The discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students that goes on in today’s high schools has resulted in the need for a few all LGBT high schools. Discrimination most often takes the form of students feeling left out, such as at the prom or other social events. LGBT students are often excluded or made to feel left out because of their sexual orientation. Serious crimes can also occur due to prejudices, such as hate crimes and other acts of violence, which go far beyond discrimination. More commonly, LGBT students are called names and made fun of by the other students. The degree at which various acts occur depends largely on the area and local views, but from an overall sampling of data, today’s high schools are not as safe of a learning environment as they should be for all high school students.
Most discrimination against LGBT students goes unreported, as do many hate crimes. Therefore, statistics may be skewed. However, even with the figures from which instances of name calling, violence, and hate crimes are reported is useful in showing that such problems do in fact exist. First, it is necessary to know what the population of high school students is like. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) conducted a national poll of high school students and found that “approximately 5 percent of America’s high school students identify as lesbian or gay, 16 percent of America’s students have a gay or lesbian family member, and 72 percent know someone who is gay or lesbian.” Knowing someone who is gay or lesbian and being able to relate to that person is supposed to increase chances of being a more tolerant person. However, according to the 2003 National School Climate Survey, “[h]arassment continues at unacceptable levels and is too often ignored: 84 percent of LGBT students report being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation. 82.9 percent of students report that faculty never or rarely intervene when present.” Obviously there is some overlap there and many of the students who know someone who is LGBT are not necessarily going to be less likely to verbally harass LGBT students. However, other polls showed that when teachers looked at LGBT students in a positive light in their curriculum, students were often more tolerant and understanding. In the absence of discussions about LGBT people on campus, many students view LGBT students as mysterious people to be afraid of. Even while knowing LGBT people on or off campus, with the discussions missing it does not seem that the students will be able to learn tolerance.
Discrimination can lead to serious problems. We have seen many times in history that treating some people differently than other people can lead to not only verbal abuse of those who are perceived as different, but also violent hate crimes. In many places, homophobic language is very common. According to the GLSEN poll, “66 percent of students report using homophobic language, such as ‘that’s so gay’ to describe something that is wrong, bad or stupid; 81 percent report hearing homophobic language in their schools frequently or often.” The name-calling and exclusion from certain activities may be enough to make LGBT students drop out of school. It does not help that many times the faculty will do absolutely nothing even when they do witness LGBT students being harassed. The 2003 National School Climate Survey found that, “[s]upportive teachers can make a difference: 24.1 percent of LGBT students who cannot identify supportive faculty report they have no intention of going to college, [although] that figure drops to just 10.1 percent when LGBT students can identify supportive staff at their school.” So it would in fact be possible to give LGBT students more chances for success in the future, even without being able to control what other students say to them, if only there were some supportive members of the faculty in each school.
Not every LGBT student is a victim however. Some students will fight back when taunted, either with words or their fists. At some schools, students may seek help from the faculty and actually receive meaningful solutions. Many students deal with the prejudice against them by staying closeted.
“Passing” is not a new phenomenon. Oppressed groups throughout history have used it as a way to avoid discrimination. Women passed as men in the old West in order to get “men only” jobs, Jews passed as gentiles during the Holocaust to avoid persecution, and light-skinned African-American’s passed as white during segregation. In today’s current anti-gay climate, youth who know themselves to be other than heterosexual keep their secret to themselves all the while engaging in “at-risk” behavior (such as drinking, substance abuse and even teen pregnancy) in numbers far greater than their heterosexual peers.
Although many LGBT students are able to “pass” as straight students, they should not have to “pass” in order to feel safe at school.
Different schools in different areas react in many different ways to this discrimination against their students. In some schools, the faculty may join in on the name-calling and purposely exclude LGBT students from certain activities in their classes. Other schools may make plans to try to protect all of their students. However, some plans do not seem very reasonable at all. In one instance, the other students were berating a gay student in the locker room. Rather than teaching the other students proper behavior in society, the school had this boy dress in the principal’s office rather than in the locker room from then on. The school believed that “[i]t is often easier to remove the victim than to educate the antagonist, especially since most of the taunting goes on when the teacher isn’t around.” Other schools create “safe zone” programs to educate all students about overcoming prejudices and learning tolerance. In an article about eradicating homophobia on campuses, the authors say that “[o]ffering an Allies or Safe Zone program is among of the first steps an institution can take to achieve a community that embraces diversity and creates a learning environment that is accepting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals.” By actually educating students about eradicating prejudice and that there is in fact diversity in our world, schools can help to make students better citizens in society.
As long as there is prejudice and discrimination in our high schools, the students will suffer. LGBT students have been reported to have higher suicide rates, be less likely to go to college, and also lower attendance than their straight counterparts. According to an article in The Advocate, gays and lesbians account for thirty percent of youth suicides and that “while the far right has appropriated such stats to ‘prove’ that being gay is inherently pathological, gay rights advocates have used them to show the need for more education and social services specifically targeted at gay and lesbian youths.” After their experiences of high school, LGBT youths may also become disillusioned with school altogether and either drop out while in high school or not go on to college. Students will also stay home from school if they do not feel safe there, so attendance rates for LGBT students are much lower. It is very difficult for students to learn if they do not feel they are safe. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains that safety must be met before learning can be accomplished.
While parents of LGBT students may be outraged that their children are not receiving as good of an education as they could be, other parents feel the situation is unfair as well. Even though the antagonists may have learned some of their behavior from their parents, most parents disapprove of prejudice towards LGBT students. One article in The Advocate mentions, “more than 80% of parents in the United States approve of remedies to combat harassment and discrimination faced by gay and lesbian youth, according to a new study released by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network.” The children of those twenty percent of parents that do not approve of such programs are not the only children who are harassing the LGBT students. In some cases, the parents probably are not going to be discussing issues relating to tolerating and maybe even accepting LGBT students, despite knowing that they would want their child to at least tolerate those who were different than them. Parents may not wish to teach their kids to hate, but by not teaching their children about the issues, they are leaving that issue open to be determined by peer pressure. If schools had more education on tolerance of LGBT students, perhaps some of the harassment, discrimination, and prejudice would be eliminated.
One solution to all of the harassment and prejudice towards LGBT students was the creation of a separate high school for LGBT students, Harvey Milk High. “‘This is a school all about inclusion,’ said Terrence Calhoun, Chair of NYAC’s Board of Directors. ‘It stands for fairness, equality, and justice; and it holds out the hope of an education free from harassment, intimidation, and violence. As most LGBTQ students will never have an option like the Harvey Milk School, however, we hope that all of our nation’s public schools will work even harder to protect their students, including those who are LGBTQ.” Less than 200 students are currently enrolled, however, this school has helped many students who never had a chance at graduating before. Entrance to Harvey Milk High is not based as much on grades and academic qualifications so much as need. Many LGBT students do fine in public high schools, while others are constantly picked on. Those students who are constantly picked on, at a higher risk for suicide, not able to attend their classes out of fear, those are the students who will be accepted into Harvey Milk High. According to The Village Voice, “[m]ost of the students accepted by the Milk School have been brutalized, not an unusual situation in New York City public schools. The Anti-Violence Project, which tracks homophobic crimes, cites a 64 percent increase in reported cases of violence involving queer teens over the past year. The situation may be growing worse because more young people are coming out earlier and in greater numbers, leaving an already beleaguered system to face a new and growing population it can no longer ignore.” While most view Harvey Milk High and the few other schools similar to it as vast improvements from regular public high schools in order for LGBT students to feel safe, some believe that schools like Harvey Milk High only offer a band-aid solution. They believe that if students are kept separate, the straight students never have to learn to tolerate LGBT people in the real world. I partially agree with this point because keeping two groups separate has been shown historically to not work. Blacks and whites were formerly segregated in schools, which may have been said to keep racial tensions down at the time. However, in the real world it cannot be entirely possible to keep everyone who is different segregated from each other. While students may receive an adequate education at an accepting school such at Harvey Milk High, eventually public schools should also be safe and accepting places so that everyone can have equal opportunities at education.
No students should be forced to endure endless taunting by others for any reason. Nor should anyone be made to feel so unsafe at school that they cannot even make themselves be present on some days. LGBT students have made some gains in the past few years, however, more work needs to be done to ensure equal education opportunities for all students, no matter what their sexual orientation. Many schools have already started programs to make their campuses safer and more schools still need to do so. The administrations in many areas may have to first get past their right wing, religious prejudices. Once schools realize that their goal needs to be the education of all students regardless of sexual orientation, they will be able to implement programs that promote tolerance and possibly even acceptance. Hopefully in the near future, students will not even feel the need to apply to separate high schools, but rather, will feel welcome at their public high school amongst their peers.