2SLGBTQIA+ students are at a higher risk of experiencing bullying and mental health concerns, but educators can take proactive and preventative steps to create inclusive learning environments.
OPINION | The views expressed in this article are those of the author.
Students of all ages have first-hand experiences with bullying and harassment in schools. Their experiences may be different than adults as they do not have the language or worldly experience to understand oppressive systems and to defend themselves. School staff can and should interrupt these experiences, both proactively and when they occur. Proactive intervention includes educating all students, staff, and families about harm and how to prevent it. Prevention and education are well within a school’s ability to affect and must be prioritized to ensure that all students feel welcome, safe, and included throughout their education.
Studies show that Two-Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual/Aromantic and plus (2SLGBTQIA+) students have a much higher risk of being the targets of harassment, as their identities do not conform to societal norms.
Egale’s second climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools outlines the enhanced bullying that 2SLGBTQIA+ students face compared to their cisgender heterosexual peers. For these statistics, the acronym 2SLGBTQ represents those who responded to the survey specifically. Respondents were between grades 8 and 12 in Canadian schools and responded to multiple questions about their experiences in school.
A few survey findings:
- 2SLGBTQ youth were four times more likely to experience verbal harassment than their cisgender peers and three times more likely to have the harassment target their expression of masculinity or femininity.
- 57% of trans students specifically reported being the target of mean rumours or lies. These incidents are also not uncommon, as 64% of respondents heard homophobic comments daily or weekly.
- 34% of respondents reported physical harassment at school, with 35% never telling an adult about their experience. Of those trans students that did tell an adult about the incident, 79% said staff were ineffective in addressing the harassment.
- 62% of 2SLGBTQ respondents feel unsafe at school, with 76% of trans students reporting feeling the most unsafe.
Impacts on Mental Health
The mental health implications of victimization are perhaps obvious. But it deserves attention in the discussion around bullying of 2SLGBTQIA+ students. Why?
For one, the impact of bullying of 2SLGBTQIA+ children and youth has resulted in increased attention deficit and anxiety disorders in both children (ages 3-9) and youth (ages 10-17). We see a 16% increase in theses diagnoses in 2SLGBTQIA+ children and a 40% increase in 2SLGBTQIA+ youth as compared to their cisgender heterosexual peers.
It is important to stress that being 2SLGBTQIA+ does not cause attention deficit and anxiety disorders. Instead, circumstances create stigmas, which reinforce the othered status of these identities, and affects the mental health of these individuals. Impacting circumstances may include verbal, physical, or sexual assault, prejudice, the stress of concealing identities, and rejection from friend and family groups. Trans students experience the deepest mental health concerns, with 40% reporting languishing mental health.
Role of Educators
School staff can greatly affect experiences for all 2SLGBTQIA+ people in the school and the community. There is undeniable need for staff members to be welcoming and inclusive, be trained in sexual and gender diversity, and have the skills to support those in the community. Research shows that youth mental health drastically improves when they receive positive reinforcement of their identity. For example, when a student is called by their chosen name, they experienced less depressive symptoms, a 29% drop in suicide ideation, and a 56% drop in suicide behaviour. Those with a supportive parent, guardian, or school staff member reported a 70% increase in positive mental health, 64% higher self-esteem, and a 93% reduction in suicide attempts. (See papers by Russell et al., 2018 and Wells et al., 2017). This staggering improvement is not something to ignore.
So what can educators do?
First, when homophobia, transphobia, and bullying occur, school staff must address it every time. If staff ignore homophobia and transphobia, they persist in covert systemic spaces. When addressed suitably and effectively, staff actively establish a culture of inclusion. Action on a school-wide scale can inspire positive behaviours and reduce the harmful impact of homophobia and transphobia.
Schools can also take meaningful proactive steps:
- Starting, supporting, and maintaining a Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) provides visible support for sexual and gender diverse students, identifies safe staff members involved in the GSA, and normalizes the existence of sexual and gender diverse people.
- Using and teaching inclusive language increases safe feelings in the school. Inclusive language includes using chosen or updated names and pronouns, gender-neutral language and affirming statements. It also means reducing microaggressions, deadnaming, and misgendering. Staff teaching these practices to each other, students, and the community also impacts the overall inclusive practices in a school.
- Using inclusive resources means students see their identities represented positively in educational content. Examples include positive depictions of sexual and gender diverse characters in books, films, songs, and class examples. Staff can also use simple strategies such as gender-neutral pronouns in math questions or broad recognition of significant role models related to the topic. In this way, students see potential futures for themselves, which is essential to understanding how they belong in the world.
Lastly, school boards can create inclusive policies to support inclusive strategies. Inclusive policies empower staff create inclusive environments knowing the school board and administration agree. Board policies push staff to engage with the topic, take professional learning sessions, and prioritize inclusive work. It also shows valuing of sexual and gender diverse people instead of diminishing or hiding their identities.
Power to Change
Bullying and harassment are an issue in schools, and the targeting of 2SLGBTQIA+ students is notably more prominent than that of cisgender heterosexual students. If schools can address, educate, and prevent the attacking of these identities and establish an overall culture of safety and inclusion, the educational experience will improve for all students. By creating a culture of inclusion, schools have the power to change the experiences of 2SLGBTQIA+ identities, impact the attitudes and behaviours of young adults transitioning out of schools, and work toward creating a more inclusive society for all.
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DISCLAIMER The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.