LGBTQ+ teens in homophobic high schools


I am a psychiatrist now but had another life teaching English in public high school for 17 years. My teaching life, in which I was an openly gay teacher, spanned 2001-2018 and was divided between two urban California schools – in Berkeley and San Leandro. I came out by responding honestly to student questions about whether I had a girlfriend, and what I did over the weekend. At Berkeley High my openness wasn’t an issue at all. The school had a vibrant Gay Straight Alliance/GSA for years, there were many openly gay staff and many openly gay students. No students felt the need to come out to me in search of a gay mentor.

Two years later, I began teaching in San Leandro, 20 miles away, and it was a lesson in how even the San Francisco Bay Area, an LGBTQ+ bastion, could harbor homophobia. When I was hired in 2003, San Leandro High had one openly gay teacher, Q. I quickly realized how much braver his coming out was compared with mine in Berkeley.

Dr. Duy Nguyen, University of California, San Francisco, Fresno

Dr. Duy Nguyen

In San Leandro, gay slurs were heard nonstop in the hallways, no students were out, and by the end of my first year Q had quit, confiding in me that he couldn’t handle the homophobic harassment from students anymore. There was no GSA. A few years ago, two lesbians had held hands during lunch and inspired the wrath of a group of parents who advocated for their expulsion. In response, a teacher tried to introduce gay sensitivity training into his class and the same group of parents tried to get him fired. He was reprimanded by the principal, he countersued in a case that went all the way to the California Supreme Court, and won. Comparing these two local high schools reinforced to me how visibility really matters in creating a childhood experience that is nurturing versus traumatizing.1

Two Chinese girls in love

N and T were two Chinese girls who grew up in San Leandro. They went to the same elementary school and had crushes on each other since then. In their junior year, they joined our first student GSA, becoming president and vice-president. They were out. And, of course, they must’ve known that their families, who would not have been supportive, would become aware. I remember sitting at an outdoor concert when I got a text from N warning me her father had found out and blamed me for having corrupted her. He planned on coming to school to demand I be fired. And such was the unrelenting pressure that N and T faced every time they went home from school and sat at their dinner tables. Eventually, they broke up. They didn’t do so tearfully, but more wearily.

This story illustrates how difficult it is for love between two LGBTQ+ teens to be nurtured. Love in youth can already be volatile because of the lack of emotional regulation and experience. The questioning of identity and the threat of family disintegration at a time when these teens do not have the economic means to protect themselves makes love dangerous. It is no wonder that gay teens are at increased risk for homelessness.2

The family incident that led to the girls’ breakup reveals how culture affects homophobic pressure. N resisted her parents’ disapproval for months, but she capitulated when her father had a heart attack and blamed it on her. “And it’s true,” N confided. “After my parents found out, they were continually stressed. I could see it affect their health. And it breaks my heart to see my dad in the hospital.”

For N, she had not capitulated from fear, but perhaps because of filial piety, or one’s obligation to protect one’s parent. It was a choice between two heartbreaks. Double minorities, like N and T, face a double threat and often can find no safe place. One of my patients who is gay and Black put it best: “It’s like being beaten up at school only to come home to another beating.” This double threat is evidenced by the higher suicide risk of ethnicities who are LGBTQ+ relative to their white counterparts.3


Recommended Reading

High rate of mental health problems in transgender children
MDedge Psychiatry
WPATH removes age limits from transgender treatment guidelines
MDedge Psychiatry
Digital mental health training acceptable to boarding teens
MDedge Psychiatry
Higher rates of PTSD, BPD in transgender vs. cisgender psych patients
MDedge Psychiatry
Teen girls report record levels of sadness, sexual violence: CDC
MDedge Psychiatry