Connecting With LGBT Teens

Connecting With LGBT Teens

Students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) have many of the same concerns as their straight peers. But LGBT teens can face extra challenges.

One recent nationwide survey found that three-quarters of LGBT teens had been harassed or assaulted at school. Challenges like these can make it harder for LGBT students to reach their full academic potential. Abuse at school also can affect their emotional and physical health.

Research shows that LGBT students who are victimized, discriminated against, or isolated at school are much more likely than their peers to:

  • avoid extracurricular activities
  • miss or skip school for fear of being bullied
  • have lower grades
  • avoid planning for higher education
  • turn to substance abuse or risky sexual behaviors
  • face dating violence
  • be depressed
  • have suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide

Teachers need to be aware of suicide-prevention methods. Warning signs — for any student — include:

  • talking about suicide or death
  • hinting that he or she might not be around anymore
  • writing songs, poems, or letters about death, separation, and loss
  • giving away treasured possessions
  • losing interest in school, classmates, sports, or other activities
  • engaging in risky behaviors

Schools have been sued for negligence for failing to:

  • notify parents if a student appears suicidal
  • seek help for a student who’s at risk of suicide
  • adequately supervise an at-risk student

Experts agree that all students — whether LGBT or not — miss less school and have fewer mental health issues when they’re part of a positive learning environment that’s free of bullying and anti-LGBT remarks.

The good news is that LGBT kids who are treated with respect at school do just as well as their peers, in academics and personal health.

Understanding Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

When you’re talking with LGBT students, it’s helpful to know some basic definitions.

Sexual orientation refers to the gender to which a person is romantically and physically attracted. Gay people are attracted to people of the same sex. (Gay females are also called lesbian.) Bisexual (or “bi”) people are attracted to people of both sexes.

People do not have to be sexually active or even dating to identify themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. In fact, many homosexual people become aware of their orientation long before puberty. They may have same-sex crushes in early childhood, just as their heterosexual (or “straight”) peers have opposite-sex crushes.

Being transgender is not a sexual orientation. It’s about gender identity — our innate sense of ourselves as male or female. Most people’s gender identity matches their anatomy. But transgender people feel different from their physical appearances. A transgender child born with female anatomy may identify as a boy; one born with male anatomy may identify as a girl. Some may feel neither gender fits them well.

Medical experts view sexual orientation and gender identity as part of someone’s nature. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not preferences that people can change.

In addition to LGBT, you may sometimes see the initials LGBTQ. The “Q” stands for “questioning,” and includes people who aren’t sure of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Confronting Biases

The first step in connecting with LGBT teens and creating a safe learning environment is to be aware of your own biases or gender stereotypes. We all have ideas about how people should act. We might think that boys should be “tough” or that all girls are interested in clothes. Bringing these kinds of biases into the classroom can result in shutting out students who don’t fit these molds — straight and gay alike.

Teachers also might be used to speaking in ways that seem harmless, but aren’t. Potentially hurtful language could include:

  • Assuming that students are heterosexual, for example, and saying, “You boys only care about impressing the girls,” or asking a girl who says she went on a date, “Who’s the lucky guy?”
  • Referring to a transgender student by a legal name or the pronoun associated with the student’s anatomical sex rather than using the student’s preferred name and pronoun that match the student’s gender identity.
  • Allowing students to use insults like “That’s so gay.”
  • Dismissing teasing or fights with comments such as “If you didn’t dress or act that way, they’d leave you alone.”

Regardless of personal views on homosexuality and gender identity, a primary responsibility of an educator is to help ensure students are able to learn. In the United States, Title IX requires schools to create a safe, nondiscriminatory environment for all students in federally funded education programs, regardless of sex, gender identity, or how closely they fit gender norms.

Creating a Safe Environment

You can create a safe, welcoming environment in your classroom and at your school in lots of ways. Many teachers have had success with strategies like these:

  • Setting classroom rules at the beginning of each school year. It’s important to encourage respect for everyone and make it clear that you don’t allow name-calling, teasing, bullying, harassment, or violence. Some teachers say it’s helpful to have students sign pledges to be respectful to others.
  • Finding out the preferred name and pronoun of each of your students. Some teachers have all students introduce themselves at the beginning of the year (for example, “My name is Marcus and I want you to call me ‘he.'”). Use these names and pronouns consistently and have your students use them.
  • Intervening when students use demeaning language. A simple “Stop” or “We don’t use hurtful words here” can help curb such comments. You also can ask questions; for instance, “Do you understand why what you said is hurtful?”
  • Making sure lessons on sexual health use inclusive, accurate language. This will help LGBT students understand how prevention information related to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy applies to them.
  • Displaying a “safe space” or “hate-free zone” poster in your classroom. These kinds of posters remind students that everyone deserves a positive learning environment. It also identifies you as a possible source of support for LGBT students and others who might be facing harassment or bullying.

Talking With LGBT Teens

A common misconception among educators is that supporting LGBT students means talking with them about sex. This is not the case. LGBT teens have the same kinds of friendship and relationship struggles that other students face.

If an LGBT student comes out to you:

  • Thank the student for placing trust in you.
  • Remember that the student is the same person as before.
  • Listen and ask how you can help.
  • Promise confidentiality. Establishing trust is crucial. Never “out” a student by telling anyone — including the student’s family and other educators — about a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity without the student’s permission. Also, tell the student what you would have to report to authorities. Explain that you have an obligation to report it whenever you think students might harm themselves or others. Your school’s bullying policies also might require you to report if students have been victimized.

If you don’t feel comfortable or knowledgeable about a specific issue an LGBT teen is facing, you can offer to read up on it. Or you can refer the student to another teacher, school counselor, or school social worker who can help. You also can ask another educator to approach the student with an offer to talk confidentially — without mentioning the student’s LGBT status to the other educator, of course.

Just like everyone else, LGBT students want to feel accepted, understood, and supported. All students — LGBT or straight — benefit from positive relationships with their teachers. By taking the time to connect, showing a genuine interest, and supporting academic achievement and personal goals, educators can help students develop resilience. And creating an environment where everyone can be themselves goes a long way toward helping all your students succeed in school.

Reviewed by: D’Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: July 2015