In my freshman year, our student council sent out an anonymous survey on student diversity. I distinctly remember the results pertaining to sexuality and gender: in the entire high school, there were maybe nine students who identified as LGBT – and were willing to answer honestly. Out of those nine students, only two or three were out. Yet when you fast forward to this year, my senior year, our newly formed LGBT affinity group has 19 members, with 14 being underclassmen. There’s a huge difference in confidence and pride between classes only a couple of years apart, and my friends and I have been curious to know why. In this project, I aim to document and analyze the progression of LGBT acceptance in American high schools through interviews with members of my high school community in Cleveland, Ohio.
LGBT History in the United States and Cleveland
Dr. Keltner – graduated high school in 2006, teacher
Mr. Williams – graduated high school in 2008, teacher
Ella – 17, senior
Maria – 17, junior
Maya – 16, sophomore
Tegan – 16, sophomore
Analysis of Interviews
In all five of these interviews, the overwhelming consensus seems to be that exposure and openness to talking about LGBT identities as real, valid concepts is the key to making it easier for people to accept themselves and come out. This acknowledgement also seems to make it easier for people to accept and support their peers. As Tegan so aptly put, “I didn’t know what a gay was until seventh grade” – a sentiment echoed by Dr. Keltner and Maria. As Tegan also said, it was the bathroom bills that made him start to question his own gender; it was the simple act of knowing such identities existed that brought clarity to their own identities. For Ella and Maya, they were brought up in ways that normalized and validated the LGBT community, whether at home or at school; this positive support gave them a space to explore and discover their own identities at their own pace. As Mr. Williams explained, being in a place where LGBT individuals were already accepted and respected also gave him more confidence to fully come out. The others echoed this sentiment that Hawken’s inclusive community is a lot healthier for LGBT students.
Potential Solutions to Increase LGBT Acceptance in High Schools
The interviewees mentioned several methods that could create safer spaces in schools for students in the process of questioning, coming out, or simply being themselves without fear. Maya discussed her school’s open and inclusive policy and how that was reassuring; she also described how learning about LGBT identities in a classroom setting personally helped her own self-realization.
I propose for schools to start teaching LGBT identities and history in classroom settings from an early age, in the same way you would teach young children about marriage or love – that is, in a way that normalizes and affirms the validity and naturalness of such identities.
This way, students are exposed to LGBT topics early on and will not treat them as taboo by omission. Students will also be better equipped to deal with feelings they might have as they get older; they will have the words to describe themselves and feel valid. When these topics are openly discussed in both official and nonofficial channels, administrations will also have the opportunity to create safe spaces and support networks for LGBT or questioning students. As Tegan and Maria mentioned, the community in the high school has helped them both be more open and comfortable in their own identity. Such communities at school also provide support for students who may come from family backgrounds that are not as accepting.
After reading this page, you may wonder: how can you help? First, let’s figure out what isn’t working at your school right now. Place yourself into the shoes of an LGBT student, and imagine that you go to your own high school. Do you feel welcomed? Do you feel safe? Can you be yourself without fear?
Please take a moment to answer the poll below.
In the comments below, feel free to elaborate and reflect on your answer. Some questions to consider:
What are the rules, if any, regarding LGBT students, and do they seem fair?
What kind of social norms around the LGBT community are prevalent in your school culture?
How might you make your school more accepting, whether among your own friend group or by bringing it to the attention of the administration?
Brooks, Adrian. The Right Side of History: 100 Years of Revolutionary LGBTQI Activism. Cleis Press, 2015.
Morris, Bonnie J. “History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Social Movements.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/history.aspx.
Schlanger, Zoë. “A Teen Health Survey Crucial to US Public Policy Is Finally Asking about Sexual Orientation.” Quartz, Quartz, 25 June 2017, qz.com/1014142/a-teen-health-survey-crucial-to-us-public-policy-is-finally-asking-kids-about-their-sexual-orientation/.
Thoreson, Ryan. “‘Like Walking Through a Hailstorm’ | Discrimination Against LGBT Youth in US Schools.” Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch, 6 June 2017, www.hrw.org/report/2016/12/07/walking-through-hailstorm/discrimination-against-lgbt-youth-us-schools.