September every year means one thing to students across the country: Summer break is over, and it is time to go back to school. For LGBTQ youth, this can be both a blessing and a curse. Schools can be a refuge from being stuck at home with unsupportive family, but it also can mean returning to hallways full of harassment from other students and/or staff. Groups such as a gender-sexuality alliance (GSA) or a chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) can provide a safe space for these students at school. Pediatricians can play an important role in ensuring that their patients know about access to these resources.
Gender-sexuality alliances, or gay-straight alliances as they have been more commonly known, have been around since the late 1980s. The first one was founded at Concord Academy in Massachusetts in 1988 by a straight student who was upset at how her gay classmates were being treated. Today’s GSAs continue this mission to create a welcoming environment for students of all gender identities and sexual orientations to gather, increase awareness on their campus of LGBTQ issues, and make the school environment safer for all students. According to the GSA network, there are over 4,000 active GSAs today in the United States located in 40 states.1
GLSEN was founded in 1990 initially as a network of gay and lesbian educators who wanted to create safer spaces in schools for LGBTQ students. Over the last 30 years, GLSEN continues to support this mission but has expanded into research and advocacy as well. There are currently 43 chapters of GLSEN in 30 states.2 GLSEN sponsors a number of national events throughout the year to raise awareness of LGBTQ issues in schools, including No Name Calling Week and the Day of Silence. Many chapters provide mentoring to local GSAs and volunteering as a mentor can be a great way for pediatricians to become involved in their local schools.
You may be asking yourself, why are GSAs important? According to GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey, nearly 35% of LGBTQ students missed at least 1 day of school in the previous month because of feeling unsafe, and nearly 57% of students reported hearing homophobic remarks from teachers and staff at their school.3 Around 10% of LGBTQ students reported being physically assaulted based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Those LGBTQ students who experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity were more likely to have lower grade point averages and were more likely to be disciplined than those students who had not experienced discrimination.3 The cumulative effect of these negative experiences at school lead a sizable portion of affected students to drop out of school and possibly not pursue postsecondary education. This then leads to decreased job opportunities or career advancement, which could then lead to unemployment or low-wage jobs. Creating safe spaces for education to take place can have a lasting effect on the lives of LGBTQ students.
The 53% of students who reported having a GSA at their school in the National School Climate survey were less likely to report hearing negative comments about LGBTQ students, were less likely to miss school, experienced lower levels of victimization, and reported higher levels of supportive teachers and staff. All of these factors taken together ensure that LGBTQ students are more likely to complete their high school education. Russell B. Toomey, PhD, and colleagues were able to show that LGBTQ students with a perceived effective GSA were two times more likely than those without an effective GSA to attain a college education.4 Research also has shown that the presence of a GSA can have a beneficial impact on reducing bullying in general for all students, whether they identify as LGBTQ or not.5
What active steps can a pediatrician take to support their LGBTQ students? First, “Resources for LGBTQ youth during challenging times” at mdedge.com/pediatrics for a few ideas).* Lastly, be an active advocate in your own local school district for the inclusion of comprehensive nondiscrimination policies and the presence of GSAs for students. These small steps can go a long way to helping your LGBTQ patients thrive and succeed in school.If the families run into trouble from the school, have your social workers help them connect with legal resources, as many court cases have established precedent that public schools cannot have a blanket ban on GSAs solely because they focus on LGBTQ issues. Second, if your patient has a GSA at their school and seems to be struggling with his/her sexual orientation and/or gender identity, encourage that student to consider attending their GSA so that they are able to spend time with other students like themselves. Third, as many schools will be starting virtually this year, you can provide your LGBTQ patients with a list of local online groups that students can participate in virtually if their school’s GSA is not meeting (see my LGBTQ Youth Consult column entitled,
Dr. Cooper is assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Texas Southwestern, Dallas, and an adolescent medicine specialist at Children’s Medical Center Dallas. Dr. Cooper has no relevant financial disclosures. Email him at.