who they are because students should be in the care of schools. That’s a non-negotiable.”

Bright agreed that the act of upholding all identities of a person is a “really different framework that hasn’t existed in the broader educational psyche before,” but that the past year has served as a reminder of its importance. “So, to say, ‘Well, I will support LGBTQ folks, but I’m not going to be supporting people of colour,’ it’s unacceptable,” Bright said. “You Must. With a capital M. You Must uphold all identities, all aspects of being a person. Because if you only uphold a portion of these identities and a portion of who these folks are, you are going to be failing them.”

With intersectionality as a baseline, Bright, Harte, and Furuya mapped out what else must be done to serve queer students across the nation as they return to schools and navigate new, potentially safe spaces this fall.

1. Rethink the return to normalcy.

Students, staff, and administrators alike have a remarkable opportunity before them, Harte said.

“Here we are, coming back after a year and a half of not having school like we know it,” she said. “How do we want to come back together? How do we want to reengage as a community? And what do we want to hold onto? Maybe some good things happened over the last year that we want to continue. Maybe there were some patterns that were created, like more teachers checking in with how people are doing emotionally, given the struggles of the last year. So maybe they integrate more of those emotional check-ins or add some basic mental health self-care practices into the curriculum.”

She continued: “Or it could be about allowing for more flexibility in timelines or due dates or better understanding work styles. It’s about taking some steps that might advance us even further.”

One such step might be in better managing academic pressure, particularly this coming year when so many students, according to one study, made “little or no progress” while learning remotely and are entering a new grade level with notable learning loss. The Trevor Project has documented that high levels of academic pressure correlate with suicidal ideation – among students in general, but certainly among LGBTQ+ youth.

“It can feel like, ‘If I don’t succeed in X, Y, and Z areas, I won’t succeed in life,'” Bright said. “And we don’t need that message ever, but especially during this time of transition. If you immediately put performance pressure onto students while they’re in the midst of a great change in their life, you’re not setting them up for success. So educators should pump the brakes a little bit. If you haven’t had students be in a physical building for over a year and come August or September is the first time they’re back in that space, take a couple of weeks to really let people settle in before putting a ton of academic pressure on them or even athletic pressure on them.”

Better yet, he said, district leaders should communicate to their faculty and families that the focus of this back-to-school season is safety and student well-being: not a rushed semester playing catch-up with testing and overdue assignments.

2. Make mental health services the priority, finally.

Despite years of federal funding to improve student access to mental health resources, police officers still outnumber nurses, social workers, and psychologists at school sites by alarming margins, according to a 2019 report from the American Civil Liberties Union. Prepandemic, 1.7 million students attended school with law enforcement but no counsellor, and most schools fail to provide the minimum recommendation of at least one counsellor and one social worker for every 250 students. The national average is closer to every 2,000 students.

“This is not equity – these are injustices,” Furuya said. “And thinking about how we know from our research data at GLSEN that LGBTQ+ students are targets of punitive discipline, working towards police-free schools where students won’t feel like they’re being targeted or followed is important.”

Bright added that in most district budgets, a large percentage goes to “preventing violence in schools” in the form of metal detectors and security guards. “And at the same time, we hear every year that services related to mental health are decreasing, that programs and after-school curriculums that young people can invest in are decreasing. And so when you de-invest in those sort of things, you are having a direct impact on the mental health and, ironically, the safety of all of your students.”

Criminalization is prioritized over comprehensive support systems, and even among schools with an on-staff counsellor, the person in that role might not actually be a mental health professional, nor one who is adept in queer needs. “A lot of counselling is based on helping you with your school schedule and college, to help students graduate,” Furuya said. “I don’t know that counsellors are necessarily prepared to support a student who comes out.”

“It’s not our business how a young person identifies. It’s our business that they’re safe, and if they aren’t safe at home or at school, how do we strategize to work around this?”

Furuya recommends schools invest in professional development training to equip educators. “I think folks just really want to put a diagnosis on something,” they said. “And that adults often want the student to know who they are fully. They’ll ask: ‘Are you sure? How do you know?’ When the questions we should be asking are: ‘Are you safe? What support do you need? What can I offer you right now?’ It’s not our business how a young person identifies. It’s our business that they’re safe, and if they aren’t safe at home or at school, how do we strategize to work around this? That’s a basic tool that mental health counsellors at schools can and should have.”

Another essential tool to more effectively protect LGBTQ+ students is the use of enumerated policies, which are a set of educational laws and rules that specifically call out sexuality and gender as protected categories. They provide students with a clear understanding of their rights to safety and provide school personnel with the guidance to implement antibullying practices. If these policies are widely disseminated to the school community, studies show that teachers exhibit more supportive behaviours toward queer youth and students are less likely to report homophobic attitudes toward their LGBTQ+ peers. Specifically, when enumerated policies are present, queer students feel safer at school, experience less victimization based on sexual orientation and gender expression, report less absenteeism at school, show more self-esteem, and are less at risk for suicide and substance use.

3. Foster safe spaces of all kinds.

Only three states have a GSA in more than half of their high schools. There are roughly 4,000 operating nationwide, but all schools – and all students – benefit from having one. One study published in 2014 found that the odds of homophobic discrimination, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts were reduced by more than half for LGBTQ+ youth in schools with GSAs that were at least three years old. The same study found that even heterosexual boys in schools with similarly established GSAs were half as likely to attempt suicide as those in schools without such clubs.

“Creating safe spaces is so important,” Harte said. “Affinity spaces where people with shared identities can come together and support each other, where people can just feel heard. By just being a person.”

For schools that don’t have a GSA, Harte said it really starts with administrators helping students understand that this is something they are empowered to do.

“But it’s also for administration to take a step back and not micromanage what it looks like,” Harte said. “So people can say what would be a safe space for them. Typically what that includes is some affinity or shared identity, like students coming together with a shared identity of being in the LGBTQ+ community, or being a student of colour. One of the things that’s difficult is when other folks who are involved, who don’t have that shared identity, people feel like they have to explain themselves, or they feel like they have to watch what they say about certain things, whereas having that affinity space is really important.”

Bright also believes in diversifying one’s sense of community early on by creating and joining lots of school groups. “The more spaces a student can go to to get support, the better,” they said.

But, Bright added, safe spaces aren’t just in a choir room or theatre class. “Not every school in the country has access to gender-neutral restrooms or access to trans-affirming sports,” she said. “And if you are a parent, you should advocate for those policies in your school at all levels. Because even if your child doesn’t identify within the LGBTQ+ community, you know that you could be helping to protect someone else’s child that does. And so, as an ally, as a parent, as a person who cares about this community, you should be standing up and creating a space that you would want to see where folks are celebrated: where folks are given the opportunity to be themselves. And not just to be themselves, but to thrive. And a big part of that comes down to, ‘Will the adults in my life let me thrive? Will I be allowed to express myself in the way I want? Will I be able to use the bathroom without harassment?'”

4. Empower teachers to become better active allies.

Teachers have not had an easy year, and the responsibility should be on district leaders to set up successful systems that protect all students. However, as an educator himself, Bright said the “pressure should be on us” to create a safe school environment for queer youth: “I feel uniquely qualified to point out that we should be bearing the burden of helping this change navigation be successful. We should be making sure that we’re highlighting ways that our community can be safer for all identities.”

The first move for teachers could simply be to identify themselves as an ally. “You can do that just through physical signs or posters in your classroom,” Bright said. “Maybe your school says, well, we can’t have a GSA because we don’t have a teacher or sponsor. Raise your hand and become that teacher or sponsor.”

“As an ally, as a parent, as a person who cares about this community, you should be standing up and creating a space that you would want to see where folks are celebrated.”

Teachers should ensure that school bulletin boards throughout the halls include representative content and that school libraries include a wide collection of books not only about inclusion but with characters and storylines that are inclusive.

The key, however, is for educators to express “unwavering acceptance” front and centre, and not merely tolerance. “Tolerance is something that is a bare minimum, and we’re looking to exceed that greatly,” Bright said. “We’re looking to say, ‘We’re not going to tolerate LGBTQ+ identities, we’re going to celebrate them. We’re not going to only tolerate the existence of LGBTQ+ identities throughout history, we’re going to teach about them. We’re not going to just tolerate the unique aspects and gifts that the LGBTQ+ community brings to our school, we’re going to uphold and uplift those identities and make sure that they’re part of the fabric of our community. Because when we celebrate the things that make us different, we are also celebrating the things that make us strong. Because it is those differences that strengthen us as a community.”

Educators also need to shift away from passive allyship, in which they wait for students to come to them first. “The way that you can prove to them that you are a safe person to turn to is to celebrate who they are every day. Consistently shout from the rooftops that you celebrate these identities so that young people who hold these identities will say, ‘That’s my person. I’m going to go talk to them.'”

And when they do speak, teachers better be open to having the conversation. “If you were to turn them away or shut them down in that moment, even if you intend to pick it back up, you’re sending the message that safety is not a right or not something that everybody should have access to,” Bright said. “So when someone trusts you to share their identity, celebrate that and respond immediately with affirmation so that they know they are with someone they can trust.”

Furuya went further in what active support should look like among school leaders. “Educators need to know and understand when to intervene and what signs to look out for,” they said. “Oftentimes, what I hear students report back on is the lack of intervention by adults when something oppressive is happening. If you hear someone making a comment that is harmful to another, just say: ‘Hey, that language isn’t allowed. That’s not allowed in this classroom because we believe that students have the right to be here and that everyone’s identities are valid.’ Just some sort of intervention, because silence is what gives the student who is saying something harmful permission.”

Another crucial way educators can show support is through the type of inclusive curriculum being taught. “It’s as simple as, if there’s material in the curriculum that’s incorrect, be able to address that or admit that you don’t know and that you’re going to look into it,” Furuya said.

5. Be gentle with one another – and ourselves.

Specifically for those anxious about returning to in-person school, Harte wants students to remember to “be gentle with ourselves and with each other.”

Some people will want to dive back in, and others won’t be as ready, and either timeline is OK. Mostly, though, she encourages those in the queer youth community to consider taking the opportunity to live more authentically.

“Maybe that means that when they reengage with their social community, they are able to share some of their experiences that they maybe haven’t been out before, or perhaps they are choosing clothing or a hairstyle or other ways to present their gender that feels more authentic to them,” she said. “We’ve all changed, and because we’re all in the midst of changes, it’s a little less dramatic than it might be if somebody needed to reengage with an existing community overnight. So I encourage people to be flexible about that and consider taking some of those risks, but also really finding opportunities to connect with new people and finding places where they do feel seen and understood because those places do exist.”

“When we celebrate the things that make us different, we are also celebrating the things that make us strong. Because it is those differences that strengthen us as a community.”

And if students have been waiting to come out or transition in the safe space of a school community versus an unsupportive home one, they should be able to ask an ally at school for a clear pathway on next steps. Furuya’s suggested question: “If I want to transition, what does that look like for my school?”

Because not every LGBTQ+ youth is out, Furuya advocates for safety and privacy protection in schools. “When I worked in a youth drop-in centre, I had young people who would come in and they would change and dress the way they wanted. And then they would change back and then go home because they couldn’t be who they are in their living environment,” they said. “So it’s vital to protect student privacy in schools, and not disclosing to parents if their child is going by a different name or pronoun or as a different gender. Otherwise, that could really put the student at risk. It’s basic harm reduction.”

Having explored evidence-based solutions for public education their entire career, Furuya recognizes there’s not one right answer to provide what all queer students need out of their school systems. “We have the meaning of the problem, and I may not have all the answers to it right now, but I know that this isn’t working,” they said. “So let’s not just dismiss it and carry on how we have been because we don’t have a perfectly wrapped solution just yet. It’s going to be the work of all of us – teachers and administrators and social workers and parents and students themselves – coming together. Yes, we’re all at capacity right now, but we will get there. What’s important for students to know is we have our ancestors before us who held on and made it possible for us to find our way. We’ve done it before, and we will continue doing that now.”

If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.

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