The Kids Are Not Alright

The Plight of African American LGBT Youth in America’s Schools

“Back to school” signs have been hanging in store windows for weeks now. For some children the beginning of a new school year is marked with anticipation and excitement—to see friends and tackle a new year of learning. But if you’re a student who is (or is perceived to be) gay or gender nonconforming, that excitement turns to fear and anxiety because of the bullying you will endure day in and day out for the next nine months.*

In the past year or so, media attention rose surrounding the suicides of youth who were or were perceived to be gay or transgender. It is difficult to determine why someone chooses to attempt suicide but many of the youth who died were bullied and harassed in their schools. The media attention peaked about a year ago, when within a three-week period, five gay or gender-nonconforming teens died by suicide, each case adding to a sense of urgency around the problem of bullying in our nation’s schools.

What was just as disconcerting, however, was whom the media was primarily covering: white youth. In fact, several African American students took their lives around the highly publicized time—most notably Carl Hoover Walker, who was only 11 years old. Unfortunately, the stories of African American youth didn’t make the news cycle despite the fact that research shows it is African American gay or gender-nonconforming youth who face some of the most hostile treatment in our nation’s schools.

“Faggot,” “dyke,” and “gay” (used in a derogatory manner) are just a few of the negative insults that 85 percent of black LGBT students say they hear daily in the hallway at school. Another 47 percent of these students also hear racist insults during an average school day.

Taken together, the numbers suggest that it is likely rare for a day to go by when a black LGBT student is not verbally harassed—or worse—by their peers. The self-esteem of teens is fragile enough without the constant degradation and fear of violence regularly forced upon them because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, or their race.

How can a student concentrate on an exam when they fear for their safety? Simply put, they can’t.

It’s been reported before that bullying will negatively impact an LGBT student’s test scores and grades. And according to new research conducted by the American Sociology Association, or ASA, being consistently bullied also significantly lowers academic performance for high-achieving black and Latino students. The study found that black students—who had 3.5 GPAs in 9th grade and were bullied in 10th grade—experienced a .3 point decrease in their GPAs by senior year.

This achievement gap is even wider for LGBT youth of color who are bullied. One report found that they have GPAs a half (.5) point lower than students who do not experience harassment in school.

At the 119th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, research was presented that mirrored the ASA’s assessment of the impact of bullying. “Our study suggests that a bullying climate may play an important role in student test performance,” said Dewey Cornell, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia. “This research underscores the importance of treating bullying as a school wide problem rather than just an individual problem.”

Schools are supposed to be environments where students feel safe and gain the skills necessary for success. But for black gay and gender-nonconforming youth, this is frequently not the case. These students often choose to miss school to avoid the harassment and violence they face on a nearly daily basis. In fact, about a quarter of black LGBT students have missed at least one full day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, compared to just 6.3 percent of all black youth and 3.5 percent of all white youth. Black students in some cases are already behind the curve academically compared to their peers, and 12 missed school days due to bullying do not help them learn and achieve.

The school climate is a top predictor for academic performance and the health and wellness of students. But black LGBT students, particularly those in schools where the student population is predominantly black, are less likely to attend schools that have affirming policies and programs such as Gay-Straight Alliances, or GSAs, which provide safe havens and buffers to antigay and antitransgender bias and bullying. Findings from a growing body of research demonstrate the positive impact that school-based resources, such as GSAs and similar resources, may have on school climate. LGBT students who report having supportive faculty and other school staff also report higher grade point averages and are more likely to say they plan to pursue postsecondary education, compared to LGBT students who do not have supportive school staff.

The lack of GSAs and other inclusive groups in predominantly black schools can be attributed to the commonly accepted notion that being gay or gender nonconforming is a “white issue” as well as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that some black communities apply to people who are LGBT. Programs such as GSAs could help keep black LGBT students mentally healthy, physically safe, and doing well in school until they receive their diploma on graduation day.

The stories of bullying and suicide deaths of young LGBT people are a tangible reminder of the consequences that homophobia can have on children. Schools are a microcosm of society, and the rampant anti-LGBT stigma in our society plays out in the halls of our nation’s schools. For better or worse, children model the behavior they witness—and without strong federal antibullying laws in place, black LGBT students will remain among the most vulnerable to bullying, harassment, and violence in the classroom.

The media coverage that ensued after the suicides of youth last year placed a magnifying glass on anti-LGBT bias in our country and how that surfaces in our schools. Unfortunately, it didn’t report on black students’ experience, despite research suggesting they are often in the most hostile environments. These issues will continue to persist in our nation’s schools long after the news cycle has ended—leaving our most vulnerable students on their own. It is imperative that Congress pass laws that are inclusive of the needs and safety of all students. Without a comprehensive federal antibullying law in place, black LGBT students’ right to a fair and quality public education will remain an empty promise.

*In this column, the term “gay” is used as an umbrella term for people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. We sometimes shorthand “gay and transgender” with “LGBT” (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender). “Gender nonconforming” refers to boys who are more feminine or girls who are more masculine (but not necessarily gay) than general societal expectations, which makes them targets for bullying and harassment.

Danielle Moodie-Mills is an Advisor for LGBT Policy and Racial Justice at the Center for American Progress. Her work with the Fighting Injustice to Reach Equality, or FIRE, initiative examines the impact of public policy on gay and transgender African Americans.