Questions and Answers: Sexual Orientation in Schools – What can schools do?

What can schools do to support and improve the health and safety of sexual minority students?

Comprehensive school health, including broadly-based sexual health education, involves the entire school community coming together to work collectively to create an inclusive school environment, which emphasizes the values of “reciprocity, equality, and respect … [as the] pre-requisites for healthier and safer sexual and social relationships”Footnote 35. One of the successful programs at improving the feelings of safety of sexual minority students and reducing incidents of homophobic violence within schools has been Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs)Footnote36. GSAs have the advantage of requiring that their members declare only a concern to counter act homophobic harassment and not their sexual orientation to join. They build on the principle that social networks can overcome the paralysing isolation felt by so many lesbian, gay and bisexual students and other students vulnerable to being labelled as gay. They can also create a safe space and a counter-weight to the intimidation exerted by harassers. A guide on how to create a GSA is included in the Resources section at the end of this document.

HETEROSEXISM:
The assumption that everyone is heterosexual and that this sexual orientation is superior. Heterosexism is often expressed in more subtle forms than homophobia.

In creating a safe space at school, lesbian, gay and bisexual students may come out at school before they come out at home. It is important that disclosure remain in the hands of the individual student who can gauge when or if it may be safe to disclose at home. Schools that prematurely reveal students’ lesbian, gay or bisexual identity may risk setting them up for violence or expulsion from home.

What you can do

The following suggestions for teachers, schools, and the larger community are provided to stimulate thought and discussion on what educational stakeholders can do to create an environment in which broadly-based sexual health education is considered an absolute right for all students regardless of their sexual orientation.

Personally

TWO-SPIRIT:
Some Aboriginal people identify themselves as two-spirit rather than as bisexual, gay, lesbian or transgender. Historically, in many Aboriginal cultures, two-spirit persons were respected leaders and medicine people. Before colonization, two-spirit persons were often accorded special status based upon their unique abilities to understand both male and female perspectives.

  • Educate yourself and provide professional development opportunities for your school staff and school board members.
  • Reflect critically on your personal values regarding sexuality. Take inventory of how these values may interfere with your professional obligation to provide education and services that respect the rights and needs of sexual minority youth.
  • Make your classroom a safe and welcoming space by challenging stereotypes, name-calling, and homophobic bullying whenever you see or hear it occurFootnote 37.
  • As part of broadly-based sexual health education, learn how to talk openly about sex, sexuality and sexual orientation.
  • Explore how to approach issues of sex, sexuality, and sexual orientation with your colleagues and school administration.
  • Articulate and support a rights-based approach in which knowledge, skills, and attitudes are linked to universally accepted human rights principlesFootnote 38.
  • Never counsel or attempt to “change” a student’s sexual orientation.
  • Assist sexual minority youth in identifying resources where they can get information and supportFootnote 39.
  • Maintain student confidentiality when and where it is professionally appropriate.
  • Consider supporting the creation of a Gay-Straight Student Alliance as a safe space in your schoolFootnote 40.
  • Seize a teachable moment to educate students about sexual orientation, prejudice, and homophobia.
  • Address assumptions that being gay, lesbian or bisexual is a bad thing and reinforce that everyone in the school environment deserves to be respected.
  • Confront the stereotypes and misinformation behind insults and abuse of sexual minority youth.
  • Confront the stereotypes and homophobia of your colleagues.

  • Explore with students more appropriate responses to insults than physical violence or reverse name-calling.

In the schools

ALLY:
A person, regardless of his or her sexual orientation, who supports the human, civil, and sexual rights of sexual minorities.

  • Advocate at the local, provincial and territorial levels for the use of the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education as a framework for developing a broadly-based sexual health curriculum, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Establish clear school policies to support teachers in the discussion and delivery of broadly-based sexual health education in the classroom.
  • Read your provincial/territorial curricula to identify where and how sexual orientation is addressed. If it is not included, contact your Ministry representative.
  • Encourage your school district to develop clear safe school policies, which explicitly protect sexual minorities and same-sex parented families against discrimination.
  • Become knowledgeable of community-based supports and services designed to assist sexual minority youth and their families in the coming out and coming to-terms processes.

  • Help sexual minority youth identify healthy and unhealthy behaviours, which impact their mental, physical, and sexual health.

  • Increase educational and social supports for sexual minority youth by developing evidence-based programming (i.e. Gay-Straight Alliances and safe spaces) to foster peer acceptance, school connectedness, and student safety.

  • Make available to all staff training sessions on sexual orientation. For example, Professional Development days could have workshops or presentations to raise awareness and levels of knowledge about the experiences and needs of sexual minority students. These workshops could provide an opportunity to discuss the skills needed to be a good ally and to develop an ‘action plan’ or list of concrete actions needed to improve the school environment for people of all sexual orientationsFootnote 41.

In the community

  • Advocate for the basic human and sexual rights of sexual minorities to be treated with equality, dignity, and respect.
  • Support the adaptation and age-appropriate delivery of current and broadly-based sexual health education at all grade levels.
  • Emphasize that education in your school is for all students.

  • Challenge inaccurate or sensationalized media stereotypes or misinformation.

What can I do to support the parents/caregivers of sexual minority youth?

Families are not always a safe place for sexual minority youth. It is, therefore, important not to involve the parents/caregivers of sexual minority youth unless the youth themselves have already disclosed their identity to their families or you have a legal duty to report such as in the case of risk of self-harm. Involving parents/caregivers before a student has disclosed their identity to them may put the student at risk of mental, physical or emotional harm within their homes. Parents/caregivers whose children “come out” to them may have a variety of reactions ranging from loving acceptance to rejection and expulsion of the child from the homeFootnote 42.

LGBTTQ:
A commonly used acronym for the constellation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirited, and queer identities. Sexual minority is a synonymous term.

All parents/caregivers of sexual minority youth can be supported by directing them to community and counselling resources and support groups to help deal with the range of emotions including relief, shock, anger, grief, guilt, and shame. Parents/caregivers will likely be seeking answers to many questions and should be provided with information on sexual orientation to educate them on what their child is experiencing and why, as well as the health and safety concerns of their sexual minority childFootnote 43. Parents/caregivers of sexual minority youth may need help in understanding that their child’s sexual orientation was not caused by poor parenting, nor did their child choose it.

Well-informed and accepting parents/caregivers can be allies in ensuring the healthy development and resiliency of sexual minority youth. Parents/caregivers can help sexual minority youth learn techniques of recognizing and combating stigma, discrimination, and verbal abuse, and to develop coping strategiesFootnote 44. All children, regardless of sexual orientation, need support, acceptance, and compassion from their families to thrive and parents/caregivers should be supported in this role to ensure the healthy development of sexual minority youth.

How can I help to build the resiliency of sexual minority youth?

Resiliency (or protective factors) can be considered as the internal and external influences that can have a positive impact on healthy youth development. They help to protect youth from engaging in unhealthy behaviours or destructive coping mechanisms. Individuals are born with an innate resiliency and the capacity to work to develop protective factors.

Research identifies the following key attributes that are often exhibited by resilient children and youthFootnote 45:

  • Ability to solve problems proactively and think for themselves;
  • Capacity to understand complex emotions and deal with frustration;
  • Strong internal sense of control and sense of personal autonomy;
  • Awareness of the structures of oppression, such as a hostile or homophobic school environment;
  • Healthy self-concept and positive vision for the future;
  • Resist internalizing put-downs and negative self-labelling;
  • Have a sense of humour and a tendency not to hold grudges;
  • Feel they have the ability to live a meaningful and rewarding life; and
  • Work to develop and build friendships based on mutual support and trust.

QUEER: Historically, a negative term for homosexuality. More recently, the LGBTTQ community has reclaimed the word and uses it as a positive way to refer to itself.

Based upon these attributes, “schools, institutions, and community groups can foster these qualities by helping young people establish relationships with caring adult role models and by providing environments that recognize achievements, provide healthy expectations, nurture self-esteem, and encourage problem-solving and critical thinking skills”Footnote 46.

Teachers and schools can do several key things to build the resiliency of sexual minority youth, including:

  • Creating a support or social group where they feel part of a community can lead to greater sense of self-worth and increase the likelihood that they will remain in school. Research conducted in Canadian schools indicates that low behavioural attachment and high feelings of alienation within school leads to greater risk of dropping outFootnote 47.
  • Making resources on sexual orientation available in the school libraries and included in the curricula. For example, consider introducing books into lesson plans which address prejudices and sexual orientation issues (for a list of resources, see the list at the end of this document). Exposing students to issues of sexual orientation and related resources will not cause students to question their sexual orientation. Rather, it provides assurance to the student who already knows that they are different and who often suffers the consequences of that difference (i.e., name-calling, harassment, etc.) that they are not alone.

While some sexual minority youth experience significant negative school and life experiences because of prejudice and stigmatization, other sexual minority youth do not experience these negative mental health and educational outcomes. The difference between those youth at-risk and those who are resilient is often the differing levels of support they receive from important adults in their lives, such as their parents/caregivers, teachers, administrators, coaches, or faith leaders.

Although many sexual minority youth experience risk and protective factors which are the same as their heterosexual peers, several critical factors have been identified to help support these youth in the development of a “resilient mindset”Footnote 48. These protective factors include:

  • supportive and caring teachers and adults;
  • a sense of belonging and safety at school;
  • a strong sense of family connectedness; and
  • access to community resourcesFootnote 49.

All of these factors are critical targets for interventions designed to help sexual minority youth move from feeling at-risk to becoming resilient in their schools, families, and communities. Targeted interventions should also include dedicated work with families and caregivers of sexual minority youth to help them positively address issues of sexual identity. In doing so, families and caregivers will be able to support the enhanced mental health, safety, emotional well-being, and personal resiliency of sexual minority youth in their care.

Concluding Perspective

Ultimately, when working with sexual minority youth, educators should always strive to respect a student’s human rights and dignity. Evidence-based strategies should be used to support age-appropriate discussions on sexuality, sexual health, and informed decision-making. The Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education represents one important resource educators can use in assessing their current sexual health education programs to ensure that they are accurate, evidence-informed, and non-judgmental. The Guidelines also provide guidance on how to plan, implement, and evaluate sexual health education that is inclusive of the health, safety, and educational needs of sexual minority youth.

The failure to respond adequately to the pressing educational, social, cultural, and public health needs of sexual minorities removes these youth from key supports and protective factors in their lives. These critical absences exacerbate the complex and multiple risk factors they experience as vulnerable youth who need to be supported to grow into resilience and become healthy, happy, and productive adults.

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