It Gets Better: Even the Meanest High Schools Can Become More LGBT-Friendly

Homophobic slurs and anti-LGBT abuse are on the decline in schools that take the problem seriously. Here's what they're doing to make it better.

(Photo: Troy Aossey/Getty Images)

Oct 27, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

The Gay-Straight Alliance at Norwood High School in Norwood, Ohio, is a small but tight-knit bunch. Amira Bauer-Hutsell, a senior at the school, is president of the group that meets once a week to discusses everything from school gossip to current events. For one transgender member who has no support at home, it is the only place to open up and vent.

“It kind of just gives people in the LGBT community somewhere to go, where they can talk and not feel judged,” said Bauer-Hutsell.

The GSA has become an in-house LGBT family, she said, where upperclassmen look out for younger students and even the principal gets schooled once in a while on LGBT etiquette.

“I taught him that 'queer' wasn’t a dirty word,” said Bauer-Hutsell.

The club has also slowly opened up the rest of the student body to the gay and transgender community. Joann Payne is a social worker who has worked in the district for 14 years and helped create Norwood’s GSA. She saw the club’s tangible effects last year, when two boys were seen holding hands on the front steps of the school.

Payne recalls a fellow teacher coming up to her to say, “Before GSA, that could never have happened without a whole lot of ridicule.”

Norwood is just one school in the Cincinnati area that’s taking concerted measures to improve LGBT inclusivity on campus. Supportive staff, strict anti-bullying policies, on-campus gay-straight alliances, and LGBT-inclusive curricula are key steps to reducing homophobia and harassment at schools, according to a report released last week by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.

The biennial survey looks at the conditions for LGBT students across the country. The year’s questionnaire was conducted online, with nearly 8,000 students from all 50 states answering questions about how they were treated at school. The study shows some marked improvements for LGBT students overall, from lower rates of verbal and physical harassment based on their sexual orientation to the decline of the common campus phrase “That’s so gay.”

But 55 percent of students still reported feeling unsafe because of their sexual orientation, and 71 percent said they heard “gay” used in a negative way on campus.

“Progress is being made in our nation’s schools,” said Dr. Eliza Byard, GLSEN’s executive director. “But when more than half of LGBT youth continue to report unsafe or even dangerous school climates, we all have a responsibility to act.”

In 2011, Ohio schools were deemed “not safe” for most LGBT secondary school students, and nine in 10 students reported hearing slurs such as “fag” or “dyke,” according to GLSEN. School liaisons like Shawn Jeffers are trying to change that. Jeffers is the lead trainer for GLSEN Cincinnati; he visits area schools and helps teach students and staff how to create more inclusive environments.

Ohio is the perpetual swing state in every election, said Jeffers, a mixed bag of far-right- and far-left-leaning communities, making it an interesting case study when it comes to LGBT students. When he began visiting schools a few years ago the mere mention of the word “gay” or “lesbian” in GLSEN’s name made teachers uncomfortable, he said. They’d often have to get his visit cleared by an equally uncomfortable school principal, as administrators were hesitant to invite LGBT discussion onto campus in fear of angry parent phone calls or threatened job security.

“I think schools by their nature tend to be risk averse,” said Jeffers.

But things reached a tipping point. In 2009 and 2010, there was a dramatic rise in teen suicides across the country, said Jeffers, often by kids who were out or assumed to be LGBT.

There was Seth Walsh, a gay California teen who couldn’t take the relentless bullying by his classmates and hanged himself in his backyard. There was Asher Brown, a 13-year-old Texan who was taunted at school and then shot himself after he came out. These are just to name two.

School administrators were forced to start addressing LGBT issues on campus, said Jeffers, and in Ohio, much of this support came from the top down. The state passed a law requiring all schools to enact anti-bullying policies, and then in 2012, an additional law was passed requiring a cyber-bullying policy be created as well.

Although these measures are now fairly common in states across the country, the Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education took things one step further in 2013. It voted to add language to its anti-bullying policy that explicitly protected students based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Only 10 percent of students reported attending a school having a policy like Cincinnati’s, according to the GLSEN report; those that did were less likely to hear homophobic slurs on campus and more likely to have staff intervene when those remarks were made.

So although national progress is slow, it is being made. Its success will rely on administrators making LGBT inclusivity part of the school culture, said Jeffers, and putting the needs of the students first, no matter what their personal beliefs.

As was the case at Norwood High, when the Gay-Straight Alliance was formed about six years ago.

“Our principal was supportive and forthcoming that this was an issue that’s a little bit out of his comfort zone," said Joann Payne. "But he welcomed the group into the school."