Questions and Answers: Sexual Orientation in Schools – What do we know?

What do we know about sexual orientation?

SEXUAL ORIENTATION:
A person’s affection and sexual attraction to other persons.

Sexual orientation is the term used to describe an individual's sexual, psychological, and emotional feelings of attraction towards another person. Sexuality is considered to be an essential and natural characteristic of all people which begins to develop in early childhood and continues over the course of one's lifetimeFootnote 5. While the literature is divided on the exact mechanisms for the development of sexual orientation, research suggests that it is determined by numerous factors including hormonal, genetic, and environmental influencesFootnote 6. Importantly, research suggests that poor parenting, sexual abuse, and other adverse life events do not influence sexual orientationFootnote 7.

COMING OUT:
Often refers to “coming out of the closet”– the act of disclosing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity (e.g., to friends, family members, colleagues).

Current research indicates that sexual orientation exists along a continuum of emotional and sexual attractionsFootnote 8. This continuum ranges from people who are only attracted to those of the opposite sex, to those who are only attracted to those of the same sex, and includes people who have varying emotional and/or physical attractions to both people of the same and opposite sex. In addition, sexual orientation is not always the same as a person’s sexual activity or sexual behaviour. Social, cultural, political, and religious factors impact on the extent to which an individual will self-identify as a sexual minority, become visible (“come out”) or remain silent and hidden (“in the closet”), and the extent to which they act on their attractions. Experiences with stigmatization, discrimination, and prejudice often prevent youth from positively integrating their sexual feelings and may inhibit them from publicly identifying as a sexual minority. For example, some individuals, especially during adolescence, may participate in a variety of sexual behaviours with same-sex partners and still identify themselves as heterosexual or not come out as homosexual.

HETEROSEXUAL:
A person who is physically and emotionally attracted to someone of the opposite sex. Also commonly referred to as straight.

There is often confusion between "sexual orientation" and "gender identity", however the two are very different. Sexual orientation refers to an individual's emotional and sexual attraction which may be to members of the same or opposite sex, or both. Gender identity refers to an individual’s sense of being male, female or an identity in between or outside these categories. Like heterosexuals, some gay, lesbian or bisexual individuals will also struggle with their gender identity; however, we do not specifically address this issue in this document, focusing instead only on sexual orientation. A separate document entitled Questions & Answers: Gender Identity in Schools explores these issues more fully.Footnote 9

GENDER
IDENTITY:
A person’s internal sense or feeling of being male or female, which may or may not be the same as one’s biological sex.

There are no sexual minority youth in my school. Why address these issues?

GAY:
A person who is physically and emotionally attracted to someone of the same sex. The word gay can refer to both males and females, but is commonly used to identify males only.

LESBIAN:
A female who is attracted physically and emotionally to other females.

BISEXUAL:
A person who is attracted physically and emotionally to both males and females.

Sexual minority youth are attending Canadian schools, whether or not they make themselves known to staff, school administrators and/or peers. There are also students attending Canadian schools who have sexual minority siblings, parents/caregivers or other family members and friends. Sexual minority youth remain invisible for several reasons. First, by assuming that there are no sexual minority youth in the schools, staff and administrators will not recognize that these students do exist. Second, due to experiences of bullying, discrimination, and stigmatization, sexual minority youth often remain an invisible population in schools and they may choose to remain invisible out of concern for their own safety. Sexual minority youth who come out or access services which are inclusive and supportive of their sexual identity may be at risk of increased vulnerability as a result. Rather than assuming that there are no sexual minority students in your school, perhaps a more important question to ask is why they are not visible? Is the environment supportive of sexual minority youth or perpetuating their invisibility?

TRANSGENDER: A person whose gender identity, outward appearance, expression and/or anatomy does not fit into conventional expectations of male or female.

Current research indicates that between 2% and 10% of individuals in North American society are non-heterosexualFootnote 10. In Canada, a recent demographic survey of over 105,000 junior and senior high school students, conducted by the Toronto District School Board, found that 8% of students in grades 9-12 identified as non-heterosexual or questioning their sexual orientationFootnote 11. Additionally, adolescent health research indicates that the average “coming out” age is now 15 or 16 years of ageFootnote 12. These research findings illustrate how the issues of sexual orientation and sexual identity are relevant in today’s schools.

What are the health, safety, and educational concerns of sexual minority students in our schools today?

Homophobia and Harassment

Students may be harassed for being “gay” based on their presumed sexual orientation or not conforming to gender expectations, though the harassers may know nothing of their victims’ actual sexual orientation. The victimized students may not be certain of their sexual orientation themselves. Many students may have a sense of themselves as being ‘different’ in some way and vulnerable, but survive by “flying under the radar”. These students may prefer to not attract negative attention and, therefore, wait to come out later in more supportive environments. “That’s so gay” has become embedded in youth culture as the prime put-down equivalent to “stupid” or the opposite of coolFootnote 13. Many students use words like “faggot” and “homo” without a clear understanding of how they may be affecting their peers. Often tolerated in schools,these words are one aspect of homophobic bullying, and, if left unchecked, further reinforce the hostility, intolerance and negative perceptions of sexual minorities.

INTERNALIZED HOMOPHOBIA:
A diminished sense of personal self-worth or esteem felt by an individual as a result of the experienced or presumed homophobia of others.

Research indicates that experiences of discrimination, stigmatization, violence, and the associated negative mental health outcomes disproportionately impact the physical, emotional, and educational lives of sexual minority youth. A study of 1,598 adolescents from five high schools in Ontario found “sexual minority adolescents reported significantly higher rates of bullying and sexual harassment than did heterosexual adolescents” and that lesbian, gay, bisexual students and “adolescents questioning their sexual orientation reported similar adjustment difficulties, victimization experiences, and perceived [lack of] social support”Footnote 14. In Canada, a 2008 survey conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that one-third of Grade 9 and Grade 11 boys reported being victims of homophobic insults, with roughly equal numbers of boys reporting having been perpetrators of such insults. Slightly fewer girls in Grade 9, about one-quarter, reported being victims and perpetrators of homophobic insults; among Grade 11 girls, reports of being victims and perpetrators of homophobic insults drop substantiallyFootnote 15.

Mental Health

Stigma, prejudice, and discrimination can create a hostile and stressful social environment for sexual minority youth. This can lead to youth developing expectations of rejection, internalized homophobia, feelings of shame, negative coping mechanisms and hiding their sexual orientationFootnote 16. Current research exploring key stressors in the lives of sexual minority youth identify that these youth experience greater and more severe risk factors, such as bullying and homophobic victimization and higher incidence of depression and substance abuse when compared with their heterosexual peersFootnote 17. In particular, sexual minority youth who also face other risk factors, such as being an ethno-cultural minority, being homeless, living in care and/or being involved with the corrections system may be at further risk for negative health outcomes.

Suicide

MSM:
An acronym to describe men who have sex with men. The acronym is used to reflect the complexity of sexual orientation and,
in particular, that some men who have sex with men do not identify as gay.

WSW:
An acronym to describe women who have sex with women. The acronym is used to reflect the complexity of sexual orientation and, in particular, that some women who have sex with women do not identify as lesbian.

Research studies focused on adolescent health consistently indicate that suicide is one of the leading causes of death of today’s youthFootnote 18. For sexual minority youth, suicide is the number one cause of deathFootnote 19. Research identifies that sexual minority youth are 1.5 to 7 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peersFootnote 20. Key risk factors for adolescent suicide, in general, include feelings of hopelessness, a history of family dysfunction, sexual abuse, substance abuse, and the recent or attempted suicide of a family member or close friendFootnote 21. In addition to these general risk factors, sexual-minority youth also face other risk factors including younger age of disclosure/coming outFootnote 22, lack of family acceptance, and more frequent interpersonal conflict (such as bullying) regarding their sexualityFootnote 23.

One Canadian study found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, when compared to their heterosexual peers, were more likely to:

  • have had suicidal thoughts and a history of suicide attempts;
  • experience greater physical and sexual abuse;
  • have higher rates of harassment in school and discrimination in the community;
  • have run away from home once or more in the past year;
  • be sexually experienced and have either been pregnant or to have gotten someone pregnant;
  • be current smokers and have tried alcohol, or used other drugs;
  • report higher rates of emotional distress;
  • participate less frequently in sports and physical activity;
  • report higher levels of computer usage/time; and
  • feel less cared about by parents/caregivers and less connected to their familiesFootnote 24.

Other Health Risks

Failure to provide accurate, non-judgmental, and age-appropriate information on sexual orientation within the school system represents not only a pressing safety and educational concern, but also a significant public health issue. The United Nations and the United States’ Centers for Disease Control (CDC), indicate that young gay and bisexual males and young men who have sex with men are at significantly increased risk for HIV infectionFootnote 25. This risk can be attributed to the experience of multiple forms of discrimination, a lack of access to inclusive sexual health education, a sense of hopelessness and suicidal tendencies.Footnote 26 It is, therefore, critical that broadly-based sexual health education address the needs and concerns of those who are the most vulnerable in our society. All educators, health care professionals, and policy-makers have a duty of care and professional responsibility to facilitate inclusive sexual health education in order to support the health and well-being of all Canadian youth.

What do I do if a student discloses their sexual orientation to me?

If a student discloses their sexual orientation to you, you should respect that disclosure and honour the student’s right to confidentialityFootnote 27. Confidentiality is a major concern for many youth who may be questioning their sexual orientation, have concerns for their safety, and/or are afraid of their parents’/caregivers’ potential reaction to disclosure. A student’s decision to come out is strongly influenced by issues of safety, vulnerability, individual comfort, and perceived levels of support and acceptance by significant people in their lives. If a student discloses their sexual orientation to you, they trust that you will receive this information in a positive and/or supportive way. Failing to protect a student’s confidentiality may pose significant risks to the student if he or she is “outed” to their family, friends, teachers, coaches, or faith leaders before they themselves are ready and willing.

HOMOPHOBIA:
Fear and/or hatred of homosexuality in others, often exhibited by prejudice, discrimination, intimidation, or acts of violence. Similarly, “transphobia” refers to the fear and/or hatred of transgender individuals and is exhibited by prejudice, discrimination, intimidation, or acts of violence. “Biphobia” refers to the fear and/or hatred of bisexual individuals and is exhibited by prejudice, discrimination, intimidation or acts of violence.

Researchers suggest that the coming out and coming to terms processes impact the mental health and emotional well-being of all sexual minority youth.Footnote 28 If sexual minority youth perceive their school environment as a threatening or hostile space, they may experience a profound sense of isolation, alienation, and fear of exposure, which may impact their feelings of self-worth, academic achievement, and sense of school connectedness. The coming out experience is also just the beginning of a larger process of learning, understanding, negotiation and acceptance, which involves both the individual who discloses their non-heterosexual identity and the recipient of that disclosure (i.e. parents and caregivers).

These students can be supported by creating a safe space for youth to explore and express their sexual diversity. This could start by paying attention to and addressing instances of homophobia when, and if, they occur and demonstrating an attitude of acceptance for sexual minority youth. When acts of homophobia are observed and/or reported, educators and administrators have a duty to react immediately and to create an environment where disrespect of any kind will not be ignored, and to build an understanding among all students of how both words and actions can hurt others.Footnote 29 There are many different ways for educators to deal with situations of homophobia in the school, includingFootnote 30:

  • addressing assumptions that being a sexual minority is a bad thing and reinforcing that everyone in the school environment deserves to be respected;
  • confronting the stereotypes and misinformation behind the insults and abuse; and,
  • making a plan with students to develop more appropriate responses to insults rather than physical violence or reverse name-calling.

Educators can also do a number of other things within their school environment to help support sexual minority youth. First, they can inform themselves about issues affecting sexual minority youth in their school environment. Second, teachers can help to support the formation of a gay-straight student allianceFootnote 31. Another way to support sexual minority youth is through the provision of inclusive sexual health programming, in which students can access age-appropriate information about issues impacting their lives.

A student’s sexual orientation is not a “lifestyle” choice and under no circumstances should a student be counselled to change or attempt to “repair” their sexual orientation. These kinds of “conversion” or “reparative” therapies have been criticized and discouraged by the American Psychological AssociationFootnote 32 and by many teacher associations across CanadaFootnote 33. Clinical research has demonstrated that these approaches are largely ineffective, ignore the impact of social stigmatization on mental health, and in some cases, can be extremely dangerous, particularly for vulnerable youthFootnote 34. Instead of attempting to change a student’s sexual orientation, educators, administrators, and health care professionals should focus on helping the youth and their family to develop active coping mechanisms to address issues related to internalized homophobia, stigma, prejudice and discrimination. Access to age-appropriate and non-judgmental information will help students work towards positively integrating their sexual orientation into their sense of self.

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