Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.
In the fall of his freshman year of high school, Georgia high school student Austin Laufersweiler spotted a GLSEN Safe Space Sticker on his guidance counselor’s door. He knew he wasn’t alone and instantly felt safer. Austin went on to be a force for change and progress in his school, and was later honored as GLSEN’s 2009 Student Advocate of the Year.
At the foundation of GLSEN’s work to make schools safer and more affirming for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, are the experiences of students like Austin. These students’ strength and commitment shape our efforts to create a world where young people learn to respect all people and value difference for the positive contribution it makes to a more vibrant society.
But for every student who can connect with a system of support, countless other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) K-12 students navigate hostile school climates without the support they need.
Since 1990, GLSEN has sought to change this stark reality. Through our research, we document the scope and impact of anti-LGBT bias and violence in school and identify the interventions that make a difference. We build on that knowledge to develop programs and initiatives that improve students’ lives today and create a more inclusive, hopeful future.
GLSEN’s biennial National School Climate Survey remains one of the few studies to examine the school experiences of LGB students nationally and is the only national study to include transgender students. The results have been vital to GLSEN’s understanding of the issues that LGBT students face.
We have found consistently that nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT youth experience harassment in school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, about 3 out of 5 feel unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation and about a third miss a day of school each month because of safety concerns. Not surprisingly, these high levels of victimization were related to poor well-being and low self-esteem.
But the data and stories from students across the country have also shown that visible adult support within a school community is one of the single most important factors in a more positive experience for LGBT students. As a series of tragedies awakened the nation to the risks that LGBT students face, GLSEN launched a campaign last fall to place a GLSEN Safe Space Kit – including that all-important Safe Space Sticker – in every middle and high school in the country.
In addition to supportive adults, other interventions can improve school life for LGBT youth include Gay-Straight Alliance student clubs, which promote belonging and participate in GLSEN events like Ally Week in October and the Day of Silence in April; anti-bullying policies that make it clear to students and educators that anti-LGBT bullying, along with all types of bullying, must be addressed; and access to positive representations of LGBT people, history and events through curricular resources like lesson plans, Internet resources and library materials.
GLSEN seeks to increase student access to these supports, and supports the amazing student leaders who step up to help us reach a better future. We want to ensure that every student looks at school as a place to thrive and not as a place to fear.
Eliza Byard is Executive Director of GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.