Youth report higher rates of homophobic behaviors in rural and small town schools

More education and resources may help protect students from harassment related to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Most adults would agree that all young people deserve to live, learn and grow within settings that are free from bullying, bias, harassment and other hurtful behaviors. Unfortunately, too many children and youth are targeted by these kinds of behaviors – and research shows that young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) experience higher and more frequent levels of bullying and harassment.

While bullying and harassment behaviors that target a young person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression can take place within schools in any location, research from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) indicates that it is rural and small town schools that pose the greatest threats for LGBT students. Findings from a 2012 GLSEN report about the experiences of LGBT students in rural, suburban and urban schools identified several differences across these settings:

ŸStudents in rural schools were more likely than those in suburban and urban settings to feel unsafe in school related to personal characteristics like sexual orientation, gender, gender expression, race, disability or religion – with sexual orientation and gender expression being the most common reasons for feeling unsafe.

Students in rural areas more frequently experienced homophobic language and derogatory comments as well as higher levels of physical harassment and assault related to their sexual orientation and gender expression than students in other locales. While intervention by teachers and other school staff regarding these incidents has been shown to improve the school climate for LGBT students, most rural youth reported that such incidents were not effectively addressed by school staff.

Regardless of school locale, many LGBT students report avoiding hostile school environments by skipping classes or missing school. These rates were slightly higher for students in rural schools, with those who experienced high levels of harassment and assault reporting significantly lower grade point averages and college aspirations.

Besides affecting academic performance, these negative experiences also result in many LGBT students feeling less connected to school – with lowest rates reported by students in rural settings. And even though students who are open with their peers and school staff about their sexual orientation report that they feel more engaged in school, they also report that being “out” leads to more frequent victimization (again, at higher rates for students in rural settings).

GLSEN’s research findings also show that there are resources that can counter the negative effects of hostile school climates and help to change attitudes about LGBT people. Examples include the presence of supportive school personnel, comprehensive anti-bullying policies, curricula that include information about LGBT people and issues, and Gay-Straight Alliances or other student clubs that address LGBT issues. Students in rural schools that provide these kinds of resources reported both higher levels of feelings of belonging and lower levels of victimization.

Providing resources and education about these issues doesn’t end at the school door. Parents, youth workers and other adults all have a role to play in helping young people explore how stereotypes and bias about human differences – including differences related to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression – can lead to hurtful actions, hostile relationships and unsafe settings.

Michigan State University Extension offers programs on healthy relationships and bullying. For more information on ways to help young people explore this beginning at young ages, see Help young children learn about differences in healthy ways.

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