Discrimination of Sexual Orientation: What You Need to Know About LGBT Discrimination in K-12

Are you aware of the shifts in sexual discrimination occurring in K-12 school systems? Each day students are facing discrimination due to their sexual orientation. This articles discusses the issues students are facing today, how you can be aware of any discriminations, and what Educators can do to decrease LGBT discrimination in their school systems.

Sexual orientation is a major issue in today’s schools and in society as a whole. Sexual orientation refers to the gender to which a person is romantically and sexually attracted. Most people are heterosexual (attracted to the opposite sex), but many are homosexual (attracted to the same sex) or bisexual (attracted to both sexes). Transgender individuals have a physically observable gender that differs from their gender identity; an individual who is physically a male may identify as female, and an individual who is physically a female may identify as a male.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students often face discrimination that begins in elementary school. More than 85% of these students report harassment, and more than 20% say they have been physically attacked as a direct reaction to their gender orientation or sexual preference. This has led to a more dangerous, less tolerant school campus setting for all students regardless of sexual orientation. LGBT discrimination isn’t just a matter of personal ethics; it’s a safety issue in many schools that affects the learning of all students. Teachers and administrators are responsible for defending the rights of LGBT students and protecting the entire student population in the process.

Although all areas of school operations need policies in place to protect LGBT students, sports activities are in especially dire straits. One way to spread a message of normalcy for LGBT members of the student body is by calling on high-profile authorities in athletic programs to attend LGBT events or to be involved in LGBT organizations. The simple presence of these coaches and teachers at LGBT functions speaks louder than any prescribed tolerance initiative. Coaches should also make it clear that slurs and hate-filled speech toward or regarding any particular group will not be tolerated and are cause for disciplinary action. Along with adult involvement, student athletes should also be encouraged to support the LGBT community through participation in straight–gay groups. The responsibility for showing acceptance and equality lies with teachers, coaches, and officials. Many students may not have a good example at home of acceptance toward the growingly open group of LGBT children but are not doomed to intolerance if another trusted adult like a teacher or administrator models acceptance.

The treatment of LGBT students in school environments can be especially damaging for teens who are seeking an identity and a peer group and who are also in the process of developing social skills for life. When LGBT students can’t fit in with a group at their school, life becomes difficult. Every adolescent student, whether LGBT or straight, craves social acceptance. The National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development have all passed resolutions asking their members and all school districts to step forward to improve the educational experiences of LGBT students by providing a safe environment, support groups, and counseling and by in general employing anti-harassment rules and practices. In some schools LGBT students are accepted and accommodated.

Same-sex couples are invited to school dances, and there are unisex washrooms for transgender students. School districts in some states include LGBT students in nondiscrimination policies with the goal of making schools safe places for all students, parents, faculty, and staff. But in some states it is illegal to even utter the word gay, and other states only allow homosexuality to be portrayed in a negative light in the classroom. This makes it difficult for teachers to teach about sexual orientation diversity or to make their classrooms and school environment safe and accepting of LGBT students.

It is important that all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, have a safe environment in which to learn and grow as an individual. Gay and lesbian organizations have been at the forefront of trying to create safe and accepting environments for LGBT students. Students have also taken up the cause, and student groups have begun springing up in schools all over the country. Like their heterosexual peers, LGBT teens are also struggling with their gender identities and their sexual orientation. These terms are often used interchangeably but are not the same. Gender identity most often refers to the recognition of oneself as male or female. This may indicate the experiential or biological identity or both. Sexual orientation refers to the preferences or attractions for sexual or romantic relationships. Sexual orientation adds another frustrating level of self-awareness.

Many schools take part in the annual student-organized National Day of Silence. This silent protest is arranged to acknowledge the harassment, violence, and prejudice faced by LGBT students in American schools. Thousands of students wear Day of Silence buttons or carry printed notes to class indicating that they will not be speaking in class that day, as part of their effort to bring attention to the victims of bullying. Teachers and administrators often move to counteract students’ assertiveness. Although many schools made announcements and sent faculty emails about what to expect on the Day of Silence, many teachers penalized students for remaining quiet in class.

State laws mandate that teachers must report child abuse and neglect. Teachers and administrators have the responsibility to report and prevent bullying. This applies to bullying of any type, and bullying of any student. It is important to recognize that anti-homosexual bullying takes many forms. It is often the result of homophobia, ignorance, and disrespect, which can be alleviated through proper information and prejudice intervention. Additional legislation indicates that failure to intervene in these circumstances may jeopardize teaching certificates and licenses. Lambda Legal Defense cautions that if teachers and counselors are not actively helpful (or worse, hurtful), they may be guilty of legal violation in their failure to address the abusive anti-homosexual behavior.

Regardless of a teacher’s personal ideology, as educators we are bound to uphold a code of tolerance and acceptance. We have a professional commitment to make the classroom and the school safe environment for all students. Educators must provide positive role models and supportive, responsive intervention. We must actively deliver the message that bullying, prejudice, and hate are wrong in all circumstances. All school personnel are responsible for keeping abusive language and behavior out of the classroom and the school culture.

Teachers must first believe that LGBT students are part of the diversity of the schools and deserve to be treated respectfully. This may require teachers to be aware of erroneous information and perceptions about LGBT students. It’s not necessary for teachers to identify who is and who is not homosexual. Never make assumptions, because these are often the source of hurtful, homophobic treatment. Never pigeonhole students by considering them to adhere to stereotypically homosexual behavior. Just because a male student takes part in dance or drama, or a female student takes workshop or motor mechanics doesn’t mean the student is homosexual—nonconformity is not a sign of homosexuality. Even if students have identified themselves as homosexual, it’s inappropriate to discuss their sexual orientation unless they bring up the subject with you. In that case, be frank and nonjudgmental, and establish yourself as a safe, supportive adult who can be trusted to respond quickly and compassionately.

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