‘Culture of fear’: Do LGBTQ+ students get enough support at school?

One in three teachers said the history and experiences of the LGBTQ+ community should not be taught in school. 

LGBTQ+ students are the least likely population to have their needs met at school, say teachers in a recent survey. And teachers of color were even more likely to say their school is not supporting these students adequately, according to a recent “Voices from the Classroom” report by Educators for Excellence, a nonprofit that advocates for K-12 equity.

Just more than 20% of all teachers said schools are assisting the LGBTQ+ subgroup sufficiently but only 6% of teachers of color said the same.

When it comes to academics, about 70% of all teachers—and nearly all teachers of color—said students should learn about the history and experiences of LGBTQ+ people. On the other hand, these topics ranked last when teachers were asked to choose, from a list of 14 subjects, what was most important to cover in the classroom. The educators gave higher priority to the Civil War, racial inequality in America today, and the history and experiences of Latinx people.

And one in three teachers said the history and experience of the LGBTQ+ community should not be taught in school. Only 3% of teachers of color agreed with that sentiment. Three-quarters of teachers of color—but only 42% of all teachers—said LGBTQ+ topics should be covered as early as middle school.

“Because of the culture of fear that’s been created, teachers are afraid to have these conversations with their students,” Leona Fowler, a special education instructional support teacher in New York City, told Educators for Excellence. “They have to find subtle ways to bring it up; to challenge gender stereotypes and censorship. But we don’t have the supports, resources or curriculum to know how to do that effectively.”

But some have accused schools of “glamorizing” the transgender lifestyle to the detriment of students’ social-emotional well-being. Christopher Rufo, director of the initiative on critical race theory at Manhattan Institute think tank, wrote in City Journal that Los Angeles USD is training teachers to provide gender-affirming instruction and support but not highlighting the mental health struggles of transgender students. “It is, of course, a noble goal for schools to provide a safe environment for minority groups and to affirm the basic dignity of all children regardless of their sexuality,” Rufo wrote. “But Los Angeles Unified’s program goes much further, promoting the most extreme strains of transgender ideology.”

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LGBTQ+ students face uncertain climate

National surveys show rising support for protecting the wider LGBTQ+ community from discrimination. Eight in 10 Americans favor laws that would protect LGBTQ+ people in jobs, public accommodations and housing. That’s an 11% increase in the number of Americans who opposed discrimination in 2015, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Even in states where anti-LGBTQ+ laws have been approved or proposed, two-thirds of Americans surveyed said they oppose discriminatory legislation.

Yet, Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law—which restricts the teaching of LGBTQ+ topics in kindergarten through third grade—has inspired lawmakers in other states to pass similar measures. Alabama schools cannot teach about LGBTQ topics in kindergarten through fifth grade. Laws limiting instruction have also been proposed in Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee.

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Responding to the Florida law, the advocacy organization GLSEN accused DeSantis and other elected officials of erasing LGBTQ+ communities from the K-12 curriculum and silencing teachers. “This latest attack has already had a chilling effect on LGBTQ+ youth, who already experience victimization such as bullying, harassment, and discrimination,” GLSEN’s leaders said. “The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill is an exclusionary curriculum ban that deprives LGBTQ+ youth of the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the classroom and their non-LGBTQ+ peers from learning about LGBTQ+ communities.”

Multiple studies have shown that LGBTQ+ students are at higher risk for suicide and self-harm, and that discrimination is a contributing factor. LGBTQ+ students perform better academically and are healthier when they feel accepted and supported at school, research has found.

Educators for Excellence is also encouraging educators to support LGBTQ+ students by lobbying their members of Congress to support the Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2021. The bill would require districts to adopt evidence-based strategies for preventing and responding to all formers of bullying and harassment.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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