LGBT Youth in Schools: Risk Factors and Support

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School-Based Risk and Protective Factors Impacting LGBT Youth: An Ecological Perspective

Abstract

Despite a growing awareness towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth in the last several decades, schools nationwide continue to present difficulties for LGBT adolescent development as they are subjected to negative school climates and societal heteronormative beliefs. A review of educational risk and protective factors show that 13 percent of LGBT students felt unsafe in school, 85.2 percent were verbally harassed, and 63.5 percent of student incident reports of victimization were ignored (Kosciw, Greytak, Giga, Villenas, & Danischewski, 2016).  School experiences for LGBT youth are also influenced by the community context, indicating that a greater visibility of diversity and exposure to supportive specific services will heighten a sense of belonging. Through a review of quantitative and qualitative studies, this paper presents a summary of the school and community influence within the context of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological framework to gain a greater understanding of the multiple levels of influence that either support or harm LGBT adolescent development. 

Introduction

Over the past decade, there has been an increase in visibility influencing research on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth that is informing policies and practices in the school context (Heck, Poteat, & Goodenow, 2016). The school context, where students should be made to feel safe, welcomed, and empowered is not always exempt from victimization and discrimination. For example, in a study of 504 LGBT adolescents, ages 14 to 19, 85 percent report being the victim of verbal harassment in school and 40 percent reported physical harassment due to their sexual orientation (Huebner, Thoma, & Neilands, 2015). Even with anti-bullying and non-discrimination laws put in place in schools across the country, heteronormativity is pervasive at a national level, further isolating the needs of sexual minority youths. For instance, several states in the United States (U.S.) maintain anti-LGBT laws that limit school staff from even talking about LGBT issues in school (Human Rights Watch [HRW], 2016). What’s also concerning, is the U.S. current administration’s view on safety and inclusion for LGBT youth. In a recent survey of more than 50,000 youth, ages 13-18, participants reported seeing a surge in bias-motivated occurrences—specifically 70 percent have seen increased bullying and harassment since the 2016 presidential election, and 36 percent of youth reported they have altered something about the way they express themselves (Human Rights Campaign [HRC], 2017). What does this say about our community and our school environment? Are we, as a country, compromising the integrity of all people and resisting our basic humanity as American citizens? Research confirms that schools are inhibiting the ability for self-expression and maintaining silence rather than demonstrating support, for LGBT youth. It is reported that 57.6 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students still report feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, while 43.3 percent feel unsafe because of how they expressed their gender (Kosciw et al., 2016).[1] The injustice that is maintained in our schools due to one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity can negatively impact LGBT adolescent development. However, community-related factors can be just as influential as the educational environment. Further analyzing the complex relationship between LGBT youths, their community environments, and the school context, will illuminate the key factors and influencers affecting LGBT adolescents’ overall well-being.

The aim of this review is to understand educational risk and protective factors affecting LGBT adolescents and identify the role of their immediate environmental context. As a stigmatized and oppressed population, identifying the interactions of the school context and environment will assist social workers and mental health professionals to understand important factors that either support or hurt LGBT adolescent development. Exposure to the risks and protective factors, including supportive political influences and possible interventions for LGBT youth, will help outline a cultural competent model for working with the unique and diverse needs of LGBT adolescents in social work practice. The author is motivated to challenge societal xenophobic views towards LGBT youth in order to engage diversity from a multidimensional perspective, acknowledging that each individual copes with stresses and challenges in complex and individualized ways.

The author believes that educators, community organizations, and mental health professionals are often unsure as to how to properly support LGBT youth in the best way possible or are unable to do so because of biased and stigmatized beliefs. As a future social worker, the author would like to challenge such views and increase the public’s awareness of how stigma can generate psychological stress in LGBT adolescent youth, leading to poorer development, we can formulate ways in which researchers and social workers can improve an LGBT adolescent youth’s ability to thrive in schools and naturally establish resiliency, becoming empowered in the face of discrimination.

Theoretical Grounding

In addition to assessing LGBT adolescent school-based risk and protective factors, Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological perspective on human development pertains not only to the LGBT youth’s school context, but also to the ways in which LGBT youth are supported in their community context. The ecological systems theory contends that an individual’s development is shaped by his microsystem (e.g., family, peers); the mesosystem (e.g., school environment); the exosystem (e.g., policy development, laws), and the marcosystem (e.g., cultural values, beliefs) (Brofenbrenner, 1979). Though one of the most instrumental environments for adolescent youth is school (given the amount of time spent there), it can be common to overlook the influences of other contextual environments. For instance, do certain characteristics such as one’s demographic social location (e.g., the factors we are born into, rural vs. urban schools) create a difference in an LGBT adolescent’s experience? Or do the political differences of the community play a part in higher levels of stigmatization and discrimination? Based on the ecological systems theory, the need to develop positive interactions in the school environment as well as the need to develop positive connections in the community environment, will have a considerable impact on the future of this population’s developmental health and well-being. Moreover, greater awareness will assist the social work practice in supporting LGBT youth’s diverse needs.

Background

In order to assess this topic, a computerized literature search was performed to categorize and gather relevant scholarly and peer-reviewed journals as the author’s primary sources of data.  This search included, but was not limited to, quantitative and qualitative studies related to LGBT educational risk and protective factors with a consideration of the impact of the larger community context on school-related experiences. Relevant databases included SAGE Journals, ProQuest, Taylor and Francis Group, Science Direct, and EBSCOhost Social Sciences. The most common terms included adolescent youth, educational experiences, risk and protective factors, ecological perspective, adolescence, coming out, victimization, environmental context, multidimensional, community, and LGBT. A secondary literature search was conducted to identify referenced reports from online databases including World Health Organization (WHO), the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the American Psychological Association (APA).           

In order to properly evaluate educational risk and protective variables as well as environmental factors effecting LGBT adolescents’ development and their school experience, it is important to first understand the definition of sexual orientation, adolescence, and how LGBT youth identity formation differs from their heterosexual peers.

Sexual Orientation

With terminology changing regularly, it is essential to communicate current terms and definitions that are used to describe sexual orientation and gender. Learning the terms that are accurate and respectful to the LGBT community is important for developing a culturally competent practice for social workers, mental health professionals, and school personnel working with LGBT adolescents. According to Saewyc (2011), the most common definition of sexual orientation is, “an erotic inclination toward people of one or more genders, most often described as sexual or erotic attraction” (p. 257). In line with this view, the APA (2015) indicates that an individual’s sexual orientation can be referred to as lesbian, gay, heterosexual, non-heterosexual, bisexual, and/or queer. In contrast, the term “gender identity” refers to one’s individual self-perception as male, female, a blend of both, or neither (HRC, n.d.). With gender identity being an internal belief, gender identity is not necessarily observable to others.

“Transgender,” typically considered to be an umbrella term, includes people who do not adequately feel they fit into any one sexual category (APA, 2015). Individuals who identify as transgender feel that they were born into the wrong gender altogether. In today’s culture, the transgender community has recently gained recognition due to a growing acceptance of transgender people and an increasing awareness of transgender issues from the media and controversial political issues (e.g. “The Transgender Bathroom Bill”).[2]  On the contrary, the term “cisgender,” refers to individuals who are “not transgender” and identify with the sex they were assigned to at birth (e.g., bio man or bio woman) (APA, 2015). The letter “Q,” often found at the end of LGBT, refers to an individual who is “questioning” and exploring their gender identity or sexual orientation. For youth who are questioning, it is vital for adults, practitioners, social workers, and school staff to allow youth to take part in this process of self-identification to help avoid labeling themselves too early (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays [PFLAG], 2017).

The term “sexual minority” refers to a group in which sexual identity and orientation are different from the majority of the surrounding society (Math & Seshardi, 2013). For LGBT youth, being a sexual minority means being at risk of bias, stigmatization, and discrimination; and plays a role in the occurrences of mental health risks and psychosocial stressors during a time of critical psychological development.

Defining Adolescence

Adolescence, a period of human development, typically taking place around the ages of 10 to 19, can be characterized as a significant period of growth where adulthood preparation begins (WHO, 2017). Such a considerable transition brings many changes to an adolescent’s life.  Besides the biological and physiological changes occurring (e.g., puberty, sexual development, growth spurts) a vital change occurs that involves the construction of an individual’s self-concept and identity. Associated with these changes is a period of confusion. According to Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development (as cited in Hutchison, 2013), adolescence brings attention to determining one’s place in the world and youth begin questioning who they are. Furthermore, youth begin to experiment with social roles; they build new social relationships, sample new groups or organizations in school, and define themselves as to how they are similar to, and/or different from, others (WHO, 2017). This period of questioning one’s identity in a context that is unaware of the difficulties accompanied with it, potentially leaves adolescents vulnerable to their environment and school communities. Consistent with Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) ecological perspective, these multiple levels of influence include the immediate environment the child lives in, political influences, the neighborhood, and his school context. How these contexts or individuals interact with the adolescent youth influences his developmental competence (e.g., academic achievement, social skills, psychological well-being, identity formation).

LGBT Identity Formation

The intersectionality of factors shaping individual attitudes during adolescence (e.g., personal beliefs and values, gender norms, race/ethnicity, social class, political influence, and community factors) affect both LGBT youth and their heterosexual peers. This period of development, a time when hormonal and physical changes increase, is a common time for all youth to become curious and possibly worry about sexual feelings (KidsHealth, 2017). Similar to Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development (as cited in Hutchison, 2013), youth begin to ask themselves, “Who am I?” Specifically, for LGBT youth who feel they need to hide who they are, depending on the severity of heteronormative views by their family, school, and/or community, they are at risk of increased feelings of isolation and the fear of being discriminated against (Everett, 2015). What is often regarded as the “coming out” process, is a period of time when LGBT individuals feel comfortable declaring their sexual orientation or gender identity to others (Canadian Paediatric Society, 2008). More specifically, from a psychosocial perspective, Cass’ (1979) model of homosexual identity formation provides a more detailed understanding as to how sexual identity is attained during this critical period of growth and development. Grounded in interpersonal congruency theory, Cass’ (1979) model emphasizes the interaction of the individual and their environment, and the role it plays in the development of homosexual identity (Secord & Backman, 1961). Similar to ecological theory, the interpersonal congruency perspective theorizes that homosexual identity formation is dependent on the structure of one’s environment, resulting in one’s personal thoughts, feelings, or behaviors (Secord and Backman, 1961). Therefore, as the individual moves from one stage to the next, there is motivation that occurs between past and present societal expectations and attitudes in regards to homosexuality (Secord and Backman, 1961).

As a result, Cass (1979) outlines six stages which include identity confusion, identity comparison, identity tolerance, identity acceptance, identity pride, and identity synthesis. Stage one of the model is associated with feeling unlike peers and is when one begins questioning same-sex feelings for others (Cass, 1979). This supports the view that youth at this stage question who they are and turn away from others. Stage two, identity comparison, is linked with mixed feelings, where individuals begin to justify thoughts of being “different” as only temporary. They may feel that it is possible to act “straight” if one chooses to, determined by Cass (as cited in Degges-White, Rice, & Meyers, 2000). Stage three, identity tolerance, relates to increased feelings of dedication towards homosexual feelings as well as seeking out others that feel the same way (Cass, 1979). Stage four of the model is associated with increased feelings of acceptance towards one’s homosexual image as the individual begins to determine where he belongs and what his comfort level is towards coming out to others. Stage five, identity pride, is associated with feelings of dignity and self-respect. It is at this point that individuals begin recognizing heteronormative beliefs and societal rejection of homosexuality. Moreover, Cass (1979) explains that the individual discloses his identity to more people but also expresses anger towards those who discriminate against the LGBT population. The final stage of Cass’ (1979) model, identity synthesis, is associated with greater feelings of pride and acceptance. It is identified that the more positive experiences an individual has by the time he reaches this stage is a greater indication that synthesis has occurred and personality structure has become complete (Cass, 1979). It is worth noting that this model of homosexuality identity development can be a life-long process of discovery and is thought of as a “guideline” for how an individual comes to learn and adopt a homosexual identity (Degges-White et al., 2000). However, Cass (1979) supports the view that not all persons share the same course of development. Whether caused by political outcomes or societal trends varying over time, it is probable that the model of sexual identity formation will require further research in the future.

Overall, the decision to “come out” can be associated with feelings of empowerment as youth promote and advocate their identities, or it can be met with negative experiences as the growing pressures of heterosexism emerge in and out of the LGBT adolescent’s contextual environment. As evidenced by Toomey, McGuire, and Russell (2012), when the LGBT adolescent’s environment is maintained by heteronormativity, LGBT youth are at an increased risk for discrimination and victimization; feelings of invisibility are perpetuated, and positive identity development lays dormant (Kosciw, Palmer, & Kull, 2015).

To illustrate this view, if a student were to call another student “fag” and/or “gay” and a staff member, rather than having a conversation about stigma and discrimination in the classroom responds with, “that language is not allowed in the classroom” it only silences and perpetuates the bigger issue. Findings from Payne and Smith (2011) support this view, reporting that anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies put in place in the schools are no assurance that staff will comply. Furthermore, it is indicated that the opportunity for educators to attend on-site trainings to learn how to create culturally competent environments for LGBT youth in school are deficient while off-site trainings are not well-attended (Payne & Smith, 2011). When school staff as well as school administrators lack interest in participation, and are not committed to understanding the complexities of stigmatization surrounding LGBT adolescent youth in the school environment, and/or are not given the chance for professional development opportunities, an anti-gay environment is maintained.               

Moreover, school counselors whose job it is to ensure that the student’s academic and mental health needs are properly met, are not familiar with LGBT needs and risk factors (HRW, 2016). For instance, a quantitative report taken from November 2015 to May 2016 illustrates the concerns felt by LGBT youth towards their school counselors. Reports indicate that students felt that on-site counselors were ineffective and did not offer up-to-date resources. Cam, a bisexual student in Texas dropped out of high school. He reports, “They weren’t really good about grappling with mental health issues. And that’s something that’s really prevalent for people in the LGBT community….That definitely factored into the decision to leave the school system” (HRW, 2016, p. 50). As a result of these findings, and no one to turn to during this critical period of questioning and development, LGBT adolescents may internalize feelings of isolation and exclusion. This view emphasizes the damaging effects of identity formation for LGBT youth. Without support from school staff, including mental health professionals, counselors, and social workers, there is increased risk for higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidality in comparison to their heterosexual peers (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2014).  Certainly, for LGBT youth to thrive in their school and community, the invisibility and heteronormativity must be broken-down. Social workers, mental health professionals, and school staff play a critical role in providing strategies for addressing LGBT adolescent issues and educating about anti-LGBT bias.

Ecological Risk and Protective Factors in the School Climate

Understanding development in LGBT youth can make a difference in the school experience when educational risk and protective factors as well as indirect influences of the adolescent’s environment are closely examined. The following section will discuss typical school-based risk and protective factors affecting LGBT adolescents, and will examine the influence of their community context.

Risk Factors

Research on the school experiences of LGBT youth has been shown to focus on the impact of the overall school climate (Black, Fedewa, & Gonzalez, 2012). The school climate, which describes the values and practices within the school, reflects the overall atmosphere of the school environment (National School Climate Center, 2017). With this view, an emphasis should be noted that simply being an LGBT adolescent does not put youth at increased risk. Instead, being LGBT in a destructive school environment puts this population at risk.

As evidenced by the 2015 National School Climate Survey, it has been identified that there are multiple risk factors that LGBT students experience in the school environment. For example, factors include (a) a lack of school safety; (b) harassment and assault; (c) hearing anti-gay remarks (e.g., “that’s so gay,” “fag,” “dyke,” “tranny,” etc.); (d) having unsupportive staff, and (e) a lack of enforcement of comprehensive anti-discrimination policies (GLSEN, 2015). Out of this sample, Kosciw et al. (2016) reported that 10,528 students’ ages 13-15 from all over the U.S. reinforced this view. Key findings show that 13.0 percent of LGBT students were physically assaulted, 57.6 percent felt unsafe, 85.2 percent were verbally harassed, and 63.5 percent stated that their reports of incidences made to school staff were ignored. Similarly, subsequent research found that LGBT youth who are subjected to a negative school climate are more likely to drop out of school, feel less motivated to make it to class, be less motivated to continue their education, and are more likely to experience psychological distress (e.g., feelings of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, suicidal ideations, etc.), which negatively affects overall adolescent development (Youth.gov, n.d.).

Given that LGBT adolescents are subjected to multiple risk factors in the school environment, it is also important to understand the cultural considerations among LGBT youth of color. According to the HRW (2016), the discrimination and victimization that LGBT students face in school are strengthened due to the intersectionality of race and ethnicity. For instance, LGBT youth of color are reported as having increased rates of bullying, increased scrutiny from school staff, and harsher school disciplinary sanctions. It is reported that “one in five LGBT students were bullied due to their race, ethnicity, or national origin” (Burdge, Licona, & Hyemingway, 2014, p. 1). Similarly, research indicates that LGBT youth of color are subject to persistent harassment, bias-based bullying from their peers and school staff, and are often blamed for their own harassment (Burdge et al., 2014). Although discrimination and victimization of any kind can interrupt a student’s ability to develop and succeed in school, LGBT youth of color who experience added forms of harassment are vulnerable to even greater challenges. Furthermore, according to Boston University School of Public Health (2016), research on the intersectionality of race and gender is scant, with little information that analyzes mental health promotion in schools for LGBT youth of color. 

Hackimer and Proctor (2015) concur with Kosciw et al. (2016), finding that LGBT adolescent youth experiencing psychological distress struggle with their identities, self-esteem, autonomy, school achievement, and victimization. Given the links found between LGBT adolescent outcomes and a hostile school climate, the results address a more wide-ranging examination. The continuation of reinforced prejudiced beliefs in the school climate indicates the severity of heteronormativity and calls into question whether schools are willing to take LGBT issues seriously.

Protective Factors

The literature indicates that there is a tendency to focus more on the negative variables affecting LGBT development and the adolescent’s school experience than the positive factors. However, the author believes that if LGBT adolescent protective factors are more commonly recognized, it will influence student and societal interventions, which will encourage the celebration of diversity throughout the school and increase advocacy efforts for community awareness.

Evidence from Seelman, Forge, Walls, and Bridges (2015) reviews several typically seen protective factors that increase LGBT student engagement and development. These include (a) the presence of safe adults at school; (b) policies and practices enforcing anti-discrimination towards LGBT youth; and (c) the implementation of school clubs (e.g., gay-straight alliances [GSA]) that promote peer support and belonging. As the research suggests, when an LGBT student has access to a safe adult, whether it is a teacher, social worker, or principal, stronger connections to their school environment become established. Therefore, the stronger connection will increase the probability that LGBT adolescents will become involved in school activities, “come out” to their peers, and feel empowered (Seelman et al., 2015). More specifically, for transgendered students, the literature suggests that having the support of an adult in the school context will enhance the well-being of a student who is finding his way through the transitioning process (McGuire, Anderson, Toomey, & Russel, 2010).

Safe school policies, specifically antidiscrimination and/or anti-bullying policies, deliver a message to the school environment. When comprehensive policies are enforced by school staff, the visibility of this promise to protect students demonstrates a level of safety and inclusion towards LGBT youth. Therefore, feelings of confidence points toward increased feelings of psychological security (Black et al., 2012). The author asserts that effective comprehensive policy implementation, specifically mentioning LGBT issues will increase the school staff’s ability to become more aware of LGBT victimization and may promote their desire to become more educated on LGBT adolescent-specific issues, and enhance the facilitation of collaborative partnerships with school staff and community agencies to develop intervention programs within the school.

Additionally, schools that implement and incorporate student-led clubs (e.g. gay-straight alliances) are linked with having the most positive effects on LGBT adolescents and the experiences of the overall school populations (Toomey et al., 2012). With GSAs existing in schools nationwide, and the potential they show for positive youth development, it is possible to believe that GSAs will help students promote social justice and student-led activism. This reveals that LGBT youth and the school population will feel encouraged to challenge anti-gay beliefs and heteronormativity in general. Looking at this from a developmental perspective, feelings of empowerment that are enhanced through youth involvement will encourage positive adolescent development and therefore enhance courageous behavior in their future. Similar beliefs are evidenced by Russell, Muraco, Subramaniam, and Laub (2009) indicating that youth empowerment aids in the development of positive identities in LGBT adolescents as a result of them experimenting with roles and developing more confident internal feelings.

Lastly, in terms of cultural considerations, a protective factor indicated in the literature notes that LGBT youth of color may be able to cope with the stigmatization of being LGBT in school at a greater level than Caucasian LGBT youth (Kim, 2009). For instance, research from

Russell (2011) indicates that “racial socialization” (p. 133) has aided LGBT youth of color in terms of their emotional well-being and defeating the effects of stigma better than Caucasian LGBT youth. This information suggests that LGBT youth of color may fare better in school because they have had to navigate a racial minority status their whole lives. However, the author feels that additional research is needed to support this view.

The most notable factor in the literature for LGBT youth of color revolves around the school community (e.g., urban setting). This indicates that schools that are larger often have more diversity and offer more resources for LGBT students (Kim, 2009). In addition, a 2014 study completed by the Fenway Institute of 294 youth of color, those who had a connection to youth centered programs were given greater opportunities for positive development and resilience (Conron, Wilson, Cahill, Flaherty, Tamanaha, & Bradford, 2015). For instance, 32.3 percent of LGBT youth of color were involved with their school’s GSA, 82 percent reported feeling a sense of belonging to their ethnic group, and 82 percent felt a strong sense of LGBT pride (Conron et al., 2015).  

Although the literature indicates that LGBT youth of color encounter differences in their school experience, the author feels that more research should be obtained to gain a deeper understanding of the programs and activities that are available for LGBT youth of color.

Community Influences

Although a great deal of an LGBT adolescent’s life is spent in the school setting, findings indicate that LGBT adolescent school experiences and their developmental well-being are also shaped by the larger community (Kosciw, Greytak, & Diaz, 2009). For instance, Mustanski, Birkett, Greene, Hatzenbuehler, and Newcomb (2014) uncovered that a greater sense of belonging is felt in the community by LGBT youth when there is a greater presence of LGBT supportive organizations and LGBT-specific services available. In contrast, LGBT youth living in communities with high incidences of assault and victimization are shown to experience increased psychological distress, such as suicidal ideations and attempts (Mustanski et al., 2014). Therefore, differences in the quality of neighborhoods, the culture, and the availability of community-wide acceptance are noteworthy in understanding the community influence of LGBT adolescent development and school experiences.

In particular, rural communities are discussed by Palmer, Kosciw, and Bartkiewicz (2012). They find that LGBT adolescents residing in rural areas are more likely to feel unsafe in school than LGBT adolescents living in urban environments. Even though urban settings are typically identified as more dangerous than rural environments (e.g., higher crime rates) their research indicates that rural communities actually present the greater threat to an LGBT adolescent’s developmental well-being and their overall school experience. For instance, students in rural settings were found to hear biased language and homophobic remarks more often in school than students living in urban settings. Moreover, findings indicated that one in five students attended school in rural settings with absolutely no bullying policies in place of any kind (Palmer et al., 2012).

Why is it that LGBT adolescent youth living in rural communities go through more negative experiences than those students in urban and/or suburban areas? Interestingly, Goodenow, Szalacha, and Westheimer (2006) describe the urban environment as being a safer environment for LGBT youth, stating that urban schools provide more diversity and opportunities for LGBT adolescent youth to develop intergroup contact—increasing social belonging. It is also important to note that schools in larger communities provide larger ratios of teachers to students (Goodenow et al., 2006). This implies that the more staff that are available, including school counselors and social workers, the greater the opportunities for LGBT youth to have their questions answered and/or to find a supportive adult in times of stress, which may enable the adolescent to feel safe and thrive in his school environment. With an increase in staff that are available, the more likely it is that victimization and discrimination will be disrupted, positively influencing the overall school climate.

In line with Bronfenbrenner’s ecological perspective, Palmer et al. (2012) finds key environmental factors in rural communities that negatively impact LGBT youth. In particular, these communities tend to possess conservative beliefs of sexuality and gender norms, have lower incomes, lower education levels, and are associated with prejudiced views of LGBT-related issues. Therefore, LGBT youth living in rural communities may in fact internalize homophobic beliefs more often, will be less likely to feel comfortable “coming out” to family and friends, will be less likely to  talk to counselors, teachers, and social workers, and will be more likely to become isolated.

The impact of an LGBT adolescent’s community also brings attention to the intersectionality of multiple factors (e.g., race, gender, political views, and traditional spiritual beliefs) that play key influencers of the community climate. In particular, Higa et al. (2014) connects an LGBT adolescent’s religious affiliation with his overall well-being and self-worth. Findings show that LGBT adolescent youth have been told that they are “sinners, abominations, or that God hates them and they will go to hell for being LGBTQ” (p. 677). The moment that an LGBT youth is confronted, hearing that their lifestyle is “sinful,” can decrease feelings of self-worth and drive an LGBT youth to isolate himself further. Similar beliefs by Ryan (2009), in a resource guide aimed at helping families support their LGBT children, indicates that parents of LGBT adolescents maintain negative beliefs and feelings of rejection in the community, stating that sexual orientation and/or gender identity is a “punishment from God.” Research shows that LGBT youth surrounded by hate are eight times more likely to have suicidal ideations and attempts; six times more likely to describe symptoms of depression, three times more likely to misuse drugs and/or alcohol, and three times more likely to become involved in risky behavior (e.g., unsafe sex) (Ryan, 2009).

For LGBT youth of color, additional feelings of rejection are experienced in their community context and are associated with the ways sexual identity intersects with racial and/or ethnic backgrounds and gender. Common findings, as reported in a research review from Hackimer and Proctor (2015), have found that ethnic and or/racial communities report higher levels of negative feelings towards LGBT youth. This asserts the view that LGBT youth of color are at an increased risk of internalizing homophobic beliefs and feeling a greater sense of discrimination within their cultural communities. Similar reports from Bridges (2007) show that African American LGBT youth are more likely to experience low self-esteem and higher rates of suicidal ideations than LGBT youth of other ethnicities. Also, a 2007 national school climate survey identifying 2,130 students of color, reports that a fifth of LGBT students of color experienced physical violence during school because of their race (Diaz & Kosciw, 2009). These findings illustrate that LGBT youth of color may feel increased pressures to choose between their ethnicity and their sexual identity. A lack of cultural diversity in the societal environment tends to find its way into the school context. When this happens, where do LGBT adolescent youth and youth of color turn? For social workers, school staff, and mental health professionals, this research is significant. By increasing the visibility of cultural resources and supports, it is possible to strengthen, and even direct the way for, community agencies to expand upon LGBT-specific services. From a systems perspective, schools and communities are settings in which LGBT youth continue to be put at risk. However, they both can also foster change and fight adversity to create an abundant community for LGBT adolescent youth.

Political Implications

Throughout this paper, school and community influences have shown to be an important source of guidance for the future of LGBT adolescent development. However, why are school districts and policy makers contesting the need to implement programs and comprehensive policies that will enhance the school environment and the surrounding community? It is possible that political leaders and administrators are perpetuating heteronormativity and the belief that implementing strategies (e.g., LGBT inclusive curriculum, the development of policies specifically outlining LGBT issues) will promote a homosexual “lifestyle.”

Despite the U.S. model of valuing diversity; there are concerns and opposition-from political and religious influencers who are reluctant to acknowledge homosexuality as a natural form of sexual expression. These beliefs progress and shape the views of teachers, peers, religious leaders, and family members. Therefore, hostile environments are shaped and maintained for LGBT adolescent youth (Logie, Bridge, & Bridge, 2007). The consistent, negative nature of the surrounding environments reveals a lack of cultural competent responsiveness in current policies and practices. As previously mentioned, even with increased recognition from lawmakers and school administrators that have begun implementing policies that attend to anti-discrimination and anti-bullying; the author finds that progress is disproportionate. In line with this view, the HRC (2016) reports that in the U.S., eight states still have laws restricting school staff from talking about LGBT issues, and only 20 states have laws prohibiting bullying or harassing students on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity or expression. From a developmental perspective, the impact of an “anti-LGBT” tone in the school context is associated with high levels of distress in the form of rejection, depression, low self-esteem, and increased absenteeism (HRC, 2016).

Similarly, research by Payne and Smith (2011) show that expectations that trainings for school staff and administrators will occur to present information on LGBT specific issues are not specified clearly, with little data differentiating the proper content that will be valuable for empowering educators. According to Kosciw et al. (2016) the national school climate study indicates that the majority of students interviewed (83.6 percent) reported that they were aware of protective policies at their school whereas only 10.2 percent reported that the policies were comprehensive, meaning that just a small percentage explicitly identified sexual orientation and gender identity expression.

Another helpful approach to counteract non-comprehensive policies is the establishment of GSA organizations in the school context. According to Patterson (2013), in the 1984 Federal Equal Access Act, any school that allows extra-curricular clubs is bound to allow all other clubs to be implemented in the school. This would allow for GSA implementation. In a review of “safe school programs” by Black et al. (2012) research finds that GSAs provide protective factors for LGBT youth, improve psychological functioning, and empower students to become advocates for social and sexual justice in and outside of their schools. Though results indicate that comprehensive policies and safe-school programs promote protective factors for LGBT adolescents, there appear to be concerns for what the future of LGBT youth development will look like with our current administration’s views and beliefs regarding the LGBT community.

For instance, Summers (2016) reports on an alarming fact, stating that there has been an increase in LGBT youth calling the Trevor Project hotline, a suicide crisis prevention counseling service for LGBT youth (Rapp, 2015) following Donald Trump’s election. Reports show that LGBT youth are feeling an increase in anxiety symptoms along with feeling frightened about the future of the LGBT population (e.g. will gay marriage be overturned? Is conversion therapy something to worry about?). Moreover, though there are states striving to pass laws to protect the LGBT community, including LGBT youth, there are still legislators who wish to promote bills that uphold discrimination and target transgender people. For example, 14 states in the U.S. have recently introduced anti-transgender bills into legislation according to the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], (2017). These bills are hoping to restrict transgender students’ ability to use restrooms, to fully participate in school, and creating difficulty for transgender individuals to acquire identification and/or documentation with their changed name and gender (ACLU, 2017).

As a profession, social work is ethically guided by principles of a culturally responsive philosophy where diversity is valued and is central to our understanding of, and response to, the needs of minority groups. It is essential for school staff, mental health providers, and community leaders to become informed on LGBT specific issues in order to lead the way for policy innovation and change. With social workers situated in areas of school and community health such as outpatient clinics and community agencies, social workers must stand beside the adolescent in an environment that pressures and judges his choice to be who he wants to be. In line with Bronfenbrenner’s ecological perspective, there are indications that advocacy efforts and interventions can encourage, challenge, or change the socio-cultural context (Luke & Goodrich, 2015). Put another way, the author has confidence that social workers can increase a sense of safety and belonging by promoting an awareness of the needs of LGBT youth and the intersectionality of potentially harmful factors by examining more than just an LGBT youth’s internal experience. From a systems perspective, the intersectionality of factors within an LGBT adolescent youth’s community and school context should be examined in order to note the protective and risk factors associated. This examination may bring increased facilitation of dialogue between school staff, community leaders, and family members to adequately confront oppressive and heterosexist language while advocating for increased visibility via agencies, schools, families, and community partnerships (Luke & Goodrich, 2015).

Intervention/Assessment

The research and reviews of studies in this paper indicate that LGBT youth face disparities at multiple levels of influence. The implications of school-based and community risk factors are associated with poor developmental and psychological outcomes in addition to negatively impacting an LGBT youth’s school experience. The literature indicates that the interventions available to schools and communities are building upon what is already offered and how it can be improved—specifically by providing communities and schools with increased support to improve LGBT youth stressors that are not easily responsive to change (Higa et al., 2014). The strategies outlined in the research represented several themes. The first is inclusive programs that enhance a cultural competent focus for schools and the community; antidiscrimination and anti-harassment/bullying policies that are comprehensive of LGBT specific issues for school staff and students; and all-inclusive school support from teachers, school counselors, school social workers, and school administrators who are available to talk, and discuss cultural competence (i.e., LGBT issues) and peer acceptance in the classroom.

The literature indicates that relative to the community and school level, positive psychological outcomes were related to these themes. For instance, when LGBT youth have a connection to other people in the LGBT community, an improvement is observed in psychological and social outcomes (Higa et al., 2014). Students who attended schools that implemented safe school policies reported lower anti-gay prejudice as well as improved overall attitudes towards LGBT youth (Span, 2011). Similarly, findings show that LGBT students in schools with inclusive and comprehensive policies reported the lowest levels of anti-LGBT victimization, in addition to frequent and more effective school-staff interventions (Kosciw et al., 2016).

The author notes that the most widely recommended intervention noted throughout the literature is the implementation of GSA organizations in schools. According to Black et al (2012) LGBT students involved in a GSA reported an increase in academic performance and were able to feel more open and comfortable with their sexual identity. Similar findings from Hackmier and Proctor (2014) indicate how important belonging to a GSA is for the student’s well-being and its effect on the promotion of resiliency and future educational goals. This greater sense of belonging can provide better protection for LGBT students against in-and-out of school victimization compared to LGBT students who feel isolated and silenced in their school communities. This suggests that increased student intervention develops feelings of empowerment that can be associated with school climate competence. From an ecological perspective, a greater sense of empowerment may promote more dialogue within the school as LGBT students and supportive staff members use their knowledge and awareness to influence injustices by educating those in their communities about LGBT-specific issues. Reports indicate that as more LGBT youth feel comfortable “coming out” to their peers, school staff, mental health professionals, and social workers, they experience higher levels of happiness, hopefulness, acceptance, and support (HRC, n.d).

Discussion

The current literature review expands upon existing findings relative to the risk and protective factors affecting LGBT adolescents from multiple levels of influence (e.g., school, community, and political climate). The results of this research indicate that the conditions within these ecological systems have an overwhelming impact on an LGBT adolescent’s school experience and overall developmental well-being. Consistent findings from the literature illustrate the view that being LGBT does not put adolescent youth at risk for greater victimization and discrimination; the author sees the problem as resulting from damaging environments.

With regard to the school context, findings show that school staff, counselors, and school administrators are not effectively prepared to provide a culturally competent environment, even with recent national school climate survey results indicating a frequency of reported incidents of harassment and assault. It is worth noting that LGBT students who were subjected to victimization were most regularly told by faculty to ignore the situation and were even told to alter their behavior (e.g., to not act “so gay” or dress in a certain way that brings attention to oneself) (Kosciw et al., 2016, p. 55). For LGBT adolescents questioning their identities and struggling with low self-esteem; this behavior fosters doubt that they matter at all—further perpetuating feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, and prolongs a collective silence towards the importance of developing a protective and safe school climate where LGBT youth can thrive and develop.

With regard to LGBT youth of color, the literature has indicated that due to the added vulnerabilities associated with racial and sexual identity, further alienate these youth. The research points to continued struggles in a society where the norm is to believe heterosexuality is the only orientation, and that being white is preferred. One might speculate that LGBT youth of color may have to decide between their race and their sexual orientation to find acceptance as they continue to internalize racism and homophobia. Moreover, though LGBT youth of color also face higher rates of stress and suicidality (Bridges, 2007), the literature identifies that the development of in-school supports (e.g., GSAs) provides additional resources and offers additional support with both racial and sexual identity discriminations. However, there is a need for additional research to properly examine resiliency influences and mental health promotion in school for LGBT youth of color.

Given the intersectionality of factors for LGBT youth (e.g., race, community influence, political climate, spirituality), perhaps the strongest positive influence detected in the research is GSA implementation in schools. The author notes that GSAs generate improvement in the school climate, making supportive staff members more available and encouraging the integration of LGBT-specific issues in the classroom (Hackimer & Proctor, 2015). With regard to school wide comprehensive policies, the literature reveals that schools that have actively implemented inclusive policies geared towards specific LGBT issues and documented enforcement of these policies show positive improvements in the social climate (Black et al., 2012).

The outline of differences among an LGBT youths community context provides insight into the person and his environment. Findings demonstrate that rural areas are the most dangerous to LGBT youth when compared to urban environments. For example, rural schools are significantly less likely to have resources (e.g., GSAs, policies, inclusive curriculum) than urban areas (Palmer et al., 2012). This presents danger for youth growing up LGBT in rural and small town areas where they are subjected to increased rates of bullying, harassment, victimization, and psychological distress. This information highlights the need for safer and more wide-ranging environments in rural areas. However, given the fact that small town areas may maintain politically and socially conservative views on diversity, there is reason to believe that there could be disapproval to implementing in-school and community supports as well as enforcing LGBT-specific policies.

A notable finding in the literature was the negative impact of the current political climate on LGBT adolescent youth development. Findings show that a number of youth, post-election, have experienced increased feelings of worthlessness. The author wants to highlight the bigger issue created from continued stigmatization surrounding political influences, causing LGBT youth to alter future plans and/or having to alter how they express themselves because of the current political administrations views (HRC, 2017). Such political influence negatively affects an LGBT adolescent’s journey to psychological well-being and development. If views from the current political administration begin to filter into the school climate and community context, what does this say for an LGBT youth’s self-concept, personal identity development, and coping ability?

The findings of this literature review contribute to the author’s knowledge as a social worker by increasing awareness related to the promotion of inclusivity and advocacy for LGBT adolescent youth. Today, social workers are observing a generation of youth that are in search of their own identity, something that is not easily defined. Compared to LGBT individuals in previous decades who kept their identities hidden, fearing criminalization, LGBT youth today are evolving, and with the assistance of social workers to address change within the educational and community environment, this generation of LGBT youth can acknowledge freely who they are, what they stand for, and promote growth for future generations. Although it may prove difficult to sustain modifications, as the current political climate demonstrates, the values that have and will continue to shape social work practice will continually guide this profession to help LGBT youth become leaders, advocates, and to feel empowered in the face of overwhelming circumstances and emotions. Demonstrating the ecological perspective throughout this paper emphasized the pattern of interconnecting components in an LGBT adolescent’s school and community environment, ultimately drawing attention to the limitations in treatment and support that reinforces vulnerabilities of LGBT youth. Rather than singling out interventions that may in fact help LGBT youth right now, social workers can promote their well-being, enhance positive development, and encourage future interventions that recognize the ecological system factors at play.

Limitations

The author identified several limitations found in the reviewed materials. These limitations result from demographic factors that include: a specific representation of transgender and questioning student participation; a lack of assessments for LGBT adolescent youth, and a lack of trainings for school staff.

Although the data relates to the school experience and the implications of developmental well-being for LGBT adolescent youth, the studies reviewed were deficient on racial and ethnic diversity, with less interpretation of transgender or questioning student participants. Moreover, the data was limited on the experiences of racial and/or ethnic minorities (e.g., African American, Asian, Hispanic). These youths may feel that they have to hide their identity/and or they may feel they do not have the same access to support as white LGBT youth, in addition to their experiences in their community and school with current political views. Moreover, the generalizability of LGBT youth throughout this paper did not take into account specific experiences relative to transgender and/or bisexual adolescents or youth who do not identify as LGBT, and therefore presents holes in the literature. 

Further, the literature review only recognized GSAs as an intervention tool with no in-depth assessment designed to understand the experiences of this population. If assessments were available at the school and community level, research examining discrimination based on sexual orientation has the potential to assess a more detailed view of LGBT adolescent experiences and inform school administrators and community agencies on future interventions, and improve the health and well-being of LGBT youth. Supporting students should take precedence, no matter how they identify or what the personal beliefs of the staff and/or community leaders are. Without current assessments and up-to-date research, there is a disservice taking place.

Lastly, the data reviewed in the literature reports a lack of required training on LGBT-specific issues and/or gender identity, which permits individual counselors and school staff to seek out training on their own. Moreover, it was noted that a large percentage of schools in the research had inclusive policies, but a more comprehensive examination should be organized to measure whether school districts are enforcing policy practices. This begs to ask the question, is it really the school staff or the district administrators who are not adequately representing LGBT-student rights?

As a recommendation for future researchers, the author suggests that in addition to reviewing school and community influences, a more detailed examination of social and parental support would help determine the specific impact of the individual or environment in regards to development and well-being. Additional factors to consider would include an examination of resiliency relative to how LGBT students emerge into adulthood, and an investigation into new approaches for clinical interventions and assessments in social work practice. The author would also recommend assessing a narrower approach to help pinpoint when LGBT adolescent youth feel comfortable “coming out,” and how schools and communities can improve their knowledge for strengthening positive developmental growth on a longitudinal basis. As a future social worker dedicated to valuing human relationships and the dignity and worth of the individual, the process of examining and reviewing literature on LGBT youth represents a wide scope and could be broken down by age, or grade level across sexual orientation subcategories, in order to receive a more accurate view of risk and protective factors that affect LGBT adolescent developmental well-being and their school experience.

Recommendations

School staff, to include school counselors, social workers, and administrators should want to actively support student success. Based on the literature review, the author suggests that future research should be geared toward supporting school and district administrators at the micro level to improve upon, or to develop, cultural competency training on LGBT-adolescent specific issues. After reviewing the literature, the author concluded that school-based risk factors can negatively affect the school experience and the overall developmental well-being of LGBT adolescent youth. Therefore, with the implementation of inclusive structure, practices, and policies; schools have the potential to support individual student identities and create a dialogue that will overturn practices that maintain heteronormativity and shift the school climate into a more positive and diverse direction. Developing upon the experiences of LGBT adolescent youth by detailing the positive effects of inclusive and comprehensive policies, and examining studies that record the impact of competency and diversity trainings, also have the potential to facilitate conversation about varying ideas in training workshops for mental health professionals, social workers, educators, and administrators. This dialogue has the potential to create an abundant community of allies to arise.

At the macro level, successful implementations (e.g., positive school climates, higher academic achievement, and increased student participation) reveal the ability for the reproduction of these changes by other community agencies. By continuing to frame LGBT youth developmental issues as community-wide and educational issues, the author believes that the recognition of intersecting factors affecting LGBT youth can promote empowerment. It is possible that educators and students may equally challenge oppression at the political and societal level to reframe supportive measures for LGBT individuals and how it can affect the future of LGBT adolescent youth.

Increasing dialogue and education about LGBT adolescent youth also has the potential to increase the visibility of supporters, specifically social workers that may come into contact with LGBT youth in the clinical practice setting, in addition to expanding knowledge of the ways in which a youth’s environment impacts individual behavior and development. For example, the author suggests that increasing collaborative efforts across the educational, political, and clinical environments will encourage partnerships that will naturally facilitate positive social, emotional, and academic development. For instance, rural settings which have been shown in the literature to restrain LGBT development at the community and school levels should be evaluated more frequently, which could enhance the scope of  interventions and advocacy and positively impact LGBT youth experiences and development.

As a future social worker, the author believes that the research and review findings discussed throughout this paper can help push the limits in practice, in communities, and in schools to create and empower supportive networks for youth in need, and to help one become adequately prepared for working with LGBT youth in practice. Even with increased awareness on LGBT-specific issues, unfortunately, even at the graduate level within the social work curriculum, LGBT specific practice competencies has been minimal or has been used as merely a reference. The author’s knowledge and specific research on LGBT adolescent youth-related issues and the impact that school and community factors have on their developmental well-being, will influence the author’s need to push boundaries and advocate for establishing and creating safe spaces as well as inclusive curriculums for LGBT adolescent youth in and out of the classroom.

Conclusion

This thesis demonstrates that the school context has serious consequences for LGBT adolescent students, but it also highlights the important role of community influencers and how destructive environments negatively affect an LGBT adolescent’s developmental well-being. By increasing dialogue and supporting the needs of LGBT youth relative to educational and community-wide issues, the author hopes to work towards modifying societal assumptions, in policy and clinical practice, about what it means to create inclusive environments to support LGBT adolescent youth.  

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Footnotes

[1] With limitations in the research describing “questioning” adolescents, the author will use the term LGBT throughout the paper when discussing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adolescents.

2 “Alabama, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming have introduced legislation that would restrict access to multiuser restrooms, locker rooms, and other sex-segregated facilities on the basis of a definition of sex or gender consistent with sex assigned at birth or ‘biological sex’” (National Conference of State Legislatures [NCSL], 2017).


[1] With limitations in the research describing “questioning” adolescents, the author will use the term LGBT throughout the paper when discussing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adolescents.

[2] “Alabama, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming have introduced legislation that would restrict access to multiuser restrooms, locker rooms, and other sex-segregated facilities on the basis of a definition of sex or gender consistent with sex assigned at birth or ‘biological sex’” (National Conference of State Legislatures [NCSL], 2017).

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