Safe and supportive school climates can save the lives of LGBTQ youth

The research is clear — much of the nation’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are in trouble, struggling with suicidal thoughts, low self-esteem and a lack of social-emotional support.

According to The Trevor Project, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24 — and LGBTQ youth are at significantly increased risk. The organization’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 45 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth. Research points to increased disparities for bisexual youth, transgender and nonbinary youth, and LGBTQ youth of color. In particular, Black transgender and nonbinary youth report disproportionate rates of suicide risk — with 59 percent seriously considering suicide and more than one in four attempting suicide in the past year.

Many LGBTQ youth lack access to affirming spaces, with 55 percent of LGBTQ youth reporting that their school is LGBTQ-affirming and just 37 percent saying that their home is LGBTQ-affirming, according to the Trevor Project. Fewer than one in three transgender and nonbinary youth found their home to be gender-affirming and a little more than half found their school to be affirming. The Trevor Project’s research consistently finds that LGBTQ youth report lower rates of attempting suicide when they have access to LGBTQ-affirming spaces. Just one accepting adult decreases the risk of suicide by 40 percent for LGBTQ young people.

How schools can support LGBTQ youth

While schools cannot force communities or parents to be more accepting, they can create accepting and supportive climates that support every student. Studies have found that LGBTQ youth who have trusted adults in their school have higher levels of self-esteem, and access to supportive peers is protective against anxiety and depression, including among those who lack support from their family. The presence of Gender and Sexualities Alliances (GSAs) has been found to significantly reduce the risk for depression and increase well-being among LGBTQ youth and young adults.

GLSEN, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ students, cites four key supports to cultivate a safe and supportive environment:

  • Activating supportive educators, who are crucial to creating LGBTQ-inclusive classroom environments
  • Advocating for inclusive and affirming curriculum, which not only offers support to LGBTQ students but raises the awareness of all students
  • Passing and implementing policies to ensure that LGBTQ students can learn and thrive in safe, inclusive, accepting schools
  • Supporting student-led clubs and GSAs, because student leaders are integral to creating community and pushing for change

“Passing and implementing comprehensive policies around key issues for LGBTQ students is crucial to ensuring that LGBTQ students can learn and grow in a supportive environment,” according to GLSEN. These can include harassment, bullying and non-discrimination policies; policies for facilities accessibility for transgender, gender non-conforming and nonbinary students; and policies affirming transgender and gender non-conforming students’ participation in athletics.

California law

California is just one of 14 states that provide non-discrimination protections to students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

State and federal law generally prohibits discrimination, harassment, intimidation and bullying of students based on their actual or perceived sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, race, color, ancestry, national origin, ethnic group identification, age, religion, marital or parental status, physical or mental disability or genetic information, or association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics. (Education Code sections 220, 234.1; 42 U.S.C. sections 2000d-2000e-17, 2000h-2000h-6.)

In addition, Education Code Section 234.1, as amended by Assembly Bill 9 (Ch. 728, Statutes of 2011), and Section 235, mandate that school districts adopt a policy prohibiting discrimination, harassment, intimidation and bullying based on the above categories at school or in any school activity related to school attendance or under the authority of the district. Education Code Section 234.1 further requires districts to adopt a process requiring school personnel to immediately intervene, when it is safe to do so, whenever they witness acts of discrimination, harassment, intimidation or bullying based on the characteristics specified in Education Code sections 220 or 234.1 or Penal Code Section 422.55, including gender identity.

Education Code Section 221.5 specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex with regard to enrollment in classes or courses, career counseling and availability of physical education activities or sports to both sexes.

In 2013, AB 1266 amended Education Code Section 221.5 to clarify that students must be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with their gender identity, regardless of the gender listed in their student records. The California Department of Education has provided frequently asked questions that address key issues regarding the requirements and implementation of AB 1266.