School Experiences


Some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth experience supportive, welcoming school environments where they are physically and emotionally safe and LGBT identity is respected, or even embraced. Others may experience unwelcoming, unsafe, and unsupportive conditions in schools. LGBT youth are more likely to experience fear and elevated levels of stress in their school experiences than are non-LGBT youth, including physical and emotional abuse, bullying, and physical assault because of their sexual identity and gender identity/expression.1

A 2009 national survey of 7,261 LGBT students in grade 6-12 found that

  • more than 72 percent of students reported hearing anti-LGBT remarks often or frequently in their school, with most reporting that these remarks bothered them;
  • almost 85 percent of responding students were verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation;
  • more than 40 percent were physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) because of their sexual orientation; and
  • approximately 19 percent were physically assaulted (e.g., punched or kicked) because of their sexual orientation.2

Another study focused specifically on transgender youth found that two-thirds of transgender students felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation (69 percent) and how they expressed their gender (65 percent).3 Although these students are not necessarily representative of all LGBT youth because the data are based on convenience samples, the data provide important information on the experiences of responding LGBT youth and the challenges they experience in schools. 

These negative conditions can affect the likelihood that LGBT youth attend and complete school. Research on LGBT youth shows that if they experience victimization they are more likely to

  • drop out of school;
  • have higher absenteeism;
  • have lower postsecondary education aspirations;
  • have higher levels of depression and anxiety (link to health/depression section); and
  • have lower self-esteem.4

Learn more about bullying and the related experiences of LGBT youth.

How to Improve School Experiences for LGBT Youth
Every student deserves the right to a safe, supportive learning environment. Schools can help create more supportive environments by developing policies that protect and encourage LGBT youth to complete their studies and seek assistance when and where needed, training teachers to provide support to LGBT youth, establishing organizations and clubs that support LGBT youth, and including LGBT role models and conversations about gender and sexual identity in curricula and classes.5

(click “+” to see more details.)


Schools can help support LGBT youth by encouraging respect for all students, and developing and implementing nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies that specifically include actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.6 Research has found that these policies or laws resulted in lower numbers of anti-gay remarks heard in school, fewer suicide attempts, and lower levels of harassment and assault based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender expression compared to states without these policies or laws.7

Supportive Adults in Schools

Youth who are bullied, harassed, or assaulted because they are LGBT, or are perceived to be, can benefit from speaking with caring, supportive teachers or other adults in their schools.8 Schools can help to create safe spaces such as counselors’ offices, designated classrooms, or student organizations, where LGBT youth can receive support from administrators, teachers, or other school staff.9 Research suggests that when teachers get involved to stop harassment and bullying, students feel safer.10 Providing teachers with ongoing professional development on LGBT issues, including how to discuss LGBT issues, can create safer, more supportive school environments.11 In particular, efforts to enhance the cultural competence of school staff, such as building their awareness of the language LGBT youth use to identify themselves, can greatly benefit these youth and yield positive school outcomes such as increased school attendance.12 The National Education Association developed a school staff conversation guide that includes tips and suggestions for communication and victimization/suicide warning signs to support students.13 Teachers and administrators can also help connect LGBT youth with community-based providers who have experience providing behavioral health services to LGBT youth.14

Supportive Organizations or Clubs

The Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and a growing body of research suggest that gay-straight alliances (GSAs) or similar efforts that explicitly acknowledge and include LGBT students (e.g., safe zones) can play important roles in promoting emotionally and physically safer schools. In particular, GSAs and similar student clubs for LGBT students are an important strategy for positively connecting students with adults and peers.15 GSAs can help schools address harassment of LGBT students, encourage dialogue about diversity and acceptance, and promote respect of all people.16 Research shows that GSAs can provide numerous positive benefits for students, even among those who do not participate in them (e.g., the presence of a GSA can suggest a greater level of acceptance within a school). For example, GSAs can enhance students’ self-esteem and foster their resiliency and coping skills for responding to heterosexism.17 Find local Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) chapters and a registry of GSAs at schools across the U.S. at GLSEN Chapters or the GSA Network, or register at GLSEN’s student organizing page.

Inclusion of LGBT Role Models and Resources on Gender and Sexual Identity in Schools

Schools can help to ensure that LGBT role models and history are present in their curricula. They can also provide age-appropriate, LGBT-affirming information and resources for students. Research has found that school-based programs that include identity development, connect youth to their cultural community, or dispel prejudice and discrimination are likely to reduce bullying and harassment directed toward LGBT students.18 Further, students report feeling safer at school when they know how to identify and access information and resources about LGBT issues.19


Key Policy Letters from the Education Secretary and Deputy Secretary
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a letter to public school districts about LGBT bullying. He specifically states that GSAs are protected under the 1984 Equal Access Act, which protects student-initiated groups. LGBT Bullying
This website, managed by the Department of Health & Human Services and the Department of Education, contains information related to bullying of LGBT youth and contains resources and tips to create supportive environments for LGBT people.

1 Human Rights Campaign, 2012; Hunter & Schaecher, 1987; Poirier, 2012; Reis & Saewyc, 1999; Reis, 1999; U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2012
2 Kosciw et al., 2010
3 Greytak, Kosciw, & Diaz, 2009
4 Kim, 2009; Kosciw et al., 2010
5 Espelage, 2011; Russell, 2010
6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2011a ; Espelage 2011; Russell & McGuire, 2008
7Espelage 2011; Goodenow et al., 2006; Kosciw et al., 2010
8 O’Shaughnessy et al., 2004; Safe Schools Coalition, 2005; Safe Schools Coalition, n.d.
9 CDC, 2011a
10 Espelage 2011; O’Shaughnessy et al., 2004
11 CDC, 2011; Espelage 2011; Greytak & Kosciw, 2010; Horn & Gregory, 2005
12 Poirier et al. 2008; Poirier, 2012
13 National Education Association, 2006
14 CDC, 2011a
15 Meyer, 2010; Munoz-Plaza, Quinn, & Rounds, 2002; Poirier, 2012, Valenti, 2010
16 CDC, 2011; Duncan, 2011
17 Lee, 2002; Macgillivray, 2007
18 Espelage & Horne, 2008
19 O’Shaughnessy et al., 2004


Updated: Tuesday, July 03, 2012

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