Why examine sexual orientation and gender orientation at school?
Childhood is an important period of development for most children. It is particularly important for children who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and those that are questioning their sexuality.
This is because children become aware of same-sex attraction as early as 10 years of age. Some may become aware of this at an even earlier age. Boys, in general, may become aware of same-sex attraction earlier than girls.
Because of this, it’s important to examine sexual and gender orientation in childhood. Most children spend most of their time at school. The school environment is one place where children explore their sexual and gender orientation.
What did the study do?
A very large study explored how well LGBTQ children did at school. They did this through examining how supportive the children thought their school was in relation to LGBTQ issues and students.
The data that was analyzed was collected through the use of a very large health survey. It was completed by nearly 7,000 students. The students were mostly aged between 10-12 years old.
The return rate was a very healthy 90-95%.
What did they find?
Does the school environment have an impact?
The researchers found that when the school environment was positive toward LGBTQ issues and students, and homophobic bullying was low, all children felt depressed and suicidal less frequently.
There was also lower use of alcohol and marijuana in these schools, and lower levels of truancy. Truancy is when a child stays away from school without leave or an explanation for their absence.
This was the case for all children, regardless of sexual orientation.
How many children identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual?
Approximately three quarters of the students (75.2%) reported that they were never confused in relation to their sexuality because they knew they were straight.
About 5% questioned their sexuality (4.6%). This group reported that they were confused sometimes, a lot, or always about whether they were lesbian, gay or bisexual.
More boys identified as not being straight (13.8%) as compared to girls (9.5%). Boys were also more likely to question their sexuality as compared to the girls (5.8% versus 4.5%).
At higher-risk when questioning
The 5% who questioned their sexuality reported being teased. The data showed that they reported being teased the most.
These children were also significantly more depressed or more likely to have suicidal feelings. They used more alcohol and or marijuana as compared to the other students. They were also away from school more often without a legitimate reason for being away.
LGBTQ protective school environments
What’s new about this study is that it makes us think carefully about how the school environment may help reduce negative outcomes for all children.
It makes us question whether some school environments help or hinder our children.
This study robustly highlights the responsibilities of teachers and administrators to ensure that school environments are safe and supportive of LGBTQ students and topics.
What can be done to help?
There are many actions that can be completed to help create a positive school environment and one that is free of homophobic bullying. Here are four interventions.
- Teachers and administrators can be openly supportive of LGBTQ issues and students.
- Schools can put policies in place that stamp out homophobic, transphobic and biphobic bullying and teasing.
- Schools can enforce these policies in order to stop the bullying and teasing.
- Schools can introduce interventions to stop any prejudice in the classrooms and playgrounds. For example, this might involve having an anti-homophobic bullying education campaign.
Everyone involved in the school can help create a positive environment in order to help our students. This is particularly important for students that are questioning their sexual or gender orientation.
Birkett M, Espelage DL, Koenig B. LGB and Questioning Students in Schools: The Moderating Effects of Homophobic Bullying and School Climate on Negative Outcomes. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 2009;38(7):989 — 1000.