Turn Pride into Action: Making it Better Now for LGBT Students

Co-author Jason Cianciotto. Photo credit: LGBT Youth In America's Schools
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Co-author Jason Cianciotto. Photo credit: LGBT Youth In America's Schools

By: Jason Cianciotto & Sean Cahill*/Special for TRT–

As parades and celebrations occur across the Bay State, LGBT youth are putting their pride into action this month by testifying at public hearings sponsored by the Massachusetts Commission on GLBT youth. These meeting are an opportunity for legislators, parents, and community leaders to hear directly from LGBT youth about their experiences at school. Stories about the tragic effects of anti-LGBT bullying remain all too common, and youth-led initiatives like these hearings are just one of the many interventions that can make a difference.

Massachusetts is one of the most pro-LGBT states in the country, as evidenced by the fact that the Bay State became the first in the nation to pass a sexual orientation-inclusive student nondiscrimination law in 1993. Many LGBT students are healthy and successful, exhibiting remarkable strength in the face of anti-LGBT bullying. However, we need to diligently ensure that a full range of support is available to LGBT youth not only in Massachusetts, but in schools across the nation.

Dozens of studies confirm that LGBT youth are more likely to experience health disparities related to bullying and rejection at school and in their homes and faith communities, including substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, and suicide. These risks lead to truancy, lower GPAs, and many other threats to their education, as well as their physical and mental health.

We also know that there are a number of resiliency factors that decrease the likelihood of these negative outcomes, including gay-straight alliances at school, openly LGBT role models among teachers or school administrators, LGBT-inclusive curricula, non-discrimination and anti-bullying policies, and family acceptance. Youth with these supports are less likely to have unprotected sex, report depression, become homeless, or abuse drugs, among other factors.

For example, the Massachusetts Safe Schools Project found that LGBT students in schools where staff participated in its training program were twice as likely to report feeling supported by teachers than were students in schools without trained staff. Likewise, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) recently reported that students in schools with LGBT-inclusive curricula are half as likely to experience high levels of anti-LGBT victimization and less likely to miss school because of feeling unsafe.

These are among the reasons why it is critical for LGBT people and our straight allies to remain active and engaged in the federal, state, and local elections that determine school policy. After several students who were bullied because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity completed suicide in September 2010, gay activist and author Dan Savage launched the “It Gets Better” campaign. This was a popular effort to highlight anti-LGBT bullying and support for our youth. But we also know how to make it better now, and much of it takes political will.

Even though the Obama Administration recently announced support for the federal Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would outlaw anti-LGBT bullying at the federal level and require schools to collect and report data on bullying to the U.S. Department of Education, they have no chance of passing the Republican-controlled U.S. House this Congress.

In additional to federal efforts, most school policy is determined by state legislators, local elected officials, and school board members who are held accountable by voters. You have the power to turn pride into action by urging policy makers in Massachusetts and around the country to listen to the voices of LGBT youth and the children of LGBT parents attending their schools.

There are many common-sense, proven interventions that successfully challenge anti-LGBT bullying and make schools safer and more affirming places where all young people can focus on learning and developing their full potential. Ensuring that these programs are available to more students across the nation at the beginning of the next school year is something we can truly take pride in.

*Jason Cianciotto and Sean Cahill are authors of “LGBT Youth in America’s Schools,” recently published by the University of Michigan Press. Cahill is a member of the Massachusetts Commission on GLBT Youth. More information about the public hearings sponsored by the Commission is available at http://mcglbty.org.