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What the latest research really says about LGBTQ youth in schools

The Rainbow Flag flies beneath the American flag at the Stonewall National Monument, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in New York. The Rainbow Flag, an international symbol of LGBT liberation and pride, was flown for the first time at the monument. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

What we think we know about lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth in schools is not always accurate, according to research highlighted in a newly released special edition of the journal of the American Educational Research Association.

This post reveals some of the important takeaways in the special edition (and you can read it yourself, from links at the bottom). It was written by Joseph R. Cimpian is an associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and an affiliated associate professor of public service at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Carolyn Herrington is a professor of educational policy at the College of Education at Florida State University and director of the Educational Policy Center at FSU.

By Joseph R. Cimpian and Carolyn D. Herrington

The American Educational Research Association just released a special issue of its journal Educational Researcher on the topic of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth in education. The special issue explores a range of timely topics, such as LGBTQ homelessness and student-led groups for LGBTQ youth, and it includes a diversity of research approaches.

The latest research on youth who identify as LGBTQ provides some key insights into what we know and — perhaps more important what we think we know but don’t actually know about LGBTQ youth. Here we discuss some of these insights.

LGBTQ youth are extremely diverse

 There is not a “typical” set of life experiences that characterizes all LGBTQ youth. While that may not surprise some readers, LGBTQ youth are often perceived as having similar experiences and attitudes, and a significant portion of the research conducted uses practices that overlook their diversity.

First, many studies focus on average outcomes for LGBTQ youth broadly, ignoring, for instance, differences between average outcomes for lesbian youth and bisexual youth. Also, grouping together LGBQ and T into a single average estimate can conflate sexual identity with gender identity.

Second, a focus on averages tends to ignore the vast differences within groups. For example, focusing on the fact that gay youth report thoughts of suicide more often than heterosexual youth can obscure the fact that, while some gay youth experience these thoughts frequently, many never do.

Third, describing “average” experiences ignores nuances in how sexuality and gender identity intersect  with other characteristics, such as race  or disability.

Fourth, research using samples of individuals who are relatively convenient to access—for example, college students—may not reflect the full range of LGBTQ youth circumstances, such as homelessness. Capturing this diversity is critical in helping schools to serve the entire LGBTQ youth population rather than just a subset and to recognize whether segments of that population have special needs.

Finally, some research suggests that LGBTQ youth are so diverse in their experiences and in how they identify — some prefer the term “gay,” others “queer,” and others eschew labels altogether — that we need to be more  students by sexual and gender identity. This is not to suggest that sexual and gender identities don’t exist or aren’t often helpful for schools when trying to serve the needs of the LGBTQ population, but rather that we should accept that each child is unique and has a unique story.

Many estimates of LGBTQ youth risk are probably wrong

There are countless media reports of research showing LGBTQ youth at elevated levels of health and education risk. Some of these reports may be true, but we shouldn’t necessarily believe everything reported, even if it’s based on research that went through peer review.

Many of the comparisons between LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ youth reported in research — and consequently, in the media — come from data gathered through anonymous surveys. Although these surveys provide researchers with valuable data on sensitive topics like sexuality, gender identity, health risk, and bullying experiences, there are numerous ways that the data can become corrupted by faulty responses.

Some of the inaccurate data can come from youth simply not paying attention when responding to the survey. These kinds of survey inaccuracies tend to underestimate disparities between LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ youth. Other inaccuracies can come from fear that the survey responses are not truly anonymous. Youth may hold back sensitive information, which can lead to under- or over-estimates of risk.

Still other inaccuracies can come from youth who find it funny to give untruthful and exaggerated responses, such as a heterosexual-identified youth who does not use drugs reporting — just for fun — that he is gay-identified and uses drugs regularly. “Mischievous responders” can contribute to overestimates of the relative risks of LGBTQ youth. In one county-wide population-based study, removing likely mischievous responders reduced findings of LGBTQ-heterosexual disparities both in thinking about suicide every day and in using crack/cocaine by over two-thirds, suggesting that false responses were leading to substantially exaggerated estimates for very different types of risk outcomes.

Although the different kinds of survey data inaccuracies can produce opposite effects on estimates of risk — some leading to overestimates, others to underestimates — their effects do not necessarily cancel each other out. Because very little research explicitly addresses any of these error sources, we don’t really know how different our estimates are from the truth.

And as mentioned above, there is a tremendous amount of diversity among LGBTQ youth, and it is unclear how survey data errors affect the findings about subgroups within the LGBTQ youth community. Researchers need to try to reduce  data errors and help the media bring the remaining data limitations to light.

Gay-Straight Alliances vary considerably and are of unknown effectiveness

 Student-led groups known as Gay-Straight Alliances  (GSAs) have become increasingly popular in high schools and middle schools across the country, and even in some elementary schools. Researchers have tried to study what makes a GSA effective in supporting LGBTQ youth and in creating a safe space for gender and sexuality discussions.

GLSEN, a national advocacy organization for LGBTQ youth in K–12 schools, provides an online guide for developing and sustaining GSAs and helping to make them inclusive. Still, as with almost any education-related program or intervention, there is a great deal of variation in what GSAs look like across the country, some being more active than others and some more inclusive than others.

As mentioned above, LGBTQ youth are quite diverse and do not all feel welcome in every GSA. In a study of 13 GSAs in Massachusetts high schools, LGBTQ youth of color reported lower levels of participation in and support from GSAs than did their white peers. This study echoes prior research suggesting that queer youth of color may feel less welcome in GSAs but also suggesting that support for queer youth of color in GSAs can empower them and help them find their voice.

None of this speaks to the effectiveness of GSAs, however. We know very little about the effects of GSAs on LGBTQ youth. Although a sizeable and growing body of literature links GSAs to more favorable health and education outcomes for LGBTQ students, it is unclear whether those outcomes are caused by the GSAs or if GSAs are more active in LGBTQ-friendly environments. Some researchers use terms that suggest they have uncovered the “effects” of GSAs, but their research designs do not support such causal claims. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that LGBTQ-supportive school environments lead to positive development of LGBTQ youth, and a GSA may be part of the overall package of support.

Where do we go from here?

To be frank, research on LGBTQ youth has a long way to go in many respects. There are the issues raised in this piece, which reflect concerns raised in the special issue of Educational Researcher. And there is the added complication that many research studies ignore LGBTQ youth as a population worth studying. Thus, while it should be easier to know how general school policies or, for example, a school-wide anti-bullying intervention may uniquely affect LGBTQ youth, we often do not know, because data are simply not collected on who identifies as LGBTQ.

Regarding policy, the emerging evidence suggests that LGBTQ-inclusive school policies and curricula are related to better outcomes for LGBTQ youth, and often for youth in general, regardless of sexual or gender identity. Some other work finds that anti-discrimination policies aimed at adults (e.g., marriage equality) have beneficial effects for queer youth, which suggests that the broader climate for LGBTQ individuals affects future generations and that policies intended for adults send signals to youth. Thus, we need to think holistically about the climate we create for youth and how discriminatory policies and practices can affect them directly and indirectly.

Educators and policymakers who wish to create a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ youth could consider passing and strengthening anti-bullying laws, adopting curricula that discuss the contributions of LGBTQ individuals, supporting GSAs, reducing discriminatory behaviors that inhibit sports participation, and providing training to staff on creating welcoming environments for all youth.


Here are the stories, with links, to the special issue on the AERA website:

Editors’ Introduction: Introducing a Methodological Research Collection on Pressing Issues for LGBTQ Students

Coming Out and Leaving Home: A Policy and Research Agenda for LGBT Homeless Students

Gay-Straight Alliances as Settings for Youth Inclusion and Development: Future Conceptual and Methodological Directions for Research on These and Other Student Groups in Schools

Classification Errors and Bias Regarding Research on Sexual Minority Youth

Queer and Trans Youth, Relational Subjectivity, and Uncertain Possibilities: Challenging Research in Complicated Context

A Ratchet Lens: Black Queer Youth, Agency, Hip Hop, and the Black Ratchet Imagination

Outing the Politics of Knowledge Production: A Review of LGBTQ Issues in Education: Advancing a Research Agenda