Developing Supportive Environments for LGBTQ Youth
Written by: Ian Siljestrom, Safe and Healthy Schools Associate Director, Equality Florida
Creating a classroom and school environment where every child feels safe, included, and empowered is critical for our youth to be able to learn. An environment that fosters learning can only be done with teachers, administrators, and families intentionally working together. When we say “it takes a village”, we really mean “it takes a village no matter what”. No matter how our students identify, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, it takes a village to ensure their success.
Florida LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender) students are struggling. Yet too often, the appropriate support is difficult to find or not available. Research from the 2017 Florida Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that 15.7% of Florida high school students identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or unsure of their sexual orientation. Of this population of students, close to 1 in 4 reported attempting suicide, which is 5x greater than their heterosexual peers. As well, 16.9% of LGB youth reported not going to school because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to school, as well 57.8% felt sad or hopeless. Children often have three places where they can seek affirmation- home, community, and school. For many LGBT youth, school might be their only opportunity to be affirmed. Higher risks of self-harm and suicidal ideation are clear warning signs that this community of young people needs support now more than ever. If we are all committed to creating schools that are safe for all students, we can all rise to the occasion and commit to being the village of support for every child.
This work begins in our schools. I call on our teachers to be champions for every student. To start to build in our youth what it looks like to be respectful of everyone. Turn your classroom into a space that embodies all identities and all students. Be responsive to every instance of negative language and slurs in the classroom, including against and about LGBT individuals. Many times anti-LGBT language is used regardless if a child identifies as LGBT. Addressing this negative language improves classroom culture, and ensures every child is free from harassment. Let our students see themselves in the curriculum you teach, recognizing every type of family, as well as LGBT characters, events, history, and stories. Make it visible to your students that you are an ally through the use of rainbow and inclusive stickers, buttons, pins, or clothing.
Many things that educators can do to show respect for LGBT youth, families can do as well to validate and affirm their child. Parents have an equal role in being able to support our LGBT youth as well, regardless if their own child identifies as LGBT. This includes using a transgender youth’s affirmed name and pronouns, allowing youth to connect with LGBT role models, and letting them know you are there to support them. Connect with organizations like Equality Florida, PFLAG, HRC, GLSEN, or Teaching Tolerance to ensure you are equipped to help all youth thrive. Challenge yourself, your co-workers, family members, and individuals in your community to be conscious of the norms and expectations they place on our youth and push them to be more inclusive in their actions and language.
Schools may be the last place that many of our LGBT kids have to turn to and it can’t be emphasized enough the power and impact that our teachers and administrators can have to make our kids feel welcomed and included. Be the role model of empathy and inclusion that all our students deserve to see and experience.