An overwhelming majority of LGBT students in middle schools and high schools across Illinois are victims of frequent bullying, according to a survey released by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Despite a wave of legal victories and a continuing shift in cultural attitudes across the country, the survey reports, the rate of verbal and physical harassment reported by LGBT students nationwide has barely budged in the past two years. The survey also reported that more than 90 percent of LGBT students heard the word “gay” used in a negative way and more than 80 percent heard other homophobic remarks at school regularly.
The eighth edition of the National School Climate Survey, a temperature-taking of school climates conducted by GLSEN every two years, found that seven in 10 LGBT students in Illinois have been verbally harassed and three in 10 have been physically harassed for their sexual orientation. The findings were largely consistent across all 29 states the survey focused on.
“In the 15 years this survey has been going on, we’ve learned that school experiences have been gradually getting better for LGBT students,” said GLSEN research associate Maddy Boesen. “But it’s clear that there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Boesen said state bullying policies often have a major impact on school safety and performance for LGBT; in the 16 states (including Illinois) that include LGBT-specific language in their anti-bullying laws, LGBT students generally report more resources and less abuse.
“When a student knows they have legal protection based on orientation, they report having better overall experiences in schools,” Boesen said. “We see a lot of districts there helping train educators to intervene when they hear homophobic language, or backing up educators who help form GSAs [Gay-Straight Alliance clubs] at their schools.”
The survey cites a steady increase in GSAs across the country as a major step toward making schools more nurturing environments for LGBT students. In schools with active GSAs, 48 percent fewer respondents reported feeling victimized for their sexual orientation.
Another key takeaway from the survey is the rarity with which educators go out of their way to show LGBT people in a positive light. Consider: Of all the students surveyed in Illinois, only 22 percent reported being taught positive representations of LGBT people, history and events. What’s more, one in six students reported being taught negative representations of LGBT people.
Since the survey, activists have clung to GLSEN’s findings as a signal that tempering LGBT bullying is as much about student performance as it is about equality.
“In one sense this is a civil right issue, but in another sense it’s just about making stronger and more welcoming learning environments,” Boesen said. “We see diversity is an asset, and the more communities can embrace people from all different walks of life, that the better those schools can do overall.”